For most car fans, the name Hispano-Suiza recalls only four famous models: the Alfonso, a spartan lightweight introduced in 1912 that was certainly one of the world's first true production sports cars; the 6½-liter H6 of 1919 that was then beyond doubt the world's most advanced luxury chassis; the more powerful 8-liter version of the same, called the 46CV, dating from 1924, and the great 54-220CV V12 of the 1930s.
Designer Marc Birkigt was responsible for around 40 projects prior to the H6, to judge by its designation as Type 41, and by 1908, there were already five catalogue models ranging from a small 15-20hp with four cylinders to a 60-75hp six with over 11 liters capacity.
Birkigt was a Swiss, born in Geneva in 1878, but although quite a number of Swiss makes of car materialised before World War 1, he played little part in these (an exception was the first SAG, later called Pie-Pie). After passing with distinction through a first-rate mechanical engineering college, he spent his obligatory spell of military service with the artillery, which engraved in him a life-long interest in armaments.
Consequently, as a neutral by nationality but with strong partisan leanings, he contributed to the Allied victories in both world wars by designing the best military aero engine of all in the first and the remarkable motor cannon which fired through the propeller hub in the second.
The La Cuadra - Spain's First Car
Having completed his soldiering at the age of 21, he was persuaded by a Spanish friend he met in Paris to go with him to Barcelona where the prospects for a qualified and talented engineer were unlimited. Joining a manufacturer of batteries and electric vehicles, he soon talked his employer, Emilio La Cuadra, into letting him design and build a small petrol car, the little La Cuadra having a 4½ hp twin-cylinder engine and chain drive.
The La Cuadra was Spain's first car; several were made, but the project was virtually still-born through the company's financial difficulties; that was in 1901. The chief creditor, a Sr J. Castro, picked up the assets (including Birkigt), together with the liabilities, and for about three years the Castro car was made. First off was the La Cuadra renamed, soon replaced by a shaft-driven chassis with a water-cooled twin-cylinder engine, and then a 2.2-liter four with side valves under a T-head.
By mid 1904, an excess of liabilities had once more brought the enterprise to a standstill, but yet again a far-sighted creditor started the ball rolling. This was Damien Mateu, and under his leadership through to his death in 1929, the new company prospered and grew in financial stability and material success. It was renamed Fabrics La Hispano-Suiza de Automobiles, indicating the amalgam of Spanish finance and direction with Swiss engineering brains. That happened in June 1904, and so the four-cylinder Castro became the first Hispano-Suiza.
Two large fours were prepared in time for the Paris Salon of 1906, a 3.8-liter and 7.4-liter, both with cylinder blocks cast in pairs, T -heads and unit gearboxes. By this time, the youthful King Alfonso XIII had his first Hispano in the royal stable, and continued to patronise the marque for the rest of his reign, owning around thirty. Two big sixes were added next and by 1908 there was a choice between five chassis - all these had multiple-disc clutches, four-speed transmissions and live-axle final drive. Dual ignition was provided by a Simms-Bosch magneto and an HT coil and battery.
When King Alfonso presented the Catalan Cup, to be contested by voiturette-class racing cars over thirteen laps of a 17½-mile circuit based on Sitges, a coastal resort south of Barcelona, it was a matter of honour that Marc Birkigt should prepare a team of Spanish cars to try to win it. Voiturette regulations for 1909 stipulated certain proportions of the cylinder bore-to-stroke ratio, according to the number of cylinders.
For instance, you could have a single with a bore and stroke of 100 x 250 mm (as did Peugeot), but if you wished to decrease the stroke and increase the bore to obtain 'higher crankshaft speed, the formula caused you to lose out on cylinder capacity and since, in 1909, the state of the art had not progressed to the point where very high rpm could even be obtained, let alone with reliability, most designers chose the widest permitted bore/stroke ratios.
In the case of the fours, the longest stroke allowed was 140 mm, for which the maximum regulation bore was 65 mm, giving 1852cc; these were the dimensions of Marc Birkigt's engine. Its cylinders were cast in mono-bloc, with two side valves per T-shaped combustion chamber - meaning it had a separate camshaft for inlet and exhaust valves, at either side of the block. Maximum revs were about 2000, which fell short of what Peugeot were using with their freakish single.
After battling with the Lion-Peugeots of Goux and Boillot, Hispano-Suiza driver Zuccarelli gained and held the lead for three laps, before retiring with clutch problems. Then both Boillot and Derny with the second Hispano-Suiza overturned, and ultimately only four out of a field of eleven survived to the finish; Goux, with a V-twin Peugeot, won after 6 hours and 18 minutes, and Pilleverdier was fourth with the surviving Hispano, arriving one hour and 37 minutes later.
In the voiturette class of the French Coupe de l' Auto race later that year, the same Hispano team was entered and finished in fifth, sixth and seventh places. This time a grotesque single-cylinder Lion-Peugeot even beat the twins from the same den. For voiturette racing in 1910, the rules were changed, with limitations on bore (65 mm for the fours) only and no holds barred concerning the stroke. For the Catalan Cup Race in May, Hispano-Suiza had four starters, one with the 1909 cylinder dimensions (65 x 140 mm), the others with 180 mm stroke. This time, Zuccarelli finished third behind two Peugeots.
The Coupe des Voiturettes
For the Coupe des Voiturettes, organised by the journal l' Auto at Boulogne that September, Birkigt stretched the stroke of his 65 mm bore engine to 200 mm, increasing its capacity to 2646 cc, and entered Zuccarelli, Pilleverdier and Jean Chassagne. This time they had to contend with Lion-Peugeot V-twins having the outrageous dimensions 80 x 280 mm - that is, 3.15 x 11.02 in and 2813cc - yet still able to rev to 2200 rpm (with 8 in steel pistons moving at over 4000 ft per min) and V4s from the same factory with dimensions 65 x 260 mm (3440 cc).
One of the four-cylinder Lion-Peugeots crashed in practice, leaving one four and one twin. These immediately proved fastest on the course, but were plagued by overheating and tire problems respectively, and Zuccarelli won for Hispano-Suiza, from Goux (Lion-Peugeot twin), Chassagne's Hispano and Boillot's V4 Lion-Peugeot. Having thus trounced the French, if mostly by reliability, and thereby set voiturette racing on a more logical and realistic line of development, Hispano-Suiza withdrew from direct factory participation in racing. Maybe the decision to do this was not yet absolute, because Birkigt was rumoured in 1912 to be working on a supercharging device consisting of two extra pumping cylinders.
However, the 1913 regulations stopped that development as there was a ban on any form of forced induction. One usually dependable source has suggested that the supercharged engine was Birkigt's reaction to his plans for twin overhead camshaft valve gear being filched by fellow Swiss Ernest Henry, employed in the design office, and his development-engineer-cum-team driver, Paolo Zuccarelli, and taken to Peugeot in France. Did Henry ever work for Birkigt, and did Birkigt ever have a twin-overhead-camshaft project on the stocks?
For their part, Peugeot maintain that Henry joined them from the Picker-Moccand engine plant in Geneva, which made Lucia and then Sigma cars, and until anyone succeeds in penetrating the confusing mists of history to prove otherwise, it is best to think of Henry and Zuccarelli as honourable men. What is certain is that these two men and Pilleverdier, too, joined forces with the Peugeot team drivers Goux and Boillot to create the world's first racers with twin-ohcs and four-valve heads, and they are believed to have had one ready to race in the French GP of 1911 that never happened.
The Alfonso Type 15T
From the 1910 Coupe des Voiturettes car sprang the famous production Alfonso Type 15T (the Queen of Spain gave her husband one for a birthday present), similar except that the bore/stroke ratio was closed up by increasing the first and decreasing the second to 80 x 180 mm (3620 cc). The output was very healthy for those days - 64 bhp at 2300 rpm - and, as the car was lightly built, the power/weight ratio was extremely favourable. The shorter of the alternative chassis weighed only about 13 cwt.
Birkigt was one of the first to unite the gearbox with the engine, and this was a feature of the Alfonso; early examples had three speeds, later ones four, and there was a change also from a dry multi-plate, metal-to-metal clutch to the leather-faced cone variety. Top speed was around 70-75 mph depending on body style and weight, and the Alfonso was soon popular in European markets. An assembly plant was opened in Levallois-Perret, Paris in 1912, and in 1914, it was shifted to larger premises in the Bois-Colombes.
The Hispano Suiza Aero Engine
From here emanated the great luxury cars of the' 20s and '30s, although the Spanish factory's output of mostly more mundane models far exceeded that of Paris. From early days, the latter also turned out a steady flow of trucks and later, public service vehicles that were more important to the firm commercially than the cars; and very important to Spain, too. In the two years preceding World War 1, Birkigt had been marketing his first design with an enclosed single overhead camshaft, driven by vertical shaft and bevels from the nose of the crank.
So, when the Spanish government subsidised the development of an aviation engine, this was naturally the valve gear he chose for a water-cooled V8 with light-alloy mono blocs having integral heads and screwed-in cylinder liners. An aesthetically neat and beautifully arranged unit, it was comparable with the air-cooled rotaries in power/weight ratio and had a smaller frontal area than these; by 1915, it was in production for the Allied air forces. Ultimately, it was manufactured in no fewer than 21 plants including fourteen in France and others in the USA; England and Italy, and played a part in the final victory.
From 1918, every Hispano-Suiza radiator cap carried a flying stork mascot commemorating the squadron emblem of one of France's most daring air aces, Georges Guynemer, whose SPAD fighters were Hispano driven and armed. Contemporary photographs show him on duty, at the wheel of an Alfonso Hispano-Suiza on the flying field, and he was said to be a personal friend of Marc Birkigt. Guynemer disappeared without trace in September 1917, credited with 53 'kills.'
Although several pre-war models were carried forward for a few years, the big news came with the Paris Salon of 1919 and the presentation there of the French-made H6 chassis. At a time when Rolls-Royce had not progressed beyond side valves, cylinder blocks cast in threes and rear-wheel brakes for their cars, and long before they adopted mono bloc cylinder castings for their aero engines, here was a compact 6½-liter ohc-engine bearing close affinity with aviation practice, set in a finely engineered chassis equipped with the world's best brakes.
Light-alloy, overhead-cam engines were to be found in other luxury chassis in 1919, including Lanchester and Napier, but very few had four-wheel brakes, and none other a mechanical servo to assist them. This took the form of a drum-type friction clutch containing an expanding member operated by the brake pedal, and linked to the concentric cross-shaft to which the cable levers were keyed. The drum was rotated by a worm gear driven from behind the gearbox, so that the effort provided was proportional to road speed.
This system was adopted by Rolls-Royce a few years later, under licence to Hispano-Suiza, and used on all their cars through to the advent of the disc-braked Silver Shadow of the 1960s. Although Birkigt considered that three speeds adequately complemented his engine's torque characteristics, some critics saw this as a mean economy in an expensive vehicle, in the sense that four speeds must cost more than three, and it is true that the wide ratio spacing could be a disadvantage. Other luxury-car makers usually provided a very low first speed and suggested that you only use it for emergencies, like restarts on steep hills.
In matters of quiet running and general mechanical unobtrusiveness, the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost side-valve engine with its heavy cast-iron cylinder blocks and simple valve gear remote from the bonnet top, tuned for low-speed torque as distinct from high-speed power, was difficult to match, and the standard of Rolls-Royce gear-cutting and quality control complemented the engine down the transmission line; Napier's commercially unsuccessful 40-50 hp proved that a big light-alloy engine with an overhead camshaft could be made to run just about as quietly when limited to 82 bhp, or 13 bhp per liter.
Marc Birkigt's cars were based on a different philosophy - their motor carriages had to move gracefully and look magnificent while gliding down the Champs Elysees, yet be equally in their element while dashing down to the long routes nationales to the Riviera. So the H6 32CV gave 100 bhp at 1600rpm, which was a lot more than the Silver Ghost delivered flat-out, and 135 bhp at 3000 rpm. The fact that it made a bit of commotion was accepted without question by the clientele (when Marc Birkigt decided, years later, to make a really quiet car he gave it twelve cylinders and opened their overhead valves by way of a single camshaft, pushrods and rockers).
The H6 was as good in action as its specification promised on paper, and merited all the press acclaim it received, remaining in production in France without major alteration through to 1934. An ideal platform for the specialist coach builder, it was clothed in some of the most magnificent metal finery ever created by the top European houses. The King of Spain was only one among a number of royal customers. It soon became a prestige symbol for Hollywood film stars and other nouveaux riches.
Although not envisaged as a competition car, the big Hispano had its moments of glory, first in 1921 when the wealthy sportsman with a commercially alcoholic background, Andre Dubonnet, won a sports-car race at Boulogne: the Coupe Boillot. Two or three years later, he repeated the success, this time with a new 8-liter engine from which the production 46CV got its name 'Boulogne'. Also in 1924, Dubonnet ran a 46CV in the famous Targa Florio road race in Sicily. It was fitted with an exotic body of riveted tulip-wood planking made by the Nieuport aviation people; far too cumbersome for such a mountainous and endlessly snaking course, and hampered by tire failures, it nevertheless finished in sixth position.
In 1925 there was a challenge match for 25,000 dollars, arranged between a 4.9-liter Stutz Black Hawk (single-ohc Straight-8) and a Boulogne Hispano, of a 24-hour speed and reliability contest around the Indianapolis 'brickyard'. The Boulogne brought over for C. T. Weymann to drive was extremly suspect, probably being an ultra-short-chassis job built for racing, and one source suggests its engine was tuned to about 170 bhp! The Stutz soon swallowed a valve, and by the time the Hispano had trundled round for 15 hours at just over 70, the Stutz was running again, but erratically, after over 9 hours in the pits, and victory was then ceded.
Several US manufacturers openly flattered the Hispano by imitating its radiator, the first probably being the HCS in the early 1920s and the best-known being the Cadiliac. How much power did the 46CV develop? There are quotes between 144 and 200 bhp, both at 2600 rpm. For the luxury trade, Birkigt would have been more concerned with the torque curve than absolute power, and 154 could well be the figure for early examples with low compression ratios. However, some big 46CV saloons could certainly approach 100 mph, which would call for more power than that, and the short-chassis sporting Boulogne version could comfortably exceed the magic century and may well have packed 200 bhp.
Compared with the 32CV it differed dimensionally only in respect of the cylinder bore (110 in place of 100 mm), the stroke being common to both at 140 mm. The 46CV'S swept volume was 79S2 cc. Production of both models continued in parallel through to 1934, and to most Hispano addicts, the 46CV is remembered as Birkigt's masterpiece, despite what was to follow. It was also made in Spain in small numbers, presumably for top government officials and the very few native autocrats who could afford such extravagance.
The Barcelona factory's best customer was the government and its products mostly orientated to the administration's needs, among them a 2½-liter four-cylinder with the 'house' valve gear but otherwise strictly a workhorse engineered for very long service. Among those marketed abroad was a 3.7-liter six appropriately named the Barcelona, which was nearly as large physically as the 32CV. There was also the huge V12 which was numbered Type 68 or Type 68bis, depending on whether its engine had square dimensions for bore and stroke (100 X 100 mm, 9.4 liters) or 110 mm stroke raising it to 11.3 liters. In France, it was the 54/220CV or 54/250CV respectively.
Together with a number of multi-cylindered exotica hatched around that time in the USA, it arrived in an unfavourable financial climate, yet nevertheless attracted quite a few takers among those who managed to preserve their balances during an international depression. As related earlier, the engine, although looking extremely like a scaled down aviation unit, broke with Birkigt tradition in having pushrod ohv gear in place of overhead camshafts and was thus almost miraculously quiet and refined.
The stove-enamelled black cylinder blocks were still fixed-head aluminum castings with screwed in nitralloy liners; of the two valves per cylinder, the exhausts had sodium-cooled stems and the nine-bearing crankshaft carried tubular rods paired two to a throw. Unusual, maybe unique, were the deeply-finned connecting-rod caps, dovetailed into the rods and secured by riveted horizontal pins. A big-end bearing failure entailed removing and stripping the engine almost completely.
The larger type were fitted in quartets to French railcars, their 1000 bhp transmitted through an eight-speed transmission. Maximum torque was a massive 557lb ft at only 1700 rpm. Unfortunately, the cars had only a three-speed transmission and a sad alliance between a very high first gear and an inadequate multi-plate clutch. Thus the V12 did not crawl willingly in city traffic, nor could you get that torque through to the road for restarting on steep hills. There was a choice between four wheel bases, from 11 ft 3 in to 13 ft 2 in, and a selection of final drives to suit the body style.
Some of the limousines must have weighed 3 tons unladen. Lighter examples could dust up almost anything met on the roads in the 1930s, reaching 60 mph from rest in 11-12 seconds despite that clutch, and 80 in 20-21 seconds. In a 17 ft 7 in-long convertible, 60-80 mph in top gear took 8.7 secs, and 70-90 mph in 10 seconds was possible, all with just the sensation of a muted sirocco under the bonnet. Because the engine ran out of puff rather abruptly at peak revs (3000), top speed was a matter of final-drive ratio.
The 9.4-liter coupes were good for just over 100 mph; we guess that limousines would have been slower and short-chassis types quicker. Apart from the engine and the brakes, the T68 was a bit archaic in concept. As well as the transmission shortcomings, it had an appalling steering lock, but handled well despite two steering boxes in series and the need for it shock damper. In the chassis layout, there was an almost arrogant disregard of passenger space in relation to external dimensions - and it used vast amounts of fuel.
In 1931, the Ballot company was absorbed and a rather undistinguished 90 x 120 mm six began leaving that factory. Then in 1934 came the K6, in effect a short-wheelbase T68 powered by one block of a T68bis motor (100 x 110 mm, 4900 cc, 120 bhp). It looked magnificent but had only half the steam. In 1936, the Spanish Civil War started, France was riddled with industrial unrest, the undercurrents of war were beginning to flow, and in 1938 Birkigt stopped car production to concentrate on his aviation engines and armaments.
He died in his native Switzerland in 1953, a little-known figure outside his own circle of family and industrial associates because he had never sought publicity and acclaim, but whose influence on his contemporaries and even on world affairs can never be measured.
Also see: Hispano-Suiza Car Reviews
| Hispano-Suiza H6
| Lost Marques - Hispano Suiza (AUS Edition)