They say that the star that shines half as long shines twice as brightly – and looking at the history of Hispano-Suiza the old adage seems to hold true. Once the purveyors of luxury and competition cars with the royal seal of approval, the company’s 32-year run at the top of the tree created a legacy that remains with us to this day.
Hispano-Suiza as we know it now was formed in 1904 following a six-year attempt by the romantically named Spanish (hence ‘Hispano’) artillery captain Emilio de la Cuadra and the talented Swiss (‘Suiza’) engineer Marc Birkigt to build a handful of cars. Even then, the quality of these Hispano-Suiza cars reflected Birkigt’s obsession with fine engineering.
The following year, La Hispano-Suiza Fábrica de Automóviles, based in Barcelona, burst onto the scene – again with Birkigt in the engineering driving seat. Within 18 months the revitalised company had introduced a range of luxury cars powered by a selection of gargantuan in-line fours and straight-sixes of between 3.8 and 7.4 litres.
Hispano-Suizas soon became a major force at the top end of the market – and, in a show of patriotic car buying, King Alfonso XIII of Spain became a high-profile customer. The principal market for these cars, however, was France, and that precipitated the opening of a new factory, known as Hispano France, in the Parisian suburb of Levallois-Perret. And by the turn of World War One, such was the company’s success that it needed to move to larger premises at Bois-Colombes.
Following the war, Hispano-Suiza wowed everyone at the 1919 Paris Motor Show with possibly its greatest car of all. The H6 was designed from the word go to be the best car in the world. At its heart was a 6.5-litre straight-six that had been developed from the Hispano-Suiza’s WW1 V12 fighter-plane engine (50,000 were built and, according to legend, none suffered mechanical breakages during combat). Birkigt wouldn’t have it any other way.
It was an inspired decision on Birkigt’s part to go with this power unit, as it would prove a standard-bearer for many years to come. In the interests of lightness the cylinder block and head were cast in aluminium; for reliability and smoothness it featured twin plugs, twin coils and a shaft-driven overhead camshaft. And at the bottom end the billet crankshaft and sleeved pistons were further evidence of its fantastic engineering depth.
Although the H6’s chassis was more conventional than its engine (the semi-elliptic leaf springs all-round were more than adequate), it still featured worthy innovations such as the servo-assisted ‘servobrake’ system, which drew its power directly from the gearbox.
The bodies were coachbuilt by carrozzerie hand-picked by Hispano-Suiza, and given the ingredients the final package was a clear challenger for Europe’s finest, and ended up being its most expensive, car.
In 1922 the H6 was shortened and uprated to B-specification, turning into a very effective racing car in the process; and a couple of years after that the 8-litre H6C was created, becoming Hispano-Suiza’s mighty new flagship. The car in our feature, currently for sale at Hendon Way Motors, is one of the final H6Cs – but with an interesting story behind it, typical of so many of the breed.
Originally supplied in short-chassis form, the 1928 ‘Monza’, similar to the one that won that year’s Indianapolis 500 race, was fitted with a Labourdette skiff body. In the hands of its second owner, a Binder town carriage body was installed – with an especially small chauffeur’s compartment. It was in this form, and in a slightly bedraggled state being used as an opera ferry car, that the car was rediscovered by F1 journalist Gérard ‘Jabby’ Crombac in Paris during the early 1960s.
Along with his friend, Autosport magazine’s John Bolster, Crombac designed a new two-seater body for the car, based closely on the styling of the Indy 500-winning car. With the sleek body in place, and with its high-profile driver a regular on the contemporary motor sport scene, this Hispano-Suiza became one of the best-known examples in the world. Crombac used the Monza to drive to a number of European Grands Prix, and with a top speed of well over 100mph it still managed to make a serious impression on les autoroutes.
By this time Hispano-Suiza was long-extinct as a motor manufacturer – car production had ceased in 1936, when it became clear that Europe stood on the brink of war once again. Just as it had for WW1, Hispano-Suiza went into mass-production, this time making guns rather than engines. The final vehicle off the line was a K6, and few would have predicted that this would be the last-ever Hispano-Suiza luxury car.
Today the name continues to have resonance with enthusiasts and, despite it being 72 years since that last K6 emerged from the factory, the prospect of driving any Hispano-Suiza is an exciting one.
Any first-timer who claims they’re not even a little bit nervous before taking such a magnificent car for a spin either eats girders for breakfast or lacks petrol in their veins. It’s not hard to be intimidated by the sheer size of the thing, and the value should also be taken into consideration, of course – but what I really had reservations about was that it wouldn’t be capable of cutting it in modern traffic.
That might seem like a bit of a cliche, but heroic motor or not with cast-iron provenance, at 4.45 on a Monday afternoon in deepest North London mundane matters conspire to take on considerable importance. Will it still brake? Is it quick enough? Will it be a pig to drive?
Along with me for the ride is Kerry, a regular driver of this car who often joins Hendon Way’s Anthony Posner on tour. It’s a combination that has competed in the Mille Miglia Retrospective in 1992 and 2000. ‘Don’t worry,’ Kerry smiles reassuringly. ‘You’ll have no problems, all the controls are where you’d expect them to be. Just climb in and drive.’ That’s easy for him to say.
‘On the Mille Miglia, it was great to drive,’ Kerry recalls. ‘We’ve had no problems with this car, and it goes really well. On the mountain passes it might have been a bit of a handful, but on open roads it’s fast – we’ve seen an easy 80mph.’
Climbing aboard, the history remains foremost on my mind. The dashboard is stocked with instrumentation monitoring all of the engine’s vital signs and, despite being a racing car for the road, the H6C’s leather buckets are comfortable and offer good support. Starting is straightforward enough – prime the fuel pump, switch on the ignition system and press the starter – and it’s time to go.
The clutch is light and positive, and the sheer quality of the drivetrain means that feedback from the gearlever – to your right – is such that you feel each of the gears’ teeth mesh almost lovingly together.
Once in first, and with the engine contentedly idling away at what feels about 50rpm, disengaging the clutch with the merest whiff of throttle has you smoothly on your way. No fuss, no drama. The steering is light, helped in no small part by the large steering wheel, but the gearing is low, meaning the H6C is not a car you can thread comfortably through city streets. However, as this car was made for rapid routes nationales touring, this unwieldiness is forgivable.
With around 160bhp on tap, it clips along at a regal pace – and once we’re on the A-roads the H6C more than holds its own. That large displacement straight-six is refined to the point of silence and, because it delivers a welter of torque from what feels like walking pace, third (top) gear is the ratio of choice for all occasions – it’s not just for storming but for trickling, too. The brakes are servo assisted, and although the pedal action isn’t exactly positive the stopping power from those dinner plate-sized drums is ample.
It’s probably around the time of the third or fourth gear change that all of those initial reservations about driving the Hispano-Suiza melt away and the enjoyment starts – just as Kerry predicted. Not having to relearn how to drive is a bonus; but it’s the sheer competence of the drivetrain and chassis of this octogenarian thoroughbred that impresses the most. One can only imagine how good it was as a new car.
It’s easy to see why the H6C was the most expensive car of its day – its quality shines through as brightly now as it did all of those years ago: a golden legacy left by its genius creator, Mark Birkigt.
Thanks to Hendon Way Motors