1936 Hispano-Suiza J12 convertible
1936 Hispano-Suiza J12 convertible
Photo: Bill Vance

by Bill Vance

Some cars are so exotic, so massive, so outstandingly impressive, they stand above all others. Rarely could a country claim more than one.

Some of these are the Duesenberg SJ from America, the 12-cylinder Rolls-Royce Phantom III from Britain, the supercharged Mercedes-Benz SSKL from Germany, the huge Bugatti Royale from France, the Isotta-Fraschini from Italy, and last but not least, the big Hispano-Suiza that had Spanish origins but was built in France.

The roots of Hispano go back to 1901 when a Swiss engineer named Marc Birkigt convinced his Spanish employer, Emilio La Cuadra, a manufacturer of batteries and electric buses, to allow him to build a motor car. The resulting twin-cylinder La Cuadra was the first Spanish car, but it wasn’t a commercial success; only six were built before the company met financial difficulties.

Fresh money came from one J. Castro who assumed the company’s liabilities and assets, the most valuable of which was engineer Birkigt. Castro cars lasted until 1904 when labour unrest put the company out of business.

This set the stage for another rescue that resulted in the formation of the most famous Spanish car company, Fabrica La Hispano-Suiza de Automobiles of Barcelona.

The new financial angel was a wealthy Spaniard named Damien Mateu, who guided the fortunes of the company until his death in 1929. The company’s name, literally Spanish-Swiss, recognized its Spanish financing and Swiss engineering.

Two four-cylinder Hispano-Suiza models were shown at the Paris Auto Show in 1906, and in 1908 the line was expanded with the addition of two sixes.

Spain’s young King Alfonso XIII took an early interest in Hispanos, owning some 30 of them during his reign. The company recognized his loyalty by naming a model after him. The light, powerful Hispano-Suiza Alfonso XIII was introduced in 1912. Its 3.6 litre, 60-horsepower engine gave it good acceleration and a top speed of more than 100 km/h (62 mph).

With war clouds gathering over Europe the French government asked Hispano-Suiza to design a military aircraft engine. Birkigt had begun using overhead camshafts in his cars, and included them in his aircraft engine. It has been described as the best military aero engine of the First World War.

The war effort, in addition to enhancing Hispano’s reputation through arms and engine production, made a contribution to Hispano styling. French air hero Georges Guynemer not only drove a Hispano-Suiza car, but also amassed his 53 “kills” in Hispano powered SPAD airplanes, before being lost in 1917. His squadron emblem, a flying stork, graced the radiator caps or hoods of all Hispano-Suizas from 1918 on.

During the 1920s and ’30s the company produced the vehicles that established its reputation among the elite of the world’s great motor cars. The first, and the car considered by many as the greatest of these, was the Hispano-Suiza H6 shown at the 1919 Paris Motor Show.

Birkigt had incorporated much of his aircraft engine technology into the H6 powerplant. The 6.5-litre in-line six had a one-piece aluminum cylinder block and an overhead camshaft. This was at a time when Rolls-Royce’s venerable Silver Ghost was still using side valves, and an iron block cast in several pieces. The H6’s massive crankshaft was carved out of a solid 317 kg (700 lb) steel billet.

It was also ahead of Rolls-Royce in the braking department. While the Rolls had brakes on the rear wheels only, the Hispano had four-wheel brakes, servo assisted by a shaft driven off the rear of the transmission. Rolls-Royce later adopted this system under licence from Hispano and used it for many years.

The Hispano-Suiza H6 was fitted with some of the finest bodies available from the best coach builders. And although it was conceived as a luxury car suited to gliding along the Champs Elysees, or dashing down to the Riviera on the routes nationals, it was also raced on occasion.

Wealthy sportsman Andre Dubonnet, of aperitif fame, won a sports car race at Boulogne in an H6 in 1921, and repeated it two or three years later in the larger 8-litre Hispano, which was then appropriately named the “Boulogne.”

The H6 was made in both 6.5 and 8.0 litre versions through 1934. In 1931 a massive 9.5 litre V-12 Hispano-Suiza was introduced. Alas, Birkigt’s overhead cam had given way to overhead valves, and although the V-12 was quieter, it was not regarded by Hispano purists with quite the same awe as was the H6.

Hispano-Suiza production ceased in France in 1938, although it continued in Barcelona for a few more years until stopped by the Second World War. In the 1950s the Barcelona plant would again produce cars, in this case the fabulous Pegaso, Spain’s entry in the exotic sports car market. The Pegaso, like the Hispano-Suiza, also failed to survive.

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