A lady and a car:
“Kiki de Montparnasse languishing in the passenger seat of Man Ray's Voisin 10 CV C7, 1928 (ca.) Kiki was Man Ray’s lover during the 20’s of the last century, and it is her back we see in Man Ray’s famous work ‘Le Violon d’Ingres’, 1924, (Getty Museum)." Well, Man Ray (who took this photo) surely deserves a special article, as well as his muse Alice Prin aka Kiki. But it's Friday and on Fridays the name of the game is automobile.
Voisin airplanes, the flying gunboats of WWI, were featured in our "Knights of the Air" section last week. So it's quite natural to talk about Voisin cars today - or at least to start a conversation.
Gabriel Voisin and his brother Charles Voisin were among the aviation pioneers of Europe and Gabriel once even claimed they flew before the Wright brothers did. In the First World War Voisin supplied planes to the French government, but when peace was declared the company was out of customers. Despite losing his brother in a car accident in 1912, Gabriel Voisin decided to try his luck and entered the booming automotive industry in 1919.
The company's first model was based on a Citroen, but equipped with the sleeve valve engine that would become typical for almost all Voisin cars. This ingenious construction did away with the conventional camshaft and valve setup and instead used a set of sliding plates to open and close the cylinder ports. These Knight patented engines proved to be exceptionally quiet, but frequently suffered from oil related issues. Voisin developed a wide variety of these engines ranging from straight fours to V12s.
Not only the mechanical specifications made the Voisins remarkable; Gabriel's quest for light weight combined with strength resulted in some unique designs. The use of aluminium was especially rare in those early days. Although it became one of Voisin's styling characteristics, the struts between the front fenders and the radiator were born out of necessity to support the fragile aluminium construction.
If the baroque, but aerodynamic styling were no give-aways as to the car's identity, the huge radiator ornament surely was. Its big wings were a reminder of Voisin's aviation history (as well as "Avions Voisin" inscription on the hood of every car). For Voisin, a man with rational design principles, it wouldn’t make sense to put a life-size bird on a radiator cap. This, however, was inevitable. Car mascots were all the rage at the time, and car owners would put all sorts of animals, saints and mythological figurines on their car.
So, in order to prevent worse, Voisin saw no other way than to make his own mascot. His feelings for this piece of ornament are well reflected in the name he gave her: nothing nearly as poetic as the ‘Spirit of Ecstasy”. No it was “La Cocotte”. French for “chicken” or (more commonly in the period) “prostitute”. This Art Deco harlot stood about 23 cm high (although they varied somewhat in size) on the Voisin and she was made of a few pieces of scrap aluminium, a couple of rivets and that was that. Now the Cocotte alone sells for 2800 USD to collectors.
1927 Voisin C7 Berline
Among Voisin owners there were artists (like Man Ray), architects (Le Corbusier who named his Paris reconstruction plan after Voisin), singers and movie stars (Maurice Chevalier).
Late in 1927 Voisin announced a new model series to be powered by a new six cylinder engine. With the larger engined Voisins not being big sellers it was understandable that Gabriel picked a relatively small displacement of just over 2.3 litre for the new 'six'. It was available in a number of chassis known both by numbers and names. All three ratios of the gearbox had an overdrive system, effectively giving it six forward and two reverse speeds.
The Voisins' high price, advanced technology and unconventional looks made them particularly popular with royals and celebrities like movie star Rudolph Valentino. Despite steep price for the small Voisin, almost 1795 examples of the C14 were sold, making it one of the most successful of all. Very few examples remain today because of the delicate construction and the high-maintenance sleeve valve engines.