INSPIRED by the selection of a 1934 Voisin as Best of Show at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Élégance last year, a major exhibition is being assembled to honor the largely forgotten man behind the machine, Gabriel Voisin, a French automaker and aviation pioneer.
The exhibition, set for November at the Mullin Automotive Museum in Oxnard, Calif., is the idea of Peter Mullin, the owner of the museum as well as the award-winning C-27 Aerodyne and 16 others.
"Yes, we have 17 Voisins in our collection," Mr. Mullin confirmed in a recent telephone interview. "That is the largest collection of Voisins in the world."
Although more than 27,000 automobiles were built at Voisin's factory in suburban Paris from 1918 to the late 1930s, when the company ceased production, Mr. Mullin estimated that only 100 to 150 are known to still exist. The survivors have become some of the world's most esteemed collector cars. (A 1934 Voisin C-15 roadster also won Best of Show at Pebble Beach in 2002.)
Certainly a cult of collectors remembers Voisin, who died in 1973, at age 93, near Lyon, France. But few are aware of his achievements as an aviation pioneer, as the architect of some of the first prefabricated houses and as a consummate ladies' man.
"He truly was a man for all seasons," Mr. Mullin said. "A renaissance man, the quintessential 'make love, not war' sort of guy, an elegant prince and playboy."
Mr. Mullin is trying to round up examples of Voisin's various machines, architectural constructions and designs. He says the exhibition will be the largest assemblage of Voisin cars in recent memory. But it is proving hard to find examples of Voisin's varied creations.
"Only one actual Voisin aircraft out of more than 50,000 that were built still exists," Mr. Mullin said. That craft, a Voisin Type 8 bomber from World War I, is on display at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington. Mr. Mullin said that replicas exist, built to Voisin's specifications. "I've been on the hunt for one -- a real one -- but have so far been unable to find any," he said.
Voisin began experimenting with aircraft as early as 1899, and he went to his grave insisting that his flying machine, rather than Orville and Wilbur Wright's, was the first to make a powered flight.
Voisin and his brother, Charles, started the world's first commercial airplane factory. (Charles died in a 1912 car crash.) Voisin became a major producer of military aircraft, and the Voisin III was one of the world's first bombers.
"His planes helped turn the war around," Mr. Mullin said.
But Voisin grew disillusioned with the use of airplanes in war. "Voisin was in love with the romance of powered flight," Mr. Mullin said. "He did not like seeing his planes used as creatures of destruction."
That was a strong motivation, besides the financial straits that Voisin always seemed to be in, for his switch to automobile production. His cars quickly became notable for their fine engineering, design and craftsmanship. "Our products must have had some merit," Voisin wrote in 1958, "for 30 years later Voisins are still to be found on the market in excellent condition."
These are among the innovations that Voisin, who summed up his self-taught engineering skills as that of "a rough carpenter," helped to pioneer: the earliest monocoque auto chassis, extensive use of aluminum, propeller-type cooling fans, antilock brakes and aerodynamic styling. "The bodies of his cars were meant to evoke a fuselage without wings -- and they do," Mr. Mullin said. "But you could argue he was more of an engineer than a stylist. He said, 'Function prevails over design.' "
Voisin automobiles were low-slung, lightweight and well balanced, and they were strong performers. Voisin's 1962 book, "Mes Milles et une Voitures" (My 1,001 Cars) listed a dozen world records in endurance racing.
His creations were not flawless, however. With their Knight-type sleeve vales, the engines emitted clouds of blue smoke because of the way the moving parts were lubricated.
"Among owners, we say, 'If your Voisin doesn't smoke, there's something wrong,' " Mr. Mullin noted.
Voisin owners included H. G. Wells, Josephine Baker, Le Corbusier, Rudolph Valentino, François Mitterand, Maurice Chevalier and Anatole France.
But financial troubles continued to shadow Voisin. In a cash squeeze during the Depression, he let a number of talented employees go -- including André Lefebvre, who moved on to Citroën, where he was associated with the innovative designs of the 2CV, Traction Avant and DS.
At onetime, the handsome, dashing Voisin lived in a Paris mansion with something equivalent to a harem of younger women. In his memoirs, he bragged of his romantic conquests.
Voisin, who was born in 1880, was married in 1909; he and his wife separated in 1926. Mr. Mullin said, "He married a Spanish girl of about 18 in 1950 and set up house with her and her elder sister, who 'came as part of her dowry.' "
Along with contemporaries like Ettore Bugatti and Louis Renault, he was accused of being a Nazi sympathizer in World War II, and the government seized his company. He was eventually exonerated, and he tried a postwar comeback by designing motorcycles and a small, minimalist car called the Biscooter. (A failure in France, it proved successful in Spain, where it was called the Biscúter.) Mr. Mullin, who owns a Biscooter, called it "actually an elegant little car." It will be in the exhibition.
But Voisin might have had little interest in the Mullin's exhibition of his cars. Late in his life, he greeted a visitor driving a Voisin, Mr. Mullin noted. "He said: 'Why are you bothering with old crocks like that? At your age, you should be spending your time and money on pretty girls.' "
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.