I’ve had my Hispano-Suiza hot rod now for almost 20 years. When I got it, it was a bit more primitive than it is now. The man I got it from built the car in Australia, but it was originally made at Hispano-Suiza in Paris. It’s a 1915 chassis with a 1915 aircraft engine, which was the first aero engine V8.
It was really the engine that won the First World War for the Allies. It was built under licence in England by Wolseley, in America by Wright-Martin, and in France and Spain by Hispano-Suiza. They made 50,000 of these motors. When the Germans were running the big 21-litre Zeppelin and the big Maybach straight-six, the Allies had the first V8. It’s 18.5 litres and 300 horsepower – it’s aluminium, a beautiful piece of work.
These motors were meant to run in very flimsy biplanes for maybe a couple of hundred hours and then they would disintegrate. The bearings were in the oil pan. When you drop the oil pan, the bearings come out with it. So the idea was these things would be fixed in the field by 18-year-old farm boys, who’d do what they had to do, slap it back together and send these guys back out. If they lived and came back again – ‘Oh, lucky you!’
When I got the car the previous owner had the engine bolted to the chassis, and the transmission bolted to the engine and the frame. So every time it high-sided, the thing would flex a little bit. If you got one wheel high, boom, it’d bust a gear. So we made a cradle and suspended the engine in the chassis so it could move around a little bit. The transmission is from a 1919 Delage bus and the clutch is out of a WW1 tank. It has a rear end out of an Albion garbage truck from Australia.
I was driving the car one day and didn’t realise it had a leak in the rear end, and it locked up on me. So I sent the gears out to a guy and I said, ‘Can you make me some of these?’ He said, ‘Yeah, that’ll be about ,000.’ So I called a junk yard in Australia and said, ‘I’m looking for a rear end for an Albion garbage truck.’ He said, ‘I got one but it’ll cost you .’‘Okay, I’ll go for 50 bucks…’ I put the new one in and made sure it was all sealed up and didn’t leak.
We had to make new pistons, new rods, new everything for it. It has taken a couple of years – when you go down to the piston maker and show him a piston that’s seven inches across, he says, ‘Oh no, we don’t have these on the shelf.’ It took a lot of work to get it done right. We had to add a few things. We added what we call an accumulator, off an airplane. This is a big metal ball, about the size of a bowling ball, similar to what you have in a CitroΫn’s suspension. It’s got a rubber bladder in it. You fill it with oil and put about 120lb of pressure on it. Then, before you start the car – it has onboard compressors – you press a button and oil is forced through every orifice, to pre-oil the engine first.
It also has a Zenith aero carburettor. The nice thing about that is, if you’re upside down, the plane won’t stall. So if you’re driving a Hispano-Suiza and you go off a cliff and it rolls over, at least you know the engine won’t die.
The fun thing about driving the car is that you feel like you’re taxiing in a biplane. The engine barely ticks over – 900, maybe 1200rpm; 1800rpm is the end world. And being a V8 rather than a 12, the power impulses are like eight shotguns going off all at once. It’s unmuffled, it’s loud, it’s fast, it’s raucous. It’s an attention getter. It just doesn’t sound or look like anything else on the road.
I guess the closest thing to it is one of the Chitty Bang Bang cars. But I think this handles better because it’s not as long. They had the huge 23-litre Maybach motor with a very long wheelbase and chain drive.
The great thing about early hot rods is that airplane and automobile engines were not that far apart.
Airplane engines are just massively oversized automobile engines, built to a higher standard. This thing is as frightening at 60 or 70mph as a modern car at twice or three times the speed. It’s hilarious to drive. What adds to the sense of danger is that the brakes are mechanical, with a series of gears and levers. There are no hydraulics in it.
This car is almost 100 years old and it’ll easily do 125mph – no problem. It’s got such torque, it just pulls you. It feels like a steam car. I really never found a modern car that’s this much fun to drive. It’s scary, even stood still.