Tuesday 14th June 1904
The Sociedad Hispano-Suiza Fabrica de Automoviles SA was organised in Spain with a capitalisation of 250,000 Pesetas.
Undeniably one of the most unique names of any car manufacturer, the once famous marque had its name derived from two countries – Spain, where it entered production in 1904, and Switzerland where its designer Marc Birkigt was born.
The company was founded in the early part of last century, and in the initial years of production there was nothing to make a Hispano-Suiza stand out from dozens of other cars being made at that time, particularly when production in Spain was on a very small scale.
But King Alfonso XIII of Spain was keen to help the fledgling manufacturer achieve success, and several of the more luxurious types were to find their way into his garage. This in turn would inspire other young Spaniards to purchase, and race, a Hispano-Suiza.
In 1910 the marque would notch up a win at the French Coupe de L’Auto race, and following the victory the company decided to name a sports touring version of the car after King Alfonso.
The ‘Alfonso’ Hispano-Suiza would then evolve over the next two years; the car was a beautifully proportioned machine, usually fitted with a 3620cc engine good for 64bhp at 2300rpm.
Because of its side-valve ‘T-head’ arrangement and very long stroke (80mm bore, 180mm stroke) configuration, it had tremendous low-speed torque. At first a three-speed transmission was standard, but this was later replaced by a four speed transmission, the latter transmission making the Alfonso good for around 75mph (120kmh).
In 1911 the company decided to expand beyond Spain, and so opened a factory at Levallois-Perret, close to the lucrative markets of Paris, France.
Following the outbreak of World War I, an aero-engine factory was established at Bois-Colombes, and after the war this became the home of the most exotic Hispano-Suiza cars.
Meanwhile the Spanish factory continued to make cars, concentrating on more ‘basic’ versions and commercial vehicles. They also assembled some of the French Hispanos for wealthier Spanish customers. But it was at the French factory that the desirable Hispano Suiza’s were being built.
The first of the entirely French-conceived types was the Marc Birkigt designed H6B of 1919. By this time Birkigt had spent much time in and around the French capital, and he had gained an insight into what wealthy Parisians expected in a motor car.
The H6B was therefore intended as a fast, luxurious and expensive machine, good for a top speed of around 80mph despite even the heaviest saloon car coachwork.
To achieve this, Birkigt developed an advanced 6597cc six-cylinder engine, which was effectively half of an intended military V12 aero-engine. The cylinder block was in aluminium, with steel liners and overhead cam. Peak power was 135bhp at 2600rpm.
This substantial weight and performance of the car was kept firmly in check by the first successful use of four-wheel brakes with a mechanical servo. This was mechanically so elegant and effective that Rolls-Royce soon acquired a licence to use it on their own cars.
Versions of the H6B (or 37.2hp model as it was sometimes known), performed well in motor sport; the short-wheelbase model was named ‘Monza’ after a victory at that circuit in 1922.
Dubonnet and Bablot would soon have a victory in the “Boillot Cup” race at Boulogne, and then Garnier and Boyriven would take out the “Coupe de Boulogne”. Birkigt decided that the marque needed a true sports car version, and so in 1924 the naturally named “Boulogne” or H6C Sport was launched.
Compared with the first H6B, the Boulogne had an increased cylinder bore (of 110mm in place of 100mm), but retained the same 140mm stroke, the capacity therefore becoming 7983cc.
It had a higher compression ratio and, in the case of high-lift camshaft models, the engine was good for more than 200bhp.
In 1924 Woolf Barnato (later to become a famous ‘Bentley Boy’) took a Boulogne to Brooklands where he would notch up an average speed of 92.2mph (148kmh) over a 300 mile journey.
That effort would earn Barnato numerous international endurance records. The same year, another Boulogne would win a £5000 wager against Stutz by averaging 70mph (112.6kmh) for 24 hours.
The top speeds of the standard model were about 110mph (177kmh), and by the standards of the day the handling, braking and road behavior were all superb.
H6 types would continue to be built into the 1930s, alongside the magnificent French-built V12 models.
These were large, fast luxury cars for the very rich, and although a few had open coachwork, most were not sporting cars, despite possessing all the usual virtues of this splendid marque.
The H6 however was starting to show its age, and so in 1931 production of the model ended.
Only 16 genuine H6C Boulognes were ever built, nine of them specifically for racing, but many “standard” H6B’s were fitted with the same type of 8 litre engine, and therefore could achieve nearly everything offered by the Boulognes, though the handling on the longer wheelbase versions was never as good.
As the 1930s progressed, the French factory became increasingly involved in military rearmament, such that production of cars became a sideline. In 1938 it ceased completely, although it continued, in Spain, into the war years.
In total, less than 3000 Hispano-Suizas were built in France, this figure including a few cheaper models made as a result of the takeover of Ballot in 1930. Surprisingly, a few of the more exotic types were made under license by Skoda of Czechoslovakia, and by an Argentinian firm until 1942.
The Hispano-Suiza is now chiefly remembered as a luxury car for enthusiast owner-drivers, rather than for tycoons leaving the driving chore to their chauffeurs. By these exalted standards, the Alfonso and Boulogne models were truly exceptional.
Like Bugattis, they combined a. remarkable blend of engineering excellence and styling harmony. Marc Birkigt himself finally retired from aero-engine design in 1950, and the French end of his firm then combined with Bugatti.