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August 22, 2007

Excellent Neighbor

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards ---

Last Sunday we attended the Pebble Beach Concours d'Élégance classic automobile display where entrants come from as far as Seattle, the East Coast and, in the case of Nicola Bulgari's Packard, from Rome, Italy. I took a lot of photos and plan to use them as grist for future blog posts.

For starters, I''ll show you a car that fascinates me: the 1931 Voisin C20 V-12 Simoun Demi-Berline. The photos are only so-so because the car was displayed in front of a tent and right beside a large, circular sculpture. Furthermore, it was in the middle of the pathway between the spectator bus arrival zone and the entrance to the show, so there were many passers-by when I was trying to get my shots.

Voisin, by the way, is French for "neighbor" -- hence my tortured title to this post. The car's creator, Gabriel Voisin, started out building airplanes but switched to automobiles after the Great War. His cars were expensive and unusual; not many were made and few exist today. Voisin lost control of his company in the mid-1930s, but lived into his 90s. I might devote a post to him and some his most interesting creations later. (I wonder if, were Voisin alive today, the brash car press in the USA and Britain would dub him "Gabe Nabe.")


The Simoun Demi-Berline is racy-looking despite the fact that it is in no way streamlined -- note the flat, vertical windshield, vertical radiator cover and the box beside the hood. Its élan is due to its height, which was extremely low for its day. The car was low because it had what was called an "underslung" chassis, that rode below the wheel axles, the springs being mounted above, rather than below it. The high placement of the headlights serves to enhance the appearance of being low; had they been lower, the car would have seemed taller.

This Voisin is basically in three distinct sections: (1) the front "power package" area incorporating the motor, front wheels and stowage boxes; (2) the passenger compartment; and (3) a rear area where the trunk, spare tire and rear wheels are located. The styling thrust of the 1930s and 40s was to integrate the body into an envelope covering formerly discrete functional details.

This shows the front detail in profile. The car has fenders that wrap around the tires closely, somewhat like motorcycle fenders do. However, they are not pure "cycle fenders" because they are fixed and do not pivot with the wheels when they turn. The right-side box is clearly seen. These boxes are located in the position where other cars -- usually luxury cars with long hoods and long S-shaped (ogive) front fenders -- often had spare tires; this adds to the Voisin's unique appearance. Note again that the windshield is flat and vertical -- no, it seems to lean very slightly forward at the top. Also of interest is the passenger compartment. Besides the virtually vertical windshield and thin, nearly-flat roof, the lower edge is bowed in the manner of a horse-drawn carriage. Many cars built before the 30s had such a carriage motif, but the Simoun is unusual in that the rest of the styling is a sort of industrial Art-Deco.

The back of the passenger compartment is flat and vertical like the front. This enhances the the effect of three separate components. The trunk is more rounded than the top of the passenger compartment. The round, cycle-like rear fenders also contribute to a softened look to further contrast with the upper part of the passenger compartment.

I find the overall effect of the Simoun odd, yet fascinating. On the one hand, it seems old-fashioned. Yet at the same time it has an aura of speed and potency.

This Voisin, reportedly the only one of its kind, was in the Blackhawk Collection, Danville, California. It was put on auction by Blackhawk (no suggested price) and was sold later in the day that I viewed it.



posted by Donald at August 22, 2007


Wow, that is an unusual car. Nice descriptions -- the cross between raciness and boxiness really is striking, and the elements you point out all seem important vis a vis the final effect. It somehow does seem very French, not that I'm sure I'd have guessed without any prior info. Still. What would you say characterizes French car design over the years? They seem to have had their own priorities and sense of style ... I remember watching a documentary about Citroen and being struck by what a funny, self-contained world the French car biz seems to have been for much of its life ... I wonder if French car design retains any of its old distinctiveness and confidence these days, or whether it has been overwhelmed by more global-type tastes and methods ... If so, too bad. It was kind of fun when the various national car industries had strong distinctive characteristics ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 23, 2007 11:38 AM

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