1919 - 1939
Gabriel-Eugene Voisin, born on 5 February 1880, was one of the most remarkable figures in the history of transportation in France. Having made his fame in the air, after World War 1 he turned to car manufacture, producing some of the most original and potent vehicles of the 1920s, cars designed for function and efficiency which eschewed all the conventional tricks of the stylist.
It was almost inevitable that Voisin should become an engineer - his father Georges Voisin, was a graduate of the Paris Arts et Metiers school who had become a metal founder, and was himself the son of an engineer. But Georges was an irresponsible character, unlucky in business and more often than not on the sause, who committed suicide when the boy was six, and Gabriel and his brother Charles were brought up by their mother in the household of her father, who worked as an engineer in a gas works.
The Beaux-Arts School at Lyon and the Automoto Tricycle
Among their numerous escapades, the boys acquired considerable skill in converting scrap metal into boats and shotguns; Gabriel's skill was augmented by a course at the Beaux-Arts school at Lyon, where he learned all aspects of engineering drawing, to which he added a natural talent for visualising mechanical components 'in the round'. Around 1898 the brothers experimented with gliders, then, with the winnings from a lucky coup at the gaming tables in Nice, Gabriel bought a vehicle known as an Automoto tricycle, whose mechanical components proved to lack the stamina necessary for touring, taking six days to cover the 310 miles from Nice to Neuville.
But the Automoto inspired Voisin to draw up plans for a proper car, which, thanks to a legacy, he was able to construct in 1899, using a second-hand chassis, which he adapted to make an underslung type and a 5 hp single-cylinder Aster engine. It proved reliable until Gabriel ran over a pig. After this, Voisin devoted himself to his studies of architecture - and to the amorous adventures which were an essential part of his life - then, in 1900, Gabriel and Charles once again began experimenting with gliders.
Ernest Archdeacon and the Syndicat d'Aviation
In 1904 Ernest Archdeacon, a wealthy friend of Gabriel's, put up the money to form a 'Syndicat d'Aviation', of which Gabriel Voisin was 'engineer', at a salary of Fr190 a month. By 1907 Voisin had built a powered heavier-than-air machine which had made observed flights; in 1908 a circular kilometre course was flown under full control and in 1910 the Avions Voisin factory was built by Gabriel and a few friends in the Avenue Gambetta, opposite the Issy-Ies-Moulineaux champ de manoeuvres on the outskirts of Paris.
From that point in time until the end of the Great War, it was Voisin's success as an aircraft constructor that dominated his life, and during that period the Issy factory turned out some 10,000 aircraft - or as Voisin had it, 'cerfs-volants' ('kites'). But the Armistice meant that there was no demand for warplanes - nor was there much immediate future in civil aviation. An attempt to build prefabricated houses was opposed by the entire French building industry. So he decided to return to his old love, the motor car.
Artaud and Dufrene
After a mercifully brief flirtation with powered attachments for bicycles and with cyclecars, Voisin acquired the rights to a design which Andre Citroen had been considering for mass-production before he decided to concentrate on the 1.3-litre Type A. The model which he made over to Voisin was hardly suited to mass-production in the Ford idiom, anyway, for it was a 4-litre car with a Knight sleeve-valve engine: it had originally been developed by two employees of Panhard named Artaud and Dufrene, who had bought the prototype
and the design from their employer and offered them to Citroen, who thought the concept too luxurious.
But Voisin took on Artaud, a skilled odd-job man and Dufrene, a fully trained engineer, and their design, and abandoned aviation. In November 1915 he organised his production team: the victory celebrations were still going on when the first Voisin chassis was completed. It was ready for trials on the frozen surface of Issy aerodrome in February 1919, when Voisin discovered that the back axle had been assembled 'wrong way round', resulting in one speed forward and four in reverse. Not at all daunted, he tried the backward paces of the car and discovered that it pulled up far more steadily in marche arriere than when it was going in the normal direction.
As the car had brakes
only on the rear wheels, Voisin concluded that front-wheel-braking was obviously more efficient, and from an early date Voisin cars had brakes
on all four wheels. Four ISCV Voisins were shown at the 1919 Paris Salon: these were a bare chassis, a skiff, a limousine and a saloon. Hallmark of the Voisin was a distinctive vee radiator, and liberal use was made of aluminium in the power unit to give a far more spirited performance than was usually associated with sleeve valves. Alloy pistons were standardised from the start, and lubrication was so arranged that the supply of oil to the sleeve valves was proportional to the speed of the engine.
The 1922 Touring Grand Prix
The special merits of the Voisin design were amply demonstrated in the Touring Grand Prix
of July 1922, in which Voisin cars came home one-two-three. The winner, veteran racing driver Rougier averaged 66.9 mph for 443.7 miles on a fuel allowance of 16.6 miles per gallon. Voisin's engineers had spent three months experimenting to achieve this result; Rougier finished with less than two gallons of petrol left in his tank. Voisin's prewar motoring experiences had left him with a healthy respect for steam power, and in 1920 he fitted a steam engine into an 18CV chassis for experimental purposes.
The French President, Josephine Baker, Rudolph Valentino and H. G. Wells
He came to the conclusion that what was needed was an internal combustion engine
with the flexibility and silence of steam, which resulted in the construction of a sleeve-valve V12 luxury car, which appeared at the 1921 Paris Salon; in prototype
form it had only two forward speeds, but development troubles meant that the design never reached production status. Instead, from 1921, there was a new, small, but still luxurious, Voisin, the 1244cc 8CV. With this model, Gabriel Voisin's flair for designing coachwork which put practicality before elegance began to assert itself; the early Voisins had been very elegant, and had attracted the custom of celebrities as diverse as the President of France and Josephine Baker, as Rudolph Valentino and H. G. Wells. But some 8CVs had tartan fabric coachwork and uncompromisingly square-cut appearance.
An enlarged version, the 1551cc 10CV, appeared in 1925; in 1926 this was available with production line four-seat, two-door coachwork scaling less than 5 cwt; 'The body lines,' commented W. F. Bradley dryly, 'are distinctively French, having a sobriety which might not at first appeal to English tastes.' Built up in sections on jigs, the new coachwork was based on a wood and sheat aluminium tray bolted to the chassis, and stiffened by metal ribbing; footwells for the passengers' feet kept the centre of gravity low. Both the 18CV and the 10CV remained in production throughout the 1920s; they were joined in 1927 by light sixes based on Voisin's Grand Prix
The touring development of this model was the 13CV of 2.3 litres; this was the most successful of the Voisin models, achieving sales of some 8000 (or around a third of total production) in a decade. There was a 4.5-litre six in 1927, which gradually supplanted the old 18CV. In 1929 Voisin built two V12s, one of 3.9 litres, the other of 4.9 litres, but VI2 output was always low. There were experiments, too, with the De Lavaud semi-automatic transmission, which almost reached production ... but was superseded by a Cotal preselector gearbox.
The Legendary Voisin Straight Twelve
The Voisins of the 1930s, including the legendary straight-twelve, whose engine penetrated the driving compartment in the interests of perfect weight distribution, were cloaked in coachwork whose bizarre appearance has perhaps been softened by the passage of time, but which were the subject of much controversy in their day, even in France (which was the home of eccentric bodywork
at that period). Voisin lost control of his company in 1937, and the new incumbents produced a horrid version with a supercharged Graham engine, the first Voisin car with a poppet-valve engine.
Gabriel Voisin took over again in 1939, but the day of the Voisin car was over, and Issy was turned over to the manufacture of aero-engines. Total output of Voisin cars amounted to some 27,000. During the war, Voisin experimented with steam power again; after the hostilities he developed a modern cyclecar, the 125 cc Biscuter, which was produced under licence in Spain, where a more powerful 200cc Hispano-Villiers engine was used.
Voisin died in 1973, aged 93; his restless mind was always looking forward. Typical of the man was the now famous comment he made to an enthusiast who sought his advice on the restoration of a vintage Voisin - 'you are too young to worry about old cars: at your age you should be concerned with women!
'. The 1936 Voisin was used in the 2008 film 'Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" as well as the 2005 Film "Sahara" which featured the inline 6 sleeve valve in capulae red.