It was a year ago that I broke the first story here on the Huffington Post about the opening of the new Mullin Automotive Museum 60 miles from L.A. in sunny, breezy seaside Oxnard, California. My friends Peter and Merle Mullin had bought the building where L.A. Times publisher Otis Chandler exhibited his car collection and completely renovated it into an exquisite eye-opening stunner of a museum dedicated to the art-deco world of fine cars and equivalent objets d'art. I subsequently wrote about the Bugatti rally held there and their exhibition of the 1936 Bugatti, considered the rarest car in the world. A few weeks ago I ran into Merle, just back from their home in Italy, at a food benefit, and she told me that she and Peter would be exhibiting a few cars at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance. (And also invited me to the opening of their new winery in Sonoma in late September.)
The 61st annual Pebble Beach event, near Monterey, has become the most celebrated event in the world of fine cars, a startling departure from the time in 1950 when 30 cars were shown on the golf course there to start the competition. This year some 227 of the world's rarest and most beautiful automotive specimens were proudly displayed at the week-long prestigious event. (Jay Leno and Sir Richard Branson were in the crowd.) So I was delighted when Merle called me from Pebble Beach with the astonishing, exciting news that the car which she and Peter had lovingly restored over several years had just won the "Best in Show"! It was Peter's 27th entry in this competition and, although winning his class several times, this was his first "Best in Show" win out of 20 class winners. Later the 70-year-old philanthropist said, "This is the most exciting, significant moment of my life, apart from the time when I married Merle." (And the story of their romance is one which someday I will write about here... a wonderful series of calls and coincidences which resulted in the happiest marriage I know.) He later told me, "I've been showing here for nearly three decades. We were in the bullpen on the 18th green with the other two finalists from a field of 227 cars and when the judges pointed to me I thought I had won third place. Then the fireworks went off, the gold confetti came down and I knew we had won."
The winning car was a 1934 French-made Voisin C-25 Aerodyne (pronounced wah-san), just beating out a 1938 Talbot-Lago T150C and a 1929 Bentley Speed Six. Merle emailed me some pictures of the winning car and its rather amazing fabric in a bold geometric pattern which covered every square inch of the interior. Peter said, "This is not an interior you would want to be in with a hangover." Merle told me that the car was designed and built by Gabriel Voisin, an idiosyncratic French aviation pioneer who created the world's first manned, engine-powered aircraft capable of sustained, controlled flight. In 1919 he switched to car design, creating vehicles made from what was then lightweight materials like aluminum utilizing aerodynamic principles. Concours chairwoman Sandra Butler said in a statement, "The Voisin is a four-door closed car, so it's actually an unexpected winner. However, the car's remarkable attention to detail brought it forward during judging and it became a real crowd-pleaser."
Knowing that Peter is kind of a fanatic about actually driving the cars in his collection, I asked what it was like to drive this Voisin. He laughed and said, "I have 15 more Voisins, so I know a little about them. It's fabulous to drive once you figure out the complicated transmission and gearbox." He went on to explain that the power plant is a story in itself. "The mill in the C-25 Aerodyne is a sleeve-valve engine, one of the most complicated things of all time because the cylinders move up and down. It's very quiet if you have it right... but it's hard to get there. Someone once said to me, 'Peter, if you have a Voisin that doesn't smoke there's something wrong with the engine.'"
Merle told me that this car had taken top honors in the 1932-37 European Classic category, a stunning example of vintage French design with its streamlined aluminum coachwork and art deco curves, striking signature bird-in-flight hood ornament, unique fender struts, massive vacuum-powered mechanized retractable sliding arched roof and playful interior print; it was launched in Paris in the 30s, and only 28 of them were ever built, each powered by a 3.0 liter inline-6 engine with an output of just over 100 horsepower. Merle said that this car had been found in a barn near Monaco, where we retrieved it seven years ago. It was in complete but derelict condition and the subsequent restoration took thousands of hours over the course of three years. Peter went on to say, "I am an absolute nut about classic French art deco cars like the Talbot Lago and the Delahaye [Editor's note: my favorite car in the world is a Delahaye from their collection]. A lot of people come to the museum to see the art deco displays, the furniture and such. They may not really care about cars when they arrive, but I want them to leave caring about them."
The winning Voisin will be on display at the Mullin Automotive Museum early this fall, and you can get the exact dates at their website, www.mullinautomotivemuseum.com.
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