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Abstract Beauty

by Rudy Kousbroek:

(the photo was a gift by Gabriel Voisin)

"What is the meaning of the word ‘classic’ in connection with motor cars? With the increasing use of the word its definition has become detached from the original meaning of 'a creation of the highest excellence', to mean not much more than 'old' when it is applied to cars. For this reason I prefer to use the English word 'vintage'. A vintage car is, in principle, an automobile dating from before 1930, but even so not every car from that time is eligible. Very rarely some vehicles of a later date may also be included in the vintage category, but they must fulfil exceptional criteria. That, to me, is what 'classic' means with respect to cars. No American cruisers with fins, no Volkswagens, no ‘oldtimers’. Recently someone handed me a copy of the magazine Classic Trader. I was appalled .... (click photo to enlarge) what I saw. By my standards most of the cars depicted in this magazine are nothing more than vulgar and depressing heaps of iron. The magazine's name is of course based on the regrettable misunderstanding referred to above. Sometimes people ask: ?When will my car become a classic?’ The answer is, usually: never. It is not a question of years, but of design; the criterion is not age, but quality. That crucial date of 1930 is based on the fact that at about that time a drastic change took place in manufacturing: this was the loss of a certain concept, of a certain refinement in the making of motor cars.

This photograph is intended as an example of that concept and that refinement. It shows the engine of a 1926 car ? more precisely a Voisin C12, 6 cylinders, 4,530 litres, 24 chevaux. On the left one sees the radiator, on the right the firewall that divides the engine from the inhabitable part of the automobile. The two aluminium goblets on the firewall are receptacles for the oil needed to lubricate the cylinders and the sleeves which the Voisin engine uses to breathe in and out. Via the two finned trapeziums on the front, burnt gases find their way to the majestic twin columns which lead to the subterranean exhaust system. Between these trapeziums the distributor rears up, connected to the invisible spark plugs by modestly concealed cables. On the other side of the engine block, and therefore invisible in the photograph, are the double carburettors made by Zenith.

Even someone with little or no interest in mechanics ? and such people exist, just as there are people who are tone-deaf, or devoid of interest in art ? even such a primitive creature will notice that this engine does not look like the one you see when you lift the bonnet of an average car. More often than not what you see there looks like the kind of mixed salad you are served in a cheap Dutch restaurant. The parts were put where there happened to be room for them; a fundamental shared characteristic is that you cannot reach them. It also reminds of the layout of a shantytown, a slum without planning or organization, in comparison with a well planned and designed building.

The inescapable conclusion is that an engine like this must be a work of art - and that is precisely what distinguishes a vintage automobile from the current disposable vehicles. Most of the Voisin engine's unusual special characteristics were developed with the aim of combining great power with noiselessness. This was in fact almost a handicap of Voisin automobiles; you often couldn’t hear whether the engine was running or not.

It could be claimed that Voisins were the most rational cars that have ever existed; the ideal Gabriel Voisin (1880-1973) tried to emulate was the steam engine. Yet fundamentally that ideal is rooted rather in aesthetic considerations than in rational ones. The same might be said about the whole car, and perhaps that goes for all vintage automobiles. Function, to Voisin, was the holiest of the holy; yet the form of everything he made was clearly classical, here in the architectural sense. That dualism is found also, I believe, in architecture itself; Voisin was originally trained as an architect. 1926 was the year of Bauhaus Dessau, of Gropius. Voisin's contemporaries were Mies van der Rohe, Theo van Doesburg, Paul Klee, Piet Mondriaan, and of course Le Corbusier.

The engine of the Voisin C12 is of an almost abstract beauty. The same can be said of engines made by Bugatti, Ballot, Rolls-Royce, Hispano-Suiza, and a few others. But there is one essential question which hardly anybody dares ask, and that is: are beautiful machines really better than ugly ones? Is a house of great beauty better to live in? Is a chair made by Gerrit Rietveld better to sit in?

- Bauhaus Dessau
- Gropius
- Mies van der Rohe
- Theo van Doesburg
- Paul Klee
- Piet Mondriaan
- Le Corbusier
- Gerrit Rietveld

(This article previously appeared, in Dutch, in the Haagsche Courant of 2nd October 2004 and the Provinciale Zeeuwse Courant of 29th September 2004)

Rudy Kousbroek (1929) is a Dutch author on a wide range of subjects varying from Western science to 18th century Japan. In 1975 he was awarded the ?P.C. Hooftprijs’, the Dutch State Prize for Literature. He was a personal friend of Gabriel Voisin.

special thanks to Rutger Booy for the translation


#1 2010-04-05 12:18
For Dutch readers: Piter Kottman op NRC website:

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