Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Voxan - Café (Racer) Français

Voxan Cafe Racer Motorcycle
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When you think of big sporting V-twins and café-styled roadsters, what do you picture? Italy and Great Britain maybe - well-groomed Latin men astride thundering sports machines or perhaps greasy-haired rockers congregating outside a bar.

It’s unlikely you’d imagine Issoire, a quaint town filled with medieval architecture situated in the heart of France.



Voxan Cafe Racer Motorbike
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But that’s just where Voxan, the only French motorcycle marque of the modern era, operated for the better part of 20 years. Voxan made a name for themselves building quirky sport bikes and standards around their own engine and chassis architecture, a project that was fiercely patriotic and proudly homegrown. It was France’s last true motorcycle manufacturer, a marque that struggled against home market legislation, manufacturing difficulties, and near-constant battles against insolvency.
Voxan Cafe Racer 1000 Dash
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The Voxan story begins relatively recently, in 1995. A French medical-supply tycoon by the name of Jacques Gardette got the idea of developing and producing the only French large displacement street motorcycle to be made since the Germans invaded. The bike had to be modern, based around an in-house engine and chassis, and offer the best everyday performance that could be (legally) offered in France. Perhaps most important it would be as French as possible, in terms of design, components, construction and production - the Voxan was a fiercely patriotic project from the beginning. Gardette would not settle for a foreign motor or chassis with some tricolores painted on. The project was given financial support by Groupe Dassault (of aviation fame) in 1996, with the first prototype unveiled to the public in 1997.
Voxan Black Magic Motorcycle
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France has long had an odd position in Europe when it comes to motorcycles. There is a rich history of riding in the country and a strong market for bikes, but it remains one of the most draconian nations to purchase or register a machine in. Every single machine sold and registered in France must not produce more than 100hp (75kw). This law has been in effect since 1985 and means that no matter how powerful a bike is in other markets, it will never have more than 100hp in the République. You want a R1? 100hp. S1000RR? 100hp. 1199 Panigale? 100hp. There is no distinction for class or displacement, simply a blanket regulation that requires either electronic or mechanical restriction to keep the measured power of the bike under the legal limit.

Major brands with major exports to France will detune the engine via internal modifications like new cams and lower compression pistons, maybe fattening up the midrange as much as possible at the same time. Small brands might mechanically block the throttle linkage or put restrictor plates into the intake. Sometimes turning on “full power” mode is as simple as swapping an ECU or removing a laughably simple restrictor mechanism, and it is an open secret that many riders ditch the systems as quickly as they can. However, getting caught with a derestricted bike means stiff penalties and the assumption of complete liability in the case of an accident, regardless of circumstances. If you get rear ended by a distracted driver at a stop and your bike is found to be derestricted, you are considered at fault and assume full responsibility for the person who plowed into you – and forget about getting insured afterwards, because your insurance company will disown you and/or jack up your premiums to obscene levels. All because you were so irresponsible as to desire the same puissance as the rest of the world, you fiend.*
Voxan V72 Engine Motor
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That is why every Voxan produced has been rated at, you guessed it, 100hp. Usually quoted at a leisurely 8000 rpm, despite the fact the engine revs past 9000. Power comes courtesy of a single motor shared across the board and developed for Voxan by French high-performance engine specialist SODEMO (Société de Développement Moteur). A certain old-world disposition was desired, and as max power wasn’t the aim or even legally possible a 1000cc V-twin was selected for simplicity and character. Liquid cooling and a modern design was specified, and the engine was designed from a clean sheet. Rather than go with the traditional 90-degree layout popularized by Ducati, the designers chose to go with an unconventional 72-degree vee. Previously only Moto-Morini had used a 72 degree design in their 350 and 500cc twins. Erik Buell would adopt the same layout in his 1125 engine as he found it was a fair compromise between compact size and intake spacing – narrower than that and you crowd the intakes together too closely which then forces a certain port angle, an issue with the Aprilia 60-degree twin.
Voxan Frame Engine Chassis
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The result is a more compact package with only a bit more vibration than a 90-degree design. 90 degree twins have perfect primary balance and are remarkably smooth as a result, without the need for counterbalancing. But the tradeoff is a wide angle that lengthens the wheelbase considerably. Go the other way and make the vee too narrow, a la Harley 45 degrees, and you get annoying paint-shaker vibrations. The Voxan engine found a happy medium between the two. Aside from the odd vee angle the engine was fairly conventional – 98x66mm bore and stroke for 996cc, double overhead cams driven by chain operating four valves per cylinder, all fed by Magnetti-Marelli fuel injection. Rotax built the prototype engine but SODEMO in Magny-Cours built all production motors.
Voxan Rear Shock Suspension
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The chassis was an advanced piece of kit for the mid-90s, penned by notable Grand Prix designer Alain Chevallier. Chevallier made a name for himself in the 1970s and 80s building Yamaha Grand Prix two-strokes and was one of France's best chassis designers, which made him a natural  choice for the Voxan project. He developed an interesting frame that combined elements of a twin-spar frame with a backbone layout, with two heavy round-section beams flanking the cylinder heads and joined to reinforced headstock and swing arm supports at either end. The result was reminiscent of the Triumph T595/509 frame, and left the motor in the open with no unsightly beams or spars blocking the view. An underslung rear shock linkage was designed to keep the wheelbase short and make room for the rear cylinder in the frame. It also freed up space beneath the seat, which was occupied by the fuel tank - fuel capacity was 19 liters and was eventually expanded to 21 liters, which would have been big on a tourer let alone a sport bike.
Voxan Cafe Racer
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The chassis incorporated a few interesting features. The Voxan mill is a dry sump design with the oil carried in one of the backbones of the frame. The steering head support doubles as an air intake and air box - it is undersized compared to what has become the norm in modern intake design, but as the engine cannot produce more than 100hp it is a moot point. Geometry of the entire chassis can be altered via eccentric mounts, allowing fine tuning of every aspect of the bike - which is odd considering the Voxan was not intended to be a track bike, but it indicative of Chevallier's racing sensibilities.

Suspension, wheels and brakes were bought in from established outside suppliers and vary according to model and year of production. Early models had WP suspension components and Brembo brakes. Dry weight was around 400-410lbs, reasonable for the class.

Voxan Roadster Motorcycle
Roadster
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The first production bike, the Roadster, was introduced in 1999 as a limited production machine produced in a run of 50 examples at a sticker price of 11400 Euros. Styled by Yugoslavian designer Sacha Lakic, (in)famous for penning the Bimota Mantra, the Roadster was a classically inspired sport-standard that was clearly a product of the late 90s "chocolate bar left in the sun" school of vehicle design, with nary a right angle in sight. The engine was fully exposed and the bike unfaired. While the geometry was clearly sporty and the seating position was upright, the details looked odd, like a facsimile of a Japanese V-twin cruiser/standard from the 80s or 90s wrapped around a big liquid-cooled engine. It looked like a modernized 1981-82 Yamaha XV920R or Honda VT500 before they became Harley parodies. In other words: clean styling but nothing groundbreaking.
Voxan Roadster Motorbike
Roadster
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Response was favourable and the Voxan got plenty of good press in the home market, where patriotic French riders were proud to finally have a home-grown option that wasn't a Peugeot scooter. Performance was more than adequate but nothing groundbreaking, it was a good standard bike and got polite praise in the motoring press, which is good for an upstart company. Testers noted that the engine was strong and had a broad spread of torque through the midrange, and that revving past the 8000 rpm power peak was useless, which revealed a certain degree of detuning to meet French law. The handling was good, but the suspension was noted to be extremely stiff from the factory and more suited to track riding than street use. Few seemed to notice, even reviewers outside France, that the engine was "detuned" to meet French laws - such was the useable power that no one complained about a lack of shove due to the 100hp limit. Most of the liter-twin opposition of the late 90s had 10 or 20 more horses at their disposal, a noticeable difference but not enough to make the Voxan seem anemic in comparison. The Voxan made up for this power deficit by being considerably lighter than the Japanese twins, most of which hovered around 500-plus pounds wet.
Voxan Roadster Motorbike
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After the 50 Roadster Limiteds were sold, series production began of a "standard" version began, which was largely the same as the initial run of bikes. In 2000 it was joined by what would become the signature model of the brand, the Cafe Racer. The CR refined the styling and added some sporty details, but retained the chassis and engine from the Roadster. A one-third fairing was added surrounding a pair of round lights, as was a more sculpted tail with a removable solo-seat hump. Clip ons and a more forward seating position distinguished the sportier CR from the more laid back Roadster. This would become the archetypal Voxan - sleek, sporty and distinctive. It had a unique style that remained restrained and recognizable as a "classic" sport machine, without resorting to avant-garde spaceship styling.
Voxan Cafe Racer Motorcycle
Cafe Racer
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In spite of the favourable press and solid product, the company struggled against well-established marques. Voxan was a boutique manufacturer in any case - the company motto was "Pour les connaisseurs", which revealed a certain degree of snobbery and elitism that few manufacturers dare to say in polite company. Indeed, reading French reviews and press copy reveals a different attitude when it comes to presenting the machine. Reviews are patriotic and full of hyperbolic praise for the home team player. Press releases and the company website are filled with flowery, passionate language and the act of conjuring emotion than they are about actually revealing any technical information about the machines. The press copy speaks of building a specialized machine for a passionate and well-heeled rider who desires something better than the typical foreign motorcycle, but they neglect to explain basic details about the bike. Anyone who has perused a French automobile brochure will be familiar with this magnificently pretentious presentation of a vehicle. In all fairness the Italians are often guilty of the same sort of overblown emotional-artistic drivel, but it has come to be expected of them.
Voxan Boxer VB 1 Motorcycle
Voxan-Boxer VB-1
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One of the most desirable Voxans was the Boxer VB-1, unveiled in 1999 as a concept alongside the production roadster. The VB-1 was a handsome fully faired superbike that offered the tantalizing possibility of a finely crafted V-twin sport bike that wasn't produced in Italy (or copied in Japan). The VB was designed in partnership with Boxer Design, a vehicle design company based in Saint Jean. The VB-1 proved to be a brilliant halo product, as many in the industry suddenly sat up and took notice of the tiny manufacturer who were showing this sleek and modern superbike. People outside France unfamiliar with the national laws were puzzled by the claimed 100hp figure, but an export/track version was quoted as having 123hp which put it head to head with the Ducati 996, Suzuki TL1000R, and the Honda RC-51. This was, apparently, the "true" power of the Voxan twin when it was uncorked. Production of the VB-1 began in 2001 and much to the disappointment of fans only 31 examples were built, each with a 15000 Euro price tag.
Voxan Scrambler Motorcycle
Scrambler
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By 2001 things were looking dire. Despite the introduction of a less expensive new model, the street-and-trail styled Scrambler penned by Boxer Design, sales were meager. The company was placed in receivership in June 2001. Bids were tendered and the company was taken over in June 2002 by boat-building company Société Guy Couach, which formed the Voxan-SCCM (Société de conception et de construction de motocycles) group.
Voxan Street Scrambler
Street Scrambler
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With new capital and a push to expand the lineup development began on several new models, all built around the existing Roadster/Cafe Racer architecture with variations in style and suspension components. In 2003 a new Street Scrambler was introduced with cast wheels and Cafe Racer suspension. In 2004 the Lakic-styled the Black Magic and Black Classic were unveiled, which were essentially updated Roadsters that were a visual nod to the Norton Manx and English cafe-racers. The Magic had a naked cafe-racer look with clip ons and high pipes, while the Classic had higher bars, spoked wheels, and lower exhausts. Prices were creeping up steadily - the Black Magic retailed for 15000 Euros, the same as the limited edition VB-1 from three years prior. During this period the company also tried its hand at competing in various categories including stints at Le Mans, the Isle of Man TT, and in the Pro-Twins category.
Voxan Black Magic Motorcycle
Black Magic
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Voxan soldiered on for several years, operating in relative obscurity. Exports to the UK began in 2005. 2006 saw the introduction of the Charade Racing limited edition, a higher-spec Black Magic with a half-fairing that sold for an eye watering 18990 Euros. The company went public in 2007. All was not well behind the scenes, however. Sales were slow and the company had difficulty obtaining parts - or, perhaps more likely, difficulty paying suppliers. The higher-ups blamed the Italian distributors for production issues. It was no fault of theirs, they being noble Frenchmen, apparently it was those lazy Italians who were sabotaging the works...
Voxan Charade Racing Motorcycle
Charade Racing
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Philippe Starck Voxan Super Naked Motorcycle
Starck Super Naked
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In 2007 Voxan showed two promising concept bikes. They jumped on the sport-tourer bandwagon with the GTV 1200, which was to use a 1196cc version of the V72. More interesting for enthusiasts was the Starck Super Naked, an avant-garde streetfighter design drawn by famed furniture designer Philippe Starck. In terms of two-wheeled contrivances, Starck had previously designed the much-derided Aprilia Moto 6.5 in 1995, a total flop that Ducati/MV Agusta engineer Massimo Bordi referred to as "created by a designer who doesn’t understand the difference between a motorcycle and a filing cabinet". Starck appeared to understand the difference by the time he penned the Super Naked, which featured aggressive styling and a razor-edged, flame-surfaced design that gave the venerable Voxan platform newfound life and caught the attention of the motorcycle press around the world.
Voxan GTV 1200 Motorcycle
GTV 1200
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Despite these promising concepts, the financial crisis of 2008 would prove to be the final blow to the ailing company. There wasn't much demand for expensive, limited production bikes from tiny manufacturers after the world economy went into meltdown, and Voxan would limp along until 2009, when the company declared bankruptcy and went into liquidation. A last-gasp prototype called the VX10 Nefertiti roadster, which looked like a toned-down Super Naked with some mighty distinctive stacked trapezoidal headlamps, was shown to a French magazine but wasn't enough to delay the inevitable collapse.
Voxan VX10 Nefertiti Motorbike
VX10 Nefertiti
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The factory was shuttered in 2010 and the equipment sold, as were the remaining parts and prototypes housed in the company warehouse. The rights to the name were purchased by Venturi Automobiles, a Monaco-based upstart green-vehicle manufacturer. Unfortunately for Voxan fans none of the tooling was carried over and Venturi has no interest in producing a gasoline-powered vehicle. Supposedly they intended to slap the Voxan name on an electric motorcycle slated for introduction by 2013, though no details have been released since the takeover in 2010. It appears that, for all intents and purposes, Voxan is dead. 
Voxan Starck Super Naked Motorbike
Starck Super Naked
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Voxan attempted to resurrect the tradition of a sporting V-twin in Europe, and succeeded in creating a quality machine that garnered a fair share of respect. They emerged from the ether in a market that had not sustained a street motorcycle manufacturer since the 1930s, and achieved remarkable success for an upstart company operating in a home market whose laws conspired against the production of a high performance sport bike. Unfortunately Voxan's constant battles with suppliers and their struggle to remain solvent in spite of slow sales chipped away at the company until they finally collapsed in the wake of a worldwide economic crisis, suffering the final indignity of being absorbed into a "green" company that has no respect for Jacques Gardette's original vision. Many boutique marques were culled, or at least given a rude awakening, in 2008 when the demand for exotic and expensive playthings dropped off the map in the midst of economic panic. It would seem that Voxan's motto of "Pour les connaisseurs" worked against them in the end.
Voxan Street Scrambler Ad Advertisement
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*Footnote - France's 100hp limit (revised to 106hp in recent years) is scheduled to be abolished by 2016, after decades of lobbying by motorcycle groups. Additionally, a recent call for a blanket 100hp limit across the European Union was rejected, sparing riders in the rest of Europe the indignity of being nannied into submission by meddling governments. The freedom to ride what you please and enjoy the journey, unfettered by pointless legislation and petty bureaucracy, is a delicate privilege that must be maintained and respected. 

Always cherish your freedom to ride, and fight for your right to do so.     

Interesting Links
The (now defunct) Voxan website
Wayback Archive of the Voxan site in 2008
Voxan owner's club website
Moto-Net Voxan road tests
Motomag Voxan road tests
MCN announces the Venturi takeover
Review of the 2005 Voxan Cafe Racer
Review of the 2005 Voxan Black Magic
Eulogy for Voxan

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