Saturday, December 19, 2009

LOUIS LUCIEN LEPOIX

Occasionally a great talent slips completely off the radar of design afficianados, due to a lack of available historic material in multiple languages, or a simple lack of press. The work of Louis Lucien Lepoix is such, one of many unsung visionary designers whose ideas and efforts were so far in advance of the motorcycling world, they weren't fully addressed by the industry for decades. His son Bertrand recently contacted Chris Hunter, editor of BikeExif, with photographs scanned from a 550-page tome on Lepoix's ouevre, published after his death in 1998.

Lepoix was born Feb.4, 1918 in Giromagny, France, to a very poor family. He studied industrial design and architecture in Lyon and Paris, continuing his studies with a degree in engineering. After WW2, he worked in Germany at Dornier Flugzeugwerke (makers of interesting aircraft, etc) and ZF Friedrichshafen - whose director Dr. Albert Meier designed a small car which Lepoix clad in a shapely body, to much acclaim.


During the war, Lepoix, passionate about streamlined vehicles, sketched quite a few cars, motorcycles, and planes with futuristic curvy body styles and flowing lines. His son claims that Lepoix, who spoke no English, had no knowledge of the work of Raymond Loewy or Bel Geddes, icons of the school of streamlining whose work for automotive, aircraft, and rail companies defined the ideals of an era, their work embodying the hope that the age of war, disease, and conflict would end with a coming age of Modernity.


An example of Lepoix's thinking is this 'Air Concept Car', drawn up in 1942-3, with seating for 7, and a clear emphasis on a low coefficient of drag. The general shape of the vehicle recalls Buckminster Fuller's 'Dymaxion Car', patented in 1937 (and revised in 1943), and the concept is identical - low drag equals high speed and efficiency, an aircraft for tarmac. The benefit of lower fuel consumption would have been very much on the mind of any automotive designer during WW2, given the fuel rationing imposed on all combatant nations, with eventual shortages as the war intensified. Fuller's Dymaxion was reputed to achieve 120mph and give 30mph - terrific for '37 - but the project was ultimately scuttled due to a fatal accident while the car was being tested...while a brilliant engineer, perhaps Fuller's ideas were ahead of their time as regards safety and stability. It wouldn't be sacrilege to suggest the same fate would befall the 'Air Concept Car'.

In 1947, Lepoix founded his own design atelier, initially focussing on two-wheeled projects, beginning with this amazingly futuristic bodywork for his 1934ish BMW R12, a 750cc sidevalve flat-twin with pressed-steel 'Star' frame, which when new was considered quite stylish, with a bit of Art Deco flair.


Lepoix purchased the BMW at an auction organized by the French military in Baden Baden, Germany (French HQ in occupied Germany at the time) and set about to completely revamp the bodywork, but not the structure of the BMW.


Lepoix was a keen motorcycle enthusiast, and began work on his motorcycle with a brief to address the issue of a rider's exposure to the elements (cold hands, knees, and feet!), while making a statement about the Future. He had been working on drawings and models of his concepts during the war, and his sketches plus a hand-carved model motorcycle survive today.


The finished result is spectacular, modernistic, and very stylish, if a bit heavy-looking. Very few motorcycles before 1947 had explored the concept of full streamlining of the motorcycle, and even more rare was consideration for the rider; in fact, it would be another 7 years before the Vincent factory introduced their Black Prince model, which was the first fully enclosed and faired (ie, the bodywork protected the rider with an aerodynamic, wind-cheating design) production motorcycle.


To be sure, quite a few motorcycles built for speed records were designed with a full enclosure (Gilera, BMW, Brough-Superior, DKW, etc), but these were never meant for the road. Lepoix was in tune with the streamlining ideas of his time, and just that bit ahead of the curve in actually Building a motorcycle with weather protection for the rider, so early after the War.


Remarkably, his sketches from the War years also include a totally aerodynamic Feet-First design, which predates the rage for this type of motorcycle (and bicycle) by fully 30 years! Very few FF designs like this were produced prior to 1943, although hub-center steered machines with 'tankless' seating positions were built as early as the Veteran period by Wilkinson ('09), Ner-A-Car ('19). The Ro-Monocar ('26) came closest to realizing an enclosed 'car on wheels' - the stated aspiration of so many designers. The Monocar has the clunky bodywork of a cheap saloon vehicle, but the seeds of the idea were sown. It's a shame Lepoix didn't have a Majestic or Ner-A-Car at hand to modify, and realize his vision of a curvaceous and appealing body style.


The BMW R12 was used as a mobile calling card for Lepoix's budding design firm, and he soon gained commissions with many European factories, becoming especially known for his work on scooters (for Puch, Maico, Bastert, Walba, etc). He also worked with Horex on a design very similar to his BMW, around a Regina twin-cylinder 400cc parallel twin model. I'm not sure if this was done as a design exercise with the factory, or another one-off to display his skills. In either case, both motorcycles were extensively photographed, and made his reputation as an industrial designer of note.



His later career was occupied with agricultural machinery, heavy truck cabs, aircraft, and a host of modernistic smaller designs (telephones, household appliances, etc). Clearly he was busy with motorcycles into the 1970s; in a way, it's too bad he didn't continue his working career into the 'plastic era' of motorcycling - the bodywork of modern motorcycles went through a long period without much sex appeal, and a man with Lepoix's flair might have produced bodywork with curvaceous sensuality over those mass-produced four-cylinder appliances.



13 comments:

YJH said...

posts like these are gifts
not only because it is Xmas time
seriously : is there a way we can support your work
count me (us) in
thank you

Jorge Pullin said...

Hi

Couldn't one claim that the Enfield Cycar of the 1930's was enclosed and faired?

Regards
Jorge

vintagent said...

Yves, thank you ! I'm considering my options in that regard. I am no fan of random advertising cluttering up my pages, and subscriptions don't do so well on the Internet. I will likely begin selling t-shirts to help support The Vintagent, at the very least, and of course, there are books in the works!

Jorge, I'll modify my post a bit; by 'faired' I mean streamlined for wind cheating and perhaps more importantly, rider protection. Many motorcycles were 'clad' to cover up the cycle itself (Ascott-Pullin, Majestic, Ner-A-Car, etc), but protecting the Rider from the elements was something new.
That wooden model from 1942 is really a glimpse of the future, regarding shape and concept of enclosure with a seated riding position. I'll explore FF bike history in a future post, but suffice to say, Lepoix was way ahead of his time. The shapes themselves are eerily prescient of bikes like the Norton 'Kneeler' and later FF machines.

Jorge Pullin said...

Yup, I completely agree!

Regards
Jorge

Anonymous said...

Shame on you, a noted sartorialist considering funding by peddling ‘T’ shirts.
Go on, I’m sure it wouldn’t detract from this excellent site to have the occasional subtle advert for Dunhill or Breitling.

Always suprised that the FF Quasar never became more popular.

Don O'Reilly said...

"mass-produced four-cylinder appliances."

Paul, I've never heard those bikes described so precisely, with such economy in words... love it!

Happy holidays to you and all your readers, and if you do get around to that t-shirt idea, count me in for a large!

daveinnola said...

I DONT THINK THE MAN WAS A LEADER IN ENCLOSED MOTORCYCLE DESIGN AV ROE COMES TO MIND AND OEC AND THAT MAJESTIC PIECE YOU DONE AWHILE BACK COMES TO MIND AND A ROYAL ENFIELD LADIES MODEL OF THE LATE THIRTIES , TOO AS WITH ALL ENCLOSED MOTORCYCLES ITS A DESIGN THING , BEST LIKED BY DESIGNERS , RATHER THAN THE PUNTERS , AND I BET AS WITH ALL LARGE SAILPLANE DESIGNS I MUST HAVE BEEN A RIGHT COW IN A CROSSWIND

klooz said...

I appreciate Lepoix' forward thinking but those air cooled cylinders covered with fairings must be a bit of a fire hazard, not to mention foot roasting.

Anonymous said...

Paul,
Found your amazing site just a few weeks ago.
At the moment I am scanning an old motorcycle maintenance book.
It in Dutch, that's something I cannot change.
It is issued 1919 and has many intersting articles and pictures.

Front page and a pictures attached.

I will make one PDF of it.

Maybe you want a copy for your site.

Regards,

Paul Gubbels
Brunssum, Netherlands

Paul said...

@ Anon: t-shirts aren't so bad - mine will be lovely
@ Dave; Lepoix was indeed a leader in Rider protection with wind-cheating bodywork on a road bike. Lots of designers covered the motorcycle, but didn't protect the rider.
@klooz; if you compare the last shot of the Lepoix BMW, you'll see it has only a little more engine coverage than an R100RS. I'm sure that bodywork was made of metal too - I don't think fiberglass was available in '47? Certainly not in '42!

PaulBlez said...

Great story Vintagent.
I beg to differ about the rider protection offered by the AVRoe Monocar of 1926, however.
Judge for yourself in my description from the Top Gear FF feature of 1988 here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=foAgByo_txA

Jan Anderlé's Dalnik the 1940s also deserves a mention, one the inspirations for Arnold Wagner's Peraves Ecomobiles. See www.bikeweb.com
And the second part of the Top Gear FF story here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k7VvD7SYzJs
PNB

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul.

So nice to see your web article on Louis Lepoix!

My wife and I are avid collectors of vintage (1950s mostly) motorscooters, and Lepoix was responsible for many of the coolest scooter designs of the 1950s. It is one of the goals of our collection to own each of the Lepoix scooters – and we are well on our way there. In fact, we own a Walba Deluxe (Lepoix’s first commercial scooter design), a Bastert Einspurauto (a photo of the prototype of the Bastert is on your site), a Triumph Contessa, a Victoria Nicky, a Kriedler R50, a Maicoletta, and a Puch SR150 (one of Lepoix’s last scooter designs). We also own a Steib LS200 sidecar, which was designed by Lepoix. In fact, we met Bertrand Lepoix when he was in NY a few years ago, and were pleased to show him examples of his father’s scooter design work, and to give him a ride in the Steib, which is mounted to the Bastert. My wife also spent several hours in the Lepoix archive in Germany a few years ago, gathering information for an article we hope to write (some day) about his amazing scooter designs.

Incidentally, with regard to your article on Maico Mobils, I note that there are a couple of examples in the Bay area, owned by friends or acquaintances of ours. We have a work-in-progress database of Mobil owners in North America – I think there are at least 11 or 12 documented. We own one here in New Rochelle, NY as well – an original condition, running, 1955 MB200, which we purchased out of Sweden in 2001. Also, while this is the subject of some debate, I believe that Lepoix did NOT design the Maico Mobil – at least not in the incarnation shown in the top photo on your article – which is the high-point of the Mobil design. According to Lepoix’s archives (if I recall correctly), he was asked to design a new body for the Mobil 250cc version – which never went into production. His archive has just a few sketches for that refinement. It also contains a very large-scale blueprint of the MB200 model – but I conclude that he was given this from the factory as a starting point for his redesign. The wonderful book on Lepoix that you reference on your site seems to ascribe the MB200 design to Lepoix, but I think this is an error that crept into the book because it was finished, and published after Lepoix, himself had passed away – and those responsible for the book had no first hand knowledge of Lepoix’s scooter commissions from the 1950s.

Thomas F. Giordano

melwin daniel said...

great collection of pictures Paul i'm a huge fan
Regards
Grease n Gasoline
http://hydro-carbons.blogspot.in/