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1931 Voisin Mylord.

Pawel Litwinski/Gooding & Co.

Despite early enthusiasm for the automobile, the roster of historic luxury marques from France with any degree of familiarity is a short one - Bugatti, Ballot, Darracq, Delahaye, Delage, Hotchkiss and Talbot may ring bells - but bringing up the alphabetical rear is one even fewer will recognize, Voisin, the maker of the mechanically complex, extravagantly styled and no less grandly named 1931 C20 Mylord Demi-Berline.

It's estimated only about 100 examples of the 11,000 automobiles that carried the name of aviation pioneer turned car maker Gabriel Voisin survive. And the Mylord, with its innovative V-12 engine and stunning Art Deco-inspired coachwork, is seen as the apogee of his company's brief but brilliant flight through the upper-crustier elevations of French society in the 1920s and 1930s.

The Mylord is still capable of creating a sensation among those connoisseurs who aspire to own the finest works of automotive art.

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After emerging from long residence in the Blackhawk Collection of one-of-a-kind cars in California in 2007, it was restored by and went on to win Best in Show honours at the classy Amelia Island Concours d'elegance in 2009. And last year auctioneers Gooding & Co. found a buyer willing to part with $2.75-million to own this rare vehicle.

Gabriel Voisin, born in 1880, along with brother Charles (who died in a car crash in 1912) were rivals to America's Wright brothers in writing the opening chapter of powered flight in the early years of the 20th century. They went on to build fighters during the First World War, but opted out of the depressed market for military aircraft that followed in favour of creating Avions Voisin to produce luxury automobiles.

The company's first car was a Citroen design it acquired the rights to which became the Voisin C1, powered by a Knight double-sleeve-valve, four-cylinder, four-litre engine.

With his aviation background and focus on reliability, Voisin became an enthusiast of the sleeve valve, which is a steel sleeve that fits between the piston and the cylinder and slides to uncover intake and exhaust ports. At a time when poor metallurgy made the "poppet" valve a reliability liability the sleeve valve was seen as the answer and used by a number of aero and luxury car engine makers. Voisin went on to develop it to a high degree of efficiency, although due to the amount of lubrication required they always left a blue haze to mark their passage.

Voisin also had a bit of a "thing" about gear changing. He didn't like doing it and went on to develop smooth, torque-y, multi-cylinder engines that didn't require as much of it. He originally favoured sixes, but doubled this to a dozen in the early '20s with his first V-12. And in the 1930s he built a very unusual straight-12, whose engine protruded into the passenger compartment.

He also employed the Sensaud de Lavaud "infinitely variable" transmission system in some of his cars, an early and not too successful form of torque-converter/automatic, and later switched to a Cotal electric epicyclic gearbox designed to make shifting easier and simpler for his customers. Also in this ease of operation vein was the Dewandre vacuum-servo power brake system fitted to some models.

Another carryover from aviation was a phobia about weight, which resulted in development of ultra-light bodywork using wood and aluminum and even fabric.

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The V-12 engine was revived for the luxurious C18 Diane of 1930 - just in time to enjoy the full burden of the depression - a 4.9-litre, 115-hp engine that led in short order to the C20 and eventually Mylord. Mylord, incidentally, is one of a number of chassis/prototype codenames used by Voisin that included Laboratoire, Chasteness, Charmeur, Luge, Brick and, my favourite, Bob.

Voisin was a perfectionist and innovator - one reason models rarely stayed in production long enough to make a profit - and the C20 featured such things as cast door pillars to which doors were hung on piano-style hinges and pegged to the frames. The mufflers were cast iron and the car had built-in jacks. The "under-slung" chassis gave it a low look but meant the rear of the gearbox was exposed and protruded into the cabin and the drive shaft, thoughtfully covered, ran between the seats.

The dash has enough gauges to make an old aircraft designer happy and some components were supposedly created with input from the architect Corbusier. Not perhaps the cast radiator mascot with its riveted on wings, though, which a former owner says looks like it was made in a youth training scheme workshop.

Voison was no longer in control of his company by 1937, and after establishing a reputation as the builder of some of the world's most luxurious cars in the 1920s and 1930s, his last automotive venture was a far cry from the extravagance of the Mylord and its ilk.

His final design, called the Biscuter and created for Spanish firm Autonacional SA, was a tiny, open, two-seater micro-car powered by a 197-cc, Hispano-Villiers two-stroke engine that for a brief time in the early 1950s was Spain's most popular car.

This aviation and automotive pioneer spent his final years living in near seclusion in a country home, still tinkering with things that interested him, and died in 1973 at the age of 93.

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Back in 1931

The great depression is well under way, but the 102-storey Art Deco Empire State Building in New York is completed.

Maple Leaf Gardens, built by owner Conn Smythe for $1.5-million, opens at the intersection of Carleton and Church streets in Toronto and is home to the Maple Leafs until 1999.

Universal creates the original Dracula flick starring Bela Lugosi and Helen Chandler. It costs $355,000 to produce and runs for 75 minutes. There are reports of patrons fainting at the on-screen scenes of horror at its debut at New York's Roxy Theatre.

The Dick Tracy comic strip debuts in the Detroit Mirror featuring the hard-nose detective with the "wrist-radio," his girlfriend Tess Trueheart and villains like Flattop Jones. Its creator, Chester Gould, keeps writing and drawing it until 1977.

The Star Spangled Banner becomes the national anthem of the United States - its lyrics based on a poem written in 1814 about the bombardment of Ford McHenry by a British fleet in Chesapeake Bay and sung to the tune of an old British drinking song.

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