French with a Saab link

Gabriel Voisin, the French visionary who influenced car design – with a Swedish twist in the tale

During the research for his two new books – ‘Saab Cars The Complete Story’ and ‘Secrets of the Spitfire’ Lance Cole investigated the roots of aerodynamics and car design, this led him to study Gabriel Voisin – French aircraft and car engineer extraordinaire.

Lance wanted to share with us the story of Voisin – through a new book about the man. So here is a review of an expensive but brilliant story that should appeal to the engineering and design fanatics amongst us – and which proves that the ‘design’ we love in our Saabs, has wide and intriguing roots.

Here’s Lance’s book review:

We all know about Saab’s aviation roots and how Sixten Sason had studied aircraft design prior to creating his aerodynamic, elliptical delight that was the 92.001- the original Saab that led to the 92, and the rest as the say is history. But where did the early Saab aero- knowledge come from?

The answer has two rivers of inspiration – the second generation of car aerodynamics study undertaken in Germany in the 1930s by the likes of Dr Kamm, and Reinhard von Fachsenfeld, but also in the Art Deco movement and first generation of aerodynamics study that began in France circa 1908-1930.

The names of Jaray, Ledwinka, Porsche, Lanchester and others are well known, as are those of Georges Paulin, Guiseppe Figoni, and a host of ‘French school’ stylists with a love of streamlining.

And what of Citroen? How and why did Citroen cars become so advanced, so ‘edgy’ in terms of their wild engineering ideas and wind cheating ethos? How or why did an amazing-looking 1930s teardrop shaped French super car called a Voisin C25 Aerodyne win the 2011 Pebble Beach concours?


And what on earth has it all got to do with Saab design?

The answer lies in the name of Gabriel Eugene Voisin (1880- 1973) – the man who taught Citroen’s famous engineer Andre Lefebrve – he in turn latterly working with and influencing Flaminio Bertoni (that’s Bertoni not Bertone).

Citroen Traction Avant, and Citroen DS? Think Lefebrve, Bertoni, etc, after the school of Voisin.

Saab’s Sixten Sason studied sculpture and design in Paris in 1936 – as did Bertoni, and Sason’s sketches of that era, reek of Voisin inspired styling. Saab has made more of its aviation roots than Citroen, but the knowledge base had the same influences – airflow, streamlining, aviation, and the touch of Gabriel Voisin upon an emerging industry. Some Saab fans can indeed see a link with the ethos of Citroen. And if you park a Saab 92 or 93- 96 next to a Citroen ID or DS, you will see a similarity of stance and sculpture- but its only obvious in the real, metal to metal comparison.

Voisin was a pioneer in early aviation – not least, as along with others, he investigated monocoque design, canard wings, aerodynamics, low centre of gravity cars, braking systems, and a host of themes and patents as well as suspension, and transmission design.

For example, if you thought the Germans (Mercedes Benz) or the British (Dunlop) came up with anti-lock braking (ABS) think again – it originated with Voisin in the 1920s. Is there a full length sliding glass roof in your car? Think it was an Audi idea? No, it was a Voisin patent in the 1920s!

Voisin was a key figure in the genesis of aviation and the automobile and although he might be perceived as an ‘interesting’ or maybe ‘challenging’ personality, there is no doubt that modern car design owes him a very great deal.

All of these themes, ideas and stories are encapsulated in a new, English translation of Voisin’s autobiography ‘My 1001 Cars’ now published by British specialist Faustroll. Originally published in France in 1962 as ‘ Mes Mille et Une Voitures’, this new English language translation also features a new supporting narrative of superb annotations, and corrections to the original text.

This is a first ‘reference edition’ book – it sets the record straight on thick velvety paper with 150 wonderful original pictures and drawings, many never published before, and it costs £49.95 plus postage– more in Euros and US$. But, if you really want a book to read and learn from (not a photo album to skim through) it is worth every penny. This is a rare story and a rare book. It may be Voisin’s own tale of himself – with all that the issue of such self-promotion may contain, but it is nevertheless a fascinating read and tutelage that the true car design enthusiast cannot ignore. D. R. A. Winstone – the Faustroll editing and contributing writer has done a superb job leveling out the Voisin perspective and you can read Winstone’s other writings in The Automobile magazine.

Voisin’s life was how shall we put it, ‘interesting’, but what a story – from aircraft to grand exotic land yacht cars such as the C25 and C36 Aerosport to the 2CV-esque ‘Biscooter’, Voisin was a visionary: He was also a car racer and rally man – the book covers this aspect of his works too.

As it says in the book’s Foreword, Voisin and his ethos was “ a pebble skimming a lake, everywhere he made contact, he radiated ripples of unconventional thinking, bold, original and in an essentially French way, rational. And peripheral as it may be, that’s the provocative and prolific contribution he made to the evolution of the motor car.’

So not just Citroen, but Saab and many other car makers, used Voisin’s learnings in their own later applications.

The Mullin Museum in California is to hold a major Voisin car exhibition this November – our U.S.A. readers on the west coast interested in design should not miss it.

Faustroll have a web site at www. – which will tell you all about them and their books, notably a forthcoming volume on Jacques Gerin. The Voisin book is available direct from Faustroll and as I say, it’s not your average book nor the average price, but if you a really into car design, its’ a must, and let’s face it- even at just under £50, the book is cheaper than a round of drinks and frites for your mates in a bar.

Conflict of Interest: None. Lance has no connection to Faustroll, he just read the book!
Photographs used under ‘for review purposes’ editorial use only. Pls mention SU if you order the book.

4 thoughts on “French with a Saab link”

  1. Lance your varied and different contributions continue to fascinate. Yet another great read and thanks to both you and Robin for bringing them to us.

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