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
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
Birkigt had incorporated much of his aircraft engine
technology into the H6 powerplant. The 6.5-litre in-line six had a
one-piece aluminium 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.