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Automobile Quarterly January 2010

Fingerprints of André Lefebvre

Park her alongside a Voisin Laboratoire, and you'll see that
André Lefebvre had already designed the Citroën DS in 1923.

Hans Arend de Wit

The first and the last automobile André Lefebvre designed,
the Voisin Laboratoire and the Citroën DS19.

After 50 years we see more and more DS Citroëns on the Dutch road. Or is it the same phenomenon when we've bought a new car and suddenly start seeing the same model everywhere? On my daily morning walk nowadays I see at least one DS, although they are supposed to have stopped running long ago. When I see one, I hasten to make a photo and shoot fifty years back in time, how many generations? The fascination is still alive, not overtaken by time. 
Whenever I see a DS vivid remembrances of my old love take over my outlook. And I inadvertently think of André Lefebvre, the automobile designer who had the gift of being able to look six decades ahead, the Jules Verne of rolling transport. 
Think of it! If the DS were introduced today, wouldn't she make as stunning an impression as Audrey Hepburn driving by on her Vespa? 
Looking back for an instant I see my first car, a Mini, and then my second set of wheels , mounted on a DS, still a milestone in my life. 
Speaking of milestones Gijsbert-Paul Berk, a renowned automotive writer, once said: "Park a Citroën DS next to a Voisin Laboratoire from 1923, and you will see that the latter must have been the laboratory for the DS; the man was a real genius." 
Lefebvre had been trained as an aeronautical engineer, and Gabriel Voisin was an airplane builder. What made these men decide to roll the ball on the ground? Voisin had earned quite a fortune building fighter planes in the First World War. Well before the war was over he saw that he should switch to building some other kind of product after the armistice. In 1918, he started building pre-fab houses, but soon switched to automobiles, which were more in his line of expertise. Voisin built spectacular, indeed, according to connoisseurs, absolutely breathtaking automobiles. His most striking creation - which ran at Le Mans - was the Strasbourg C3 Grand Prix de Tourisme. Its body's amazingly powerful looking curves innovatively swept from a narrow nose back to a midsection wide enough to comply with the regulations. 

The French automobile club resented Voisin's success. 
The organising Automobile Club de France, unhappy with this too clever interpretation of their rules, countered Voisin by altering the regulations for the next racing season. Voisin would have to swiftly design and build an alternative racer. André Lefebvre, the young aeronautical engineer whom Voisin had brought in to lead his research and development department was given the task of designing a racer for the Grand Prix de Vitesse in Tours in the spring of 1923. 
Lefebvre's creation, the Voisin C6 de Course, which almost immediately became known as the "Laboratoire ", was an awkward, astonishing vehicle. The Voisin R&D department turned out four examples in no more than six months. 
André Lefebvre was born in Louvres, on August 19, 1894. After he finished his aeronautical engineering studies he was taken into service by Gabriel Voisin, who assigned him to the tuning of night bombers. Dutch automotive journalist Gijsbert-Paul Berk has written in detail and depth about this interesting career from its start in a captivating biography that will be published by Veloce in mid 2009. 
When the Laboratoire hit the racing circuit, Lefebvre was at the wheel. Though he never won a race, he had created a benchmark for design and construction that gave Voisin a head start other constructors took years to overcome. This was an absolute victory for Lefebvre as an exceptional designer. 
He was the first in the racing world to abandon the traditional chassis with a separately mounted body, and build a monocoque body shaped like the fuselage of an aircraft. It was built like a plane, as well. Its light wooden frame was metal braced and clad with riveted sheets of aluminum, forming a strong unit while keeping the weight below 750 kg. The bottom was completely flat, giving the air stream a smooth passage underneath the car. Wooden vanes streamlined the suspension attach points to improve the airflow. 
The power plant was a valve - less six-cylinder sleeve engine; while it could not reach high revolutions, it developed phenomenal torque. The engine was very quiet and produced 80 bhp. The combination of high power and low weight gave the Laboratoire, a top speed of 160 km/h. To handle the speed potential, Lefebvre added front brakes, unique in a period when four-wheel brakes were technically avant-garde. 
Compared with the racing cigars on wheels of its time the Laboratoire had the looks of a racer in sci-fi movies - even ones imagining our future. Voisin and Lefebvre had found their perfect complements in each other. They channeled their lateral thinking into a daily work process to come up with unique systems, construction techniques and new applications of materials, details, and gadgets like the innovative propeller that drove the water pump.

After all those years the Laboratoire still looks like a vehicle out of StarTrek.  
It was a bit chilly, misty and drizzly on the morning a car buff friend and I arrived at the deserted-looking building in a small hushed village North of Paris where we would meet Philippe Moch. A mechanic was rolling the Laboratoire out of the warehouse. It began to rain in earnest as we helped to push the vehicle to a photogenic spot. It felt as if a film of oil and natural dampness had made the body slippery.
We chose a spot where the Lab could stand out of the rain underneath the overhanging roof of the main building. In an almost holy silence we studied the lines and forms, the exciting details and the refined build quality. We were amazed by the posh refinement of the leather seats, the glass-less wire mesh folding windscreen, and the surprising wooden vanes that streamlined the attachment of the front suspension. Between the seats lay a black tube inside which the drive shaft was waiting to transfer the tremendous torque of the   power plant to the enormous rear wheels. No detail was overlooked in making the Lab go fast: the blind black wire wheels were hidden from the eye and the airstream by smoothly polished hubcaps. The last existing Lab was lost in a crash, this shining new one was an honest and truthful replica, but we forgot about that while we stood there, in amazement.
Photographs don't fully reveal the most remarkable design characteristic of the Lab: the rear wheel gauge, far narrower than at the front. We parked the DS of Christian le Baut - of the DS-Club de France who had especially come for the photo shoot - next to the Lab. Not only was the narrowness at the back end striking when seen "in the flesh", but it was obvious that the DS sprang from the Laboratoire designed so long ago. Those two automobiles parked next to each other symbolize the full circle of the career of one of the greatest automobile designers. After the Lab Lefebvre would go on to design the Traction Avant, the 2CV and the HY, each a milestone in its time. We planned to check out each one later. The ride from the village where we had seen the Voisins to the North of Paris would not take too long. There we planned to see an exhibition of the 2CV, as the car celebrated its 60th anniversary. Just in time: it was the last week of the show.

The Voisin C6 Course Laboratoire and the Citroën DS19.

Air power drove the water pump.

Wooden elements helping the streamline.

Mesh windscreen.

Bugatti's Tank chases the Laboratoire.

Body art in art.

Voisin C7 en route,
mon dieu, that searchlight on the back!
Photo: Martijn Diepenhorst

The Biscúter.
Next to the Voisin Strasbourg in monsieur Moch's workshop we saw a Biscúter, a name we heard pronounced as bee-scooter. This little golf cart like vehicle looked so surprisingly much like the 2CV that it was almost unbelievable that it had not been design ed by André Lefebvre, but by Gabriel Voisin himself. Put a prototype of the 2CV next to it, and you will at once see the resemblance - a gnome cart. 
In spite of its size it became a sales success after the war, but not in France. Production moved to Spain, where it fit the small budgets of the post-war economy. The Biscúter was built under license by Autonacional S.A. in Barcelona, a flourishing builder of microcars. They produced 12.000 of them under the name of Zapatilla, farmer's slipper, handy little runabout, a roller-skate. "As ugly as a Biscúter ", was a common expression in Spain at the time. But then it more or less fit the initial philosophy behind the 2CV, the simplicity, the no-nonsense ingenuity.

The production of the Biscúter moved to Spain.


Lefebvre Part 2.