French Derby rivals
There were two Gallic options for those seeking top-quality motoring after WW1. One is still remembered, one not…
Soon after the horrors of WW1 ended in 1918, the profiteers and surviving aristocrats would have been buying top-class motor cars. The Rolls-Royce’s great reputation convinced the Derby manufacturer that the 40/50hp Silver Ghost could run for another spell, its dignity and silent functioning well able to compete against the new wave of overhead-camshaft offerings from R-R’s pre-war rivals.
Chief among those rivals was the French Hispano-Suiza company. The new post-war car from Bois-Colombes, with a 37.2hp 6-1/2-litre light-alloy engine with camshaft prodding the valves directly, would have attracted the attention of sporting gentlemen even if they knew nothing about how racing Hispanos had finally trounced the single and twin-cylinder Peugeots in the voiturette contests. Postwar, the Hispano was not particularly prominent on the race circuits.
In his 1954 book about vintage cars Cecil Clutton wrote that “the Hispano-Suiza is probably the only car that in its day was mentioned in the same breath as Rolls-Royce. It was magnificently made, perfectly proportioned, years ahead of its time and a joy to drive; it was one of the world’s very great cars.” Better, perhaps, over the long straight French highways than on our more restricted roads, with its three-speed gearbox, whose ratios Clutton called “rather depressing”. But there is no denying that here was a splendid motor car, its shapely radiator topped by the famous flying stork mascot, as R-R had its Spirit of Ecstasy lady above its angular ‘trademark’ radiator.
Since 1919 the H-S had had servo four-wheel-brakes, but it took R-R until 1924 to adopt them, paying royalties to H-S and Renault for a mechanical servo system. So as the 1920s unfolded the sales battle was between H-S, R-R and the sleeve-valve Daimler, for which Royal preference before and after the war could not be disregarded.
By 1921 things had settled down a bit. At the Paris Salon some 35 makes of cars had 4WBs, and at the White City part of the London Motor Show Hispano was joined by another French exhibit, namely the Farman from Billancourt. This had the same sized engine as the Hispano, 100x140mm (6597cc).
I have never understood why the Farman never succeeded as the Hispano-Suiza did. It may not have had a racing background like the Hispano, although this amounted to no more than Dubonnet’s win in the 1921 Boulogne Cup, his second place to Bablot in the 1922 event, followed by first and second places in 1923 in the Monza model 142mm-stroke cars, and a few Brooklands races and records by Woolf Barnato in his 8-litre Boulogne Hispano.
Against which for Farman could be quoted the early aviation exploits of the Farman brothers, and Henry Farman’s third place for Panhard in the 1903 Gordon Bennett Cup contest, and the brothers’ first (Henry) and third (Maurice) places in the Paris-Vienna race, followed by victory for Maurice and a second for Henry on Panhards in 1902 in the 537-mile Paris-Arras-Paris stint, with earlier wins for both in lesser contests on 1901 Panhard and Darracq racers.
The Farman seemed a direct rival to the Hispano-Suiza; either by coincidence or intent the two 37hp cars even had very similar type designations: H6B for Hispano, A6B for the Farman. The Farman looked to have the qualities to compete with the Hispano. The engine had a steel, not a light-alloy, cylinder block with cast-iron liners and with the heads machined all over the welded-on jackets gave ample water space. The overhead camshaft was driven by a bevel gear vertical shaft, with rockers to the valves, which had double springs. The dual Zenith carburettor was on the near side, the exhaust manifold opposite, giving through gas flow. Dual ignition by Delco coil and magneto was used, with two sets of plugs, one each side of the cylinder heads. The cooling fan could be driver-controlled but this was later deleted.
There was a unit engine/gearbox as on the Hispano, with a disc clutch. The gearbox had those better-spaced four ratios, with a central gear lever, and it and the front universal joint were oiled from the engine. Torque-tube transmission was coupled to a bevel-gear axle, and four-wheel brakes cost £120 extra. Suspension was by half-elliptic front and cantilever back springs. Two spare wheels were provided and the Bleriot headlamps could be dipped. In 1921 a Farman chassis cost £1600, the Hispano chassis £2100.
By 1926 when press road tests were requested, all that was available here was a 2-1/2-year-old model, which nevertheless did its 70mph for one light-footed journalist. Indeed, in all my long association with Motor Sport I recall only one reader who referred to Farmans.