The art of the unexpected. Gabriel Voisin always did exactly what he wanted. With the C20 Mylord, what he wanted was to make a car like no other. Words Dale Drinnon. Photography Martyn Goddard.
Voisin C20 Mylord Stunning Art Deco V12-powered limo is let loose Stateside
Let’s not say ‘giddy’ shall we? It might be spoton, but for a very middleaged man with pretences of professional dignity, somehow ‘thrilled’ seems a touch less unbecoming. And I’m so tremendously thrilled by this low, lean, rakish Voisin that I think as we glide majestically through the startled American suburbs I’m actually giggling behind a schoolgirlish hand. It is, after all, perhaps the best example ever of true automotive Art Deco elegance, in the original, unadulterated ’20s idiom, a daring masterpiece from something of a personal hero, and rarely even photographed away from a grassy concours lawn, let alone driven on a real road.
I am, if anything, more thrilled still when Mark Lizewskie of the John W Rich Museum pulls over to give me the wheel and I notice what those grassy lawn shots never show: a dense, distinctly inelegant mass of roiling oil fog trailing out behind the sleeve-valve V12 exhaust, eminently worthy of a tired twostroke chainsaw with flaccid piston rings.
Because that fog would have concerned Gabriel Voisin not in the slightest. He could very well have revelled in it; more than anyone else, he built cars to please himself, without regard for the customary or expected, and his devotion to infamously smoky sleevevalve technology illustrates that admirably. Voisin, you see, had a hang-up about engine noise. Actually, he wasn’t fond of noise in general, and once at a family gathering when a favourite nephew was put to bed with a toothache, he interrupted the child’s pain-wracked wailing to tell him ‘Shut up or I’ll kill you’.
So the sleeve-valve’s smooth, quiet, virtually funereal power appealed to Voisin immensely and, as for its oil thirst and reeking cloud, even by the relaxed standards of the period, well, what of it? As long as his car company was his, he stuck with the design, more commonly associated with stodgy limousines and snubbed by his fellow fashion-forward, hyper-luxury- sports manufacturers Hispano-Suiza or Bugatti (and Voisins were seriously dearer than Bugattis). If a customer complained about basically anything at all, Gabriel was quite likely to suggest they’d be happier owning something built by a different marque.
He was serious, too. Voisin appreciated automobiles, but had no inherent yearning to sell them and came into the business almost by default. He was by nature a philosopher and artist, a gifted mechanic and a prolific lover. By training he was an architect who, like many intellectually curious Frenchmen as the 20th century dawned, caught the aviation bug early and followed their passion.
Along with his younger brother Charles, Gabriel became one of the great pioneers of manned flight, and would insist until his dying day that the frères Voisin – not the frères Wright – had built the first proper aeroplane and, depending on your definition of proper aeroplane, he had a point.
They undeniably did build the first aeroplane factory, in 1906, and Avions Voisin made a packet supplying the French air force during the Kaiser War. The accompanying bloodshed, however, ruined aviation forever for Gabriel, and with the post-war aircraft market understandably flat, he turned in 1919, seemingly again motivated chiefly by intellectual curiosity, to high-end motor cars. The first car to wear the Avions Voisin badge – badging them as Automobiles Voisin would have been far, far too conventional, of course – was uncharacteristically a third-party platform of expedience. It was called simply the C1, after the Voisin practice of giving each chassis a ‘C’ number. Some say this honoured Charles, who died in 1912 (eerily, as did Wright brother Wilber) in a road crash; others say it stood for nothing more than ‘chassis’. Regardless, Gabriel Voisin soon added a puzzlement of component code names anyway, as in chassis Simoun and body Mylord. A foolish consistency, quoth Emerson, is the hobgoblin of little minds.
But from there onward, Voisin’s imagination was prodigious. He experimented with everything from automatic transmissions to magnesium pistons; he had a version of antilock brakes in 1921, and his 1923 Laboratoire race car was an aerofoil-shaped monocoque. Such engineering adventurism didn’t necessarily appeal to the average hyper-luxury buyer, though; realistic sales estimates during the company’s 19 years of production, the last six of which were only marginally under Voisin’s control, range from 8000 to maybe 15,000 units.
That’s not to imply Voisin didn’t attract a devoted following, and of a markedly highprofile demographic. Some 86 crowned heads were customers, as were Josephine Baker, Moulin Rouge superstar Mistinguett, HG Wells, and avant-garde filmmaker Man Ray. Rudolph Valentino, the world’s biggest celebrity, had at least three or four, as did French President Alexandre Millerand (but probably not, as is frequently miswritten, French President François Mitterrand). Still, Gabriel’s clientele disappointed him. In line with the era, many Voisins were sold as rolling chassis to be bodied by outside concerns and, despite promises to void the warranties of gross offenders, some buyers insisted on choosing disgustingly heavy andtrès ordinaire superstructures.
From 1925, Voisin’s imagination therefore expanded toward haute couture bodywork. The date is significant: it coincided with the Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, from which the phenomenon now known as Art Deco exploded. The distinctively geometric approach, reflecting the precision and excitement of science and technology and the bold colour contrasts and sharp angularity of newly discovered Egyptian graphics, had an immediate effect on art, architecture and industrial design worldwide, including the work of impeccably plugged-in Gabriel Voisin and his sometime styling colleague, architect André ‘Noël-Noël’ Telmont.
There can be no better illustration than this stunning C20 Simoun Mylord. Gabriel established his Deco credentials in earlier works, notably the 1927 C14 Lumineuse, with cubical storage boxes and rectangular doors, and a near-constant radius to the semicircular wings. The C20 Mylord, however, took his notions of modular, ‘prismatic’ styling and the elaborately decorative aspects of high Art Deco to their ultimate.
And if any doubt exists about the difference between original Art Deco and the movement’s 1930s Streamline Moderne evolution that we offhandedly also call Art Deco, the Mylord should resolve it. The Streamline school kept the precision and colour of Deco, but melted its straight lines and perfect circles and blew them into flowing, windswept complex curves. It was in essence Deco warped by speed, and the same Streamline theme seen on the Bugatti Atlantic is evident on the Supermarine Schneider Cup racer and, to a degree, in Voisin’s subsequent Aero-series cars.
The slammed, sexy Mylord, on the other hand, is so decidedly Art Deco it may be not only the best automotive example, but the only real automotive example. There is hardly a compound radius anywhere – the eye is fooled by the repeated right-angles of the passenger box into believing that even the gently arched roofline is one continuous flat surface – and the detailing exalts in the mechanical, with exposed equipment featured throughout as objects of beauty.
Voisin didn’t hide the gearbox under a carpet scrap: he put it in a place of honour, naked, for all to see and admire. Other, lesser vehicles would tuck their chassis bits discreetly under bodywork; the Mylord’s front tie-rod is plated and polished and presented with pride, beside the glorious roller chain and bell-crank that take the place of an ordinary cable on the completely dry braking system. Voisin trumpeted his progressive, rational engineering, but he nonetheless resisted hydraulics, buried the batteries under the fuel tank, and ignored his vast aviation knowledge in favour of barn-door aerodynamics. No foolish consistencies for Gabriel.
Incredibly, though, there doesn’t seem to be any given apparatus that doesn’t work and work well, no matter how stylish or individualistic (but not, please, ‘eccentric’; no-one accuses Henry Royce of eccentricity for his own particular brand of unrealistic obsessions). The graceful doorhandles, for example, drawn by Modernist architect and Voisin owner Le Corbusier, deserve gallery display, and take barely a fingertip pressure and a hair of travel to operate the multiple peg-and-hole locking mechanism.
Gabriel’s tranquillity fixation had its benefits as well: his Dynastart mechanism, combining the functions of starter and generator, genuinely does crank the engine without a trace of horrific grind and crash. At idle speed, the V12 is as hushed and vibrationfree as anything the fanatical Sir Henry imagined; engage first gear (and reverse, by the way, is perversely in the same slot, but just beyond another neutral position) and ease up on the aircraft rudder pedal that controls the clutch, and the car is launched as casually as rolling a tricycle downhill.
Seemingly there are a billion gauges and controls spread across the dash, echoing Voisin’s aviation zeal, just like the pedals and the aluminium that everything that isn’t driveline seems to be made of. Or maybe they’re there to keep the driver awake; once the stiff crash gearbox is massaged into fourth, there isn’t much to do except watch the scenery. The loudest sound is a vacuum hiss upon mashing the brakes, and they work quite nicely too, as does the tight, direct steering. But even with the massively underslung Simoun ‘sport’ chassis, derived from a Voisin speed-record racer, the car has a certain aloof feeling of iceberg inevitability: noticeably more artwork than automobile.
Admittedly I don’t push the envelope all that much; that would be contrary to the car’s apparent personality and, of the possibly 150 Voisins of all types remaining, there is only this one, single Mylord left in the world – and that’s likely by merest luck.
It was introduced at the 1930 Paris Motor Show, it’s thought that only 20 or 30 were built, and nothing is known of our survivor’s background until after it emerged in the late ’40s, allegedly bricked-up behind a Parisian wall to hide it during World War Two, into the care of French automotive journalist Jean Djaniguian. It was brought to the USA in 1950 by enthusiast D Cameron Peck and thereafter went through a number ofAmerican collectors, fortuitously and very soon after importation including the Maynard Buchanan family, who were evidently keen amateur photographers.
Their earliest ‘as purchased’ snaps (substantiated by shots of the 1930 Paris specimen) show the car in black and, very interestingly, with mono-colour red-ish upholstery, not the geometric patterns of Deco fashion designer Paul Poiret often associated with Voisin interiors.
This was the colour scheme selected for the total restoration commissioned by Lee Munder of Florida, which resulted in a 2009 Best of Show at Amelia Island on the car’s rebirth, and is the one it still wears. Ayear later, it was purchased by Pennsylvania collector John W Rich, before he passed away in December 2011. Our guide, Mark Lizewskie, who generously offered us this close-up experience with the Mylord at Detroit’s celebrated St John’s Concours, is curator of the John W Rich Museum.
When time comes to drive back to the concours grounds through mounting afternoon traffic on the main highway, however, discretion becomes the better part of valour and I return the controls to Mark. Driving the camera car in this case is almost as good, especially once I discover the fabulous view in the mirror of the big black machine with the huge flaming headlamps, closing on us like some demonic Deco apparition – an apparition that also seems constantly to keep closing at totally unforeseen rates of speed.
I ask Mark about that the minute we stop at St Johns. ‘Yeah, it’s wild…’ he says, shaking his head, ‘…I’ve never had it out like this before, but when we hit the open road, it was a different car; it suddenly just wanted to take off, to go and go, and I actually had to rein it in…’ He shakes his head again when I once more raised the schoolgirlish hand and… what the hell, call me giddy all you like. The one thing you can expect from a Voisin, of course, is that it will always, always produce the unexpected. Just like its creator.
Thanks To the John W Rich Automobile Museum (www.jwrautomuseum.com), and to the Concours d’Elegance of America at St John’s (www.concoursusa.com).
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1931 Voisin C20 Mylord
ENGINE 4886cc V12, sleeve-valve, twin Zenith carburettors
POWER 114bhp @ 3500rpm / DIN
TRANSMISSION Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
STEERING Worm and nut
SUSPENSION Front: beam axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs. Rear: live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs
BRAKES Drums with Voisin-Dewandre vacuum servo
WEIGHT 1727kg (chassis only)
PERFORMANCE Top speed 93mph
Above and right Strong, boldly geometric body lines are textbook early Deco; Voisin V12 is built up from two blocks bolted to a common crankcase. Left and top Sleeve-valve V12 majors on refinement but trails a plume of exhaust smoke; rather than being swathed in carpet, the gearbox is celebrated as an intricate piece of design.
‘Art Deco’s geometric approach had an immediate effect on art, architecture and industrial design’