Some time ago I became aware of the fascination of an “automobile Hispano-Suiza” and compiled some notes which appeared under the heading, “What Had the Hispano?” (Oct., 1944). Now, I having, through the generosity of Mr. Lycett, aided and abetted by Cecil Clutton, been able to acquire a most excellent specimen of the “Alphonso XIIIth,” model 15T, I am able to dwell happily on what an earlier generation of motorists would have insisted was the real Hispano-Suiza.
The company making these cars was founded in 1904 to exploit the patents of a Swiss engineer, M. Birkigt, by a group of influential Spanish citizens. In 1905 unit construction of engine and gearbox was pioneered by Birkigt and this has been a Hispano feature ever since. The original cars were built at Barcelona and in 1907 a Swiss concern was permitted to manufacture under licence. Ostend, Boulogne and Mont Ventoux saw Hispano-Suiza cars victorious during 1910, and this seems to have set seal to the manufacturer’s fame, for in 1911 a move had to be made to larger premises on the Sagrera estate and a branch factory was opened at Levalbois-Perret in France. Then, in the spring of 1914, a “manufactory” was built at Bois-Colombes, in the suburbs of Paris, and the Hispano-Suiza took on its French nationality. In this country, prior to 1914, a service depot was maintained at Fulham, and a showroom in Shaftesbury Avenue.
The early catalogue was something of a work of art, with its coloured cover, announcing these cars as “The Queen of the Road,” and its two beautiful coloured plates from paintings by René Vincent, one showing an “Alphonso” Hispano on the road, the other a more sedate coupe-de-ville “at the mansion.” There was also a photograph by Branger of H.M. King Alphonso XIII setting out for the Prado in his sporting 2-seater 15T.
Altogether a publication which should have succeeded in its aim to “help to strengthen the confidence of our clients in our manufactures.” Naturally, considerable space was devoted to the unit construction and the absence of a subframe — “cuirasse system Birkigt.” The range of models offered before the Kaiser War, in the days of the “real Hispano,” was rather complex. In the first place, there was the L-head, s.v., 4-cylinder 12-h.p. of 80 x 110 mm., priced at £320 as a 9-ft, chassis, and £340 in 9 ft. 10 in. form. Then we come to the T-head cars, the 4-cylinder, 15-h.p. 80 x 130-mm., the chassis of which cost £375 and £395, respectively, in like lengths, and the 15.9-h.p. 80 x 180-mm. 3,614-c.c. sporting “Alphonso XIIIth,” the short chassis of which had a wheelbase of 8 ft. 8 in. and cost £425, and the long chassis a wheelbase of 9 ft. 10 in., costing £465. There was also a 4-cylinder, 30-h.p. T-head car of 100 x 150 mm., offered in 9 ft. 10-in. and 10 ft. 8-in. wheelbases, at £540 and £570 respectively. Next we come to the “De Luxe” range of o.h. camshaft cars, all 4-cylinder, of 80 x 130, 90 x 150 and 100 x 180 mm., each of which was available in 8 ft. 8-in., 9 ft. 10-in. or 10 ft. 8-in, form, chassis prices ranging from £500 to £730. All chassis prices were less tyres. These models featured a tyre pump on the gearbox (another Birkigt patent), as did the “Alphonso,” and Rudge Whitworth wheels figured on most types. The “De Luxe” models were distinguishable from the others by their slightly pointed radiators, the fillers for which were rearward extensions with the caps beneath the bonnets, just as found in 1946 tinware.
The “Alphonso” is the most interesting model from our viewpoint and was an excellent performer in its day. The catalogue does not quote speed, but obviously it was rather faster than the 30-h.p. model, for which 66 1/2 m.p.h. in long, and 70 m.p.h. in short, open form, was quoted. It was also lighter, the short chassis weighing approximately 13 cwt., the long approximately 15 cwt. The steering was inclined at 32° against 45° for the tourers, and the oil tank lived alongside the chassis, whereas it had been moved to the cast-alloy dash on the “de luxe” cars. The “Alphonso” had originally a 3-speed gearbox and 1/2-elliptic springs all round, but for 1914 a 4-speed box is specified, although the catalogue makes no mention of suspension — my own car has 3/4-elliptics at the back and is 4-speed. The original multiplate clutch was eventually changed for cone. Tyre size was 815 x 105 for the short or “normal” chassis, 820 x 120 for the long. The long chassis had a 4 ft. 3-in. track – 3-in. increase over the track of the short-chassis car. No gear ratios are quoted, but those of my car are, roughly, 3.25, 4.25, 6.0 and 11.5-to-1. However, Bridcutt has a choice of five axle ratios for his car.
Alas, I know of only three examples of “Alphonso” Hispano-Suiza still with us, plus one in Australia. My own car is a 1913-14 long-chassis car, rebuilt by McKenzie for Forrest Lycett. I believe he found it at the Phoenix Green Garage and certainly Peter Wike was one of the former owners. John Seth Smith used the car regularly in 1945 until his untimely demise in an aeroplane accident. The body is a 3-seater, of particularly solid construction, bringing the weight up to 30 cwt. An S.U. carburetter was used at first, but the proper 3-jet Hispano is now fitted, but Autovac fed; there is dynamo lighting and electric starting.
W. A. Hill has a 3-speed, short-chassis, 1912 car with non-standard 4-seater body, in good order, safely stored away. It has a 3-to-1 top gear and weighs about 19 cwt.; the carburetter is now an S.U. This car was first licensed in 1923 and was apparently laid up the following year. J. W. Burnand then did some 16,000 miles in it from 1932-1937. A Southport gentleman next acquired it, rebuilding the body and fitting cycle-type wings, etc. He died before using the car and E. S. Maiden saved it and sold it to Hill, who ran it at one Crystal Palace meeting and has, in all, driven it about 300 miles. Incidentally, Maiden quotes the b.h.p. as 64 at 2,300 r.p.m., and says the type first came to England in the winter of 1911.
The remaining example is the really beautiful 1912, 3-speed, short-chassis car of H. O. S. Bridcutt. He bought it from Fuggle quite recently and its earlier history is obscure, although Brooklands racing is mentioned. He has now put the car into really first-class order and built on it. a very reasonable replica of the doorless, 2-seater sporting bodies often fitted to the short-chassis cars.
E. K. H. Karslake owned a 1912 model in the thirties, but it has long since been broken up, although the engine survived a spell in a boat and still exists. Does anyone know of any others? The “Alphonso” is in every sense of the word a great car and, as Karslake said in one of the several excellent articles he wrote about them: “The joy of ‘Alphonso,’ however, is not when he is barking joyously on the indirect ratios — a thing which many a modern car can do as well — but when that high gear is engaged, and one sweeps along with the engine just turning over comfortably.”
Today we think of them as exciting propositions. But thirty years ago the makers observed: “After twenty years of stupendous evolution, the automobile has come to be recognised, with the railway and the telegraph, one of the necessities of modern life” — a thing present-day politicians seem so often to overlook.—W. B.