1925 Voisin 3CL. Click image to enlarge
Article and photo by Bill Vance
Brilliance and eccentricity are found in all fields, including the automotive field. The imperious Ettore Bugatti’s cars combined art and engineering, both dazzling and unconventional. Thus, the approximately 1,200 Bugattis remaining of about 7,500 built are almost mythical icons among collectors.
Another unconventional genius was Gabriel Voisin, pioneer of airplanes and automobiles. Although not a trained engineer, his designs, like Bugatti’s, were brilliant and unorthodox.
Voisin was born in Sur Saone, Rhone, France in 1880. A gifted person, he would grow up to be, among other things, an artist, musician, passionate lover, philosopher, millionaire and iconoclast. He was a natural engineer who could envision great designs, understand their inherent theories and construct almost anything with his hands.
When he encountered aviation pioneer Clement Ader in Paris in 1900, who claimed to have flown an airplane 10 years earlier (the Wright Brothers first flew in 1903), Voisin was captivated. He abandoned his architectural studies to pursue the new field of heavier-than-air flight.
By 1908 one of his planes had flown a full kilometre, and in 1911 he built the world’s first aircraft factory outside of Paris. Thinking beyond the flimsy wood and canvas designs of the day, Voisin constructed an all-metal airplane. Although slow and heavy, it was sturdy and serviceable, and at the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the French government announced that all of its military planes would use the Voisin design.
As the war’s end neared in 1917, Voisin, who had built thousands of planes, as well as Hispano-Suiza and Salmson aircraft engines, could foresee a steep decline in aircraft demand. He abandoned aircraft production and returned to cars, which he had dabbled with early in the century, and planned to enter automobile manufacturing.
But of course, being Voisin, it would be different. He tried steam power but considered it too complicated for the average driver. He learned of a Panhard et Levassor model that had been developed but not produced. When the drawings plus four prototypes and its two designers named Artaud and Dufresne became available, Voisin immediately bought the whole package: he was in the car business.
The first Voisin was a quality car, as all Voisins would be. It was powered by a Knight sleeve-valve engine of the type invented in 1903 by Charles Yale Knight of Chicago, and popularized by Willys-Overland’s Willys-Knight. It replaced noisy poppet valves with two reciprocating sleeves surrounding the pistons. Inlet and exhaust was accomplished by lining up ports in the sleeves. Its quiet operation appealed to Voisin’s quest for quality and Voisin developed the Knight into a highly refined powerplant. As long as he was in charge he would use nothing else.
The start was inauspicious. The first prototype Voisin was inadvertently assembled with its rear axle crown-and-pinion installed backwards, resulting in one speed forward and three in reverse! Undaunted, Voisin had to try its speed in reverse and discovered that the rear wheel brakes, which is all the car had, were much more effective going backwards. Voisins became early adopters of four wheel brakes.
The first 1919 model M1 was powered by a 4.0-litre Knight four-cylinder engine. This was followed in 1920 by the model C1, and the C nomenclature would thereafter become the Voisin standard for its wide number of models.
At the 1920 Paris Salon, Voisin showed a C2 prototype with a 7.2-litre 30-degree sleeve-valve V12. Its many unusual features included a two-speed transmission, three-point engine mounting, combined starter-generator and four wheel brakes operated by compressed air. Although too extravagant for production, several of its features would be used in production cars.
The C1, C3 and C5 were Voisin’s base for developing into a successful manufacturer, and the original sleeve-valve four would be the basic building block for most future Voisins with fours and sixes.
With the shortage of cars in post-war France and the magic of the Voisin name from his aircraft days, the company prospered. This was abetted by successes in racing and long distance records, including beating the famous Blue Train from Paris to Nice.
Voisin returned to V12s in the early 1930s, and even created a stillborn 6-litre inline 12, comprised of two sixes in tandem. His cars often emphasized large trunks and modular design, and he was ahead of his time in the application of aerodynamics.
Voisin was never a large producer – some 27,000 cars were made, in total – and the Depression of the 1930s caught up with it. Voisin was forced out of his company in 1937 and much to his disgust, the last Voisin, the 1938 C30, had a 3.5-litre American Graham side-valve six.
Voisin continued to do research for his old company, and after the Second World War created the Biscuter, a tiny, front-wheel drive minicar with an air-cooled engine. Thousands were produced in Spain in the 1950s.
With the passing of Gabriel Voisin in 1973, at age 93, the world lost a colourful genius.