Gabriel Voisin

first flight of Voisin

Gabriel Voisin's real passion was flying. In the First World War Voisin wrote his name into French aviation history with his aeroplanes, and like so many of his contemporary flyers, the aviator from Issy-les-Moulineaux subsequently discovered the pull of the motor car. And even the road machines of Gabriel Voisin displayed a tendency for high flying...


Born in Belleville on the Saone, February 5, 1880, in the Lyons area, Gabriel Voisin was a direct descendent of a line of industrialists. His brother Charles, born in 1882, was to be his best friend.

By the end of the nineteenth century,  Gabriel and Charles had already invented  a wide range of items, including a rifle, a sailplane, and a car.

In 1900, Gabriel was engaged as draughtsman with the World Fair of Paris, where he met Clément Ader. This reinforceded his passion for aeronautics. Between 1901 and 1902, Gabriel,  returned to the Lyons area, and carried out with Charles the study of aeronautics. In 1906, they created the first aviation firm in the world: LES FRÈRES VOISIN.  In 1909. he became the youngest person ever to be awarded the Legion d'Honneur.

His brother Charles was killed in a car accident in 1912. He continued developing and building aircraft until the end of the First World War (It was a Voisin aircraft that was the first to shoot down a German.) when he phased himself out of aviation and turned to the design and manufacture of motor cars.

The Voisin Aerodyne

Voisin had a tendency to apply the knowledge of lightweight construction and aerodynamics he had learnt from aviation logically to road vehicles. And as he was a passionate tinkerer, who never considered any product - not even his own - good enough, he was constantly striving to improve it. It is said the he even felt that the French language was in need of improvement, and that gradually he began to evolve his own version which had to be spoken in the factory! Every production series which Voisin started in the 20-year phase of his motor car construction era thus ran for just a short time, in some cases only for a few months. This meant that he was never able to make a profit, quite apart from the high pressure of a rapidly strengthening competitor base in the guise of Peugeot, Renault and Citroen. The writer had the good fortune to own a 1929 Voisin car which was able to hold its own against the 'modern' cars of the mid 1960s.

A stylized bird with erect wings adorned every Voisin radiator grille.

In January 1958, Gabriel Voisin was installed as a "Grand Officier" of the Legion d'Honneur. Only few days later, a painting order was issued in the name of the creditor company SNECMA, to overpaint the facade of the Voisin factory in Issy and thus erase the name of the founder and owner. Gabriel Voisin took this insult with humour, at least as recorded in his memoirs. "In moments of great sadness, the dividing line between sadness and comedy is a very fine one", he wrote. "That was the case on my departure from Issy. For I had scarcely cleared my studio and taken one more look at the charter from the Legion, which had been so ceremoniously handed to me shortly previously, when another government delegation turned up. Another honour...?"

Far from it. The gentlemen handed Monsieur Voisin, who had already moved out, the indictment of the French public prosecutor: during the occupation of France, he had allegedly acted against state security interests. Voisin did not know whether it was the summons itself, served thirteen years after the end of the war, which should give him reason to laugh, or the fact that the bearers of the indictment gave him a military salute as a Grand Officier of the Legion d'Honneur.

Gabriel Voisin was not convicted, but he had become a lonely man. He had been able to take only one of his thousand motor cars to the modest country property where an old lady friend gave him accommodation. He worked there until the end of his days on new inventions, from kite-like flying machines to banal domestic appliances. "I invented the streamlined car", he once said to an American admirer, to whom he gave one of the last interviews, "but I am still working at perfecting the corkscrew...".