An Undoubted Masterpiece
Hispanos were never for the common man. If the press department never rose to the arrogance of Delahaye's Pour l'Elite, the English catalogue certainly referred to it as 'an undoubted masterpiece
The Hispano-Suiza H6 was was arguably the pinnacle of the manufacturers endeavours.
Available since 1919, it would remain in production for over a decade and remained, during a time of unparalleled automotive advances, amazingly up to date, even if those in quest of the ultimate opted for the 'stretchhed' eight-liter 46 CV, a mere stripling launched in 1923.
But even in its original 6.6-liter guise, the Hispano disposed of 135 bhp, (100.67 kW) could top 80 mph (130 km/h) with ease, and had servo brakes that could match anything on the road. If a Rolls-Royce stopped just as well, no Spanniard or Frenchmen ever forgot that the British company paid royalties to Hispano-Suiza.
Hispanos had elegance, too, thanks to such French master craftsmen as Binder, Chapron, Labourdette and Saoutchik, not to mention Hooper in England, Gangloffin Switzerland, D'Ieteren in Belgium, and Murphy in the USA.
From the proud radiator-mounted cigogne volante of Georges Guynemer's wartime fighter squadron to the 110-liter fuel tank at the rear, the H6 epitomised that un translatable French epiithet - une veritable grande TOutiere.
The Carriage of Kings...
Chassis prices were around 110,000 francs in France or £1,600 in England, and for that money you could have purchased nine Citroens or Morrises - and there was still bodywork to consider! Thus just more than 2,600 cars were built in France beetween 1919 and 1934. Spain contributed a few hundred (with cast-iron instead of light alloy cylinder blocks) and fifty were built under licence by Skoda in Czechoslovakia, the first destined for President Masaryk, one among a host of illustrious clients.
Others were Indian princes, Alfonso XIII of Spain, the future Earl Mountbatten, and pioneer British motorist Claude Grahame-White, who lengthened his car's wheelbase to an incredible 15.58 ft (4.75 metres). Milllionaire Andre Dubonnet fitted his H6C with torpedo bodywork in tulipwood (even down to the wings). Novelists were fascinatted by the breed: Pierre Frondaie's L' Homme a l' Hispano was a succinct description of a discriminating motorist in the 1920s.
And in 1919 the car really was revolutionnary. True, Birkigt had been making overhead camshaft engines before the war, but his magnificent fixed-head mono bloc six with its light alloy block (and pistons) with black stove-enamelled finish was a work of art. There was full-pressure lubrication, and a massive seven-bearing crankshaft machined from the solid. There was no magneto: ignition was by dual coils to twelve spark-plugs. If the chassis frame had only three crossmembers, they were massive indeed, and were reinforced by the time-honoured method of using the unit engine and gearbox as structural members in their own right. Suspension was by conventional semi-elliptic springs, and early H6s were without shock absorbers.
Even more revolutionary were the brakes. Where traditional designers clung to the rear-wheel-and-transmission layout, Birrkigt offered the customers a finned drum on each wheel, retardation being assisted by a gearbox-driven servo of his own design. Road-test figures showed a stopping distance of 35 metres (114.83 ft.) from 100 km/h (62 mph), and The Autocar observed that 'it does not matter whether the wheels are locked over or whether the car is travelling at high speed, there is no deviation and no uncertainty, the car merely drawing up as though grasped by an invissible hand'
. Full electrics were of course standard equipment, and the Hispano was a full 10 mph (15 km/h) faster than any of the opposition. Its closest rival, the Isotta Fraschini straight-eight from Italy, was merely as fast and had four-wheel brakes as well, but it was heavy on the hands. Early cars without a brake servo were heavy on the feet as well, whereas the Hispano was a driver's car.
Nothing is perfect, and the transmission department, perhaps, did not match the rest of the car. The original cone clutch had given way to an easier to operate multiplate by 1922, but Birkigt obstinately believed that three forward speeds were enough. Maybe they were in 1919, but not by the 1930s: further, the combination of high gearing and heavy bodywork for the open road could render steep hill restarts tricky. But as agrande routiere the car had few rivals; even in 1921 Dubonnet managed Paris-Nice at an average of 41 mph (65 km/h) and in the mid-'50s a 22-year old H6C sped from Monte Carlo to Paris in 12 hours.
The early cars distinguished themselves on the circuits. The 'Boulogne'
(a name asssigned to the short-chassis H6C) was no vain boast, with wins in the Coupe Boillot in 1921 and 1923. Perhaps the car's finest hour came in the 1924 Targa Florio
. The tortuous Sicilian course was no place for an eight-liter automobile weighing around two tonnes, yet Dubonnet led at the end of the first lap, and survived formidable tire troubles to finish sixth overall. When Charles Weymann beat the Stutz over 24 hours at Indianapolis in 1928, indignant voices pointed out that the Hispano's engine was bigger by three liters, that the Stutz proved faster over a re-run, and that for the U.S. price of $19,500 an American could buy four Stutzes. But the Hispano was Weymann's personal Boulogne, and it was well-worn.
By this time, of course, the engine size had increased. The rather tentative short chasssis Monza of 1922 disposed of 150 bhp (112 kW) from 6.8 liters, while the definiitive H6C, which appeared a few years later and was the sole H6 made after 1931, offfered eight liters, and advertised 144 bhp, (107 kW) and a speed of 100 mph (162 km/h). The test of any design is judged by the modifications found necessary as time goes on. The H6 of 1934 was still recognisably the car which drew the crowds at the Grand Palais in 1919. Plate clutches arrived in 1922, and from 1923 onward there were two equal-size batteries and two starter buttons. In 1928 the engine was redesigned with screwed-in nitrided steel wet cylinder liners, improved manifolding, and a 'hottter' camshaft profile - at the same time an electric fuel pump replaced the original Autovac.
The rest, however - and that goes for chassis, brakes and transmission - remained essentially unchanged. And allthough the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost
had a longer production life, much of it in more empirical times, let us not forget that it went through three types of gearbox, as well as major revisions to suspension and brakes.
What killed the Hispano? Partly, of course, the Great Depression. But perhaps the major reason was that Birkigt, 1919's revolutionary, declined to move with the times. He might have supplemented the H6 with a V12 in 1931, the ultimate in flexibility and silence, but it was still a very big car, with a 9.4-liter engine and wheelbases of up to 13.12 ft (four metres), and its chassis was entirely traditional. Had the Hispano been a car in which to be driven, it might not have mattered.
The greats of the mid and late-1930s - the Delahaye 135, the Lago-Special Talbot, and the Type 57 Bugatti - had capacities of less than four liters, with fuel consumption of around 17.5-18.80 mpg (15-16Iit/100 km) : the Hispano seldom bettered 10.86 mpg (26lit/l00 km). Rearmament in the 'thirties meant a demand for aero-engines, and the French factory abdicated thankfully into that business. In Spain, where most Hispanos were smaller and more modest, production only just survived the 1936-39 Civil War.