Bill Boddy

Farman – the Hispano-Suiza rival

Not all that much seems to have been known about the Farman cars, especially in comparison with the respect accorded, absolutely rightly, to the Hispano-Suiza, although both these 37.2hp cars surfaced at the same time.

The Farman was a product of racing drivers, like the Bentley, Lancia and Nazzaro But whereas these drivers had raced in later, more sophisticated days, the British-born Farman brothers were competing in the now almost unbelievable epic town-to-town contests, on racing cars of crude construction in relation to the speeds they could already attain. Maurice Farman won the 1900 GP de Pau and the 1902 Circuit du Nord aboard Panhards, and was placed in other marathon speed events driving eventually a fearsome 70hp car of this make. His brother Henry had similar successes with a Darracq light car and those big Panhards, in races which involved hundreds of miles over the unclosed, dusty, ordinary roads of the times. British driver Charles Jarrott could not decide who was the better at these dangerous undertakings, Maurice or Henry, but thought the former was brilliant, the latter more persevering.

Surviving these adventures the brothers turned to the new and equally hazardous field of aviation. During the war they supplied aeroplanes to the French Air Force, and our RFC pilots were trained on the Farman ‘Shorthorn’ and ‘Longhorn’ pusher biplanes. These aeroplanes were made first at Charlons, later in a big factory at Billancourt. But after the 1918 Armistice the demand for aeroplanes diminished drastically, and the Farmans turned to making luxury cars.

In 1919, both the H6B Hispano-Suiza and the A6B Farman made their debut Curiously, both had six-cylinder engines of the same size, 100×140 mm, 6600cc. The Hispano-Suiza had its single-overhead camshaft prodding the valves directly, the Farman used rocker actuation with its OH-camshaft, each driven by a vertical shaft. Both made that year’s Paris Salon and Olympia Show, the chassis price of the Hispano at that time being £1,400, of the Farman £1,900. Both had aero-engine characteristics and dual ignition, but the Hispano had a great future ahead of it and some racing successes, while the Farman was a rare bird in this country.

In standard form both had wheelbases within an inch of 12ft. The Hispano had those wonderful mechanical-servo four-wheel brakes for which Rolls-Royce later paid a royalty to partially copy, but it was not until 1923 that 4WBs were offered as an extra on the Farman. But it did have a fourspeed gearbox, the Hispano only three forward speeds, which some English owners found a handicap on our more crowded roads. The Farman had central control levers, a feature which was criticised as being too ‘American’ on the Rolls-Royce Twenty, which Derby soon changed. The 37.2hp Farman had an under-dash reserve oil tank and a similar reserve petrol tank, but made do with 880×120 tyres to the Hispano’s 930x130s, and the Farman had cantilever back springs. Hispano established themselves in Piccadilly, the Societé M&H Farman in premises off Regent Street.

Whereas the Hispano-Suiza achieved instant fame and in some ways rivalled the Rolls-Royce, little was heard here of Farmans. Mr F Scott Oliver and his family owned two in the 1930s, a saloon and a coupé, which brought the elderly director of Debenharns comfortably to London from Jedburgh in a day. Dr C Langer of Woolhampton ordered a magnificent Arthur Mulliner saloon in 1924, and at least one went to India. But the English motor magazines largely neglected them. However, the cautious Times motorman got hold of one to test that was nearly two years old. “On the road,” he said, “it pleased me much.” Top speed was 65 to 70mph and Dashwood hill was cleared at 37mph, Amersham hill at 36mph.

It has been said that the Depression killed it, and the Farman, now of seven litres, was no longer at the London Show after 1927. But it is possible that with the growth of post-war civil aviation the factory was too busy to make cars, instead building airliners such as those Farman Goliaths I saw at Croydon in the early 1920s, big machines with very non-aerodynamic-looking noses.

Otherwise, a rather forgotten car?