Saturday, December 19, 2009
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.