Slippery tale of the sardine

Withdrawing advertising from the press is a weapon at least as old as Hispano-Suiza’s pioneer racer

When I first worked on Motor Sport (very briefly) in 1968 I was at once despatched to the darkest Midlands motor industry – for some obscure reason – to “say hello” to those responsible at Standard-Triumph for buying advertising. Since I’m temperamentally incapable of developing any interest whatever in road cars, I was to say the least confused by being despatched on this errand.

But I do recall it was something to do with a ‘charm offensive’ (!) since I believe a road test by WB had been less than flattering. In a period when the British motoring press was still pretty compliant to the marketing needs of industry, I think Old Man Tee who owned the magazine was going through one of his perennial bouts of smoothing ruffled industry feathers. In earlier years motor manufacturers had been known to withhold their advertising from publications which – as the industry’s finest saw it – had bitten the hand that feeds them. The loss of advertising revenue could hurt, and it wasn’t unknown for journalistic heads to roll in response to pressure from ‘insulted’ advertisers. In ‘our’ case, both WB and OMT were made of sterner stuff – they would always announce proudly that such-and-such a company had withdrawn its advertising and was denying future test cars. They – quite justifiably – wore it as a badge of honour. They had the faithful readership to compensate them, and it was always the industry which blinked first. Times were changing, although some industry die-hards regarded home-press critics as nothing less than unpatriotic…

But such industry knee-jerks to an adverse press were neither new nor purely a British conceit. One of the most charismatic of Edwardian and vintage motoring marques was Hispano-Suiza, an imposing brand which in its heyday rivalled Rolls-Royce and Mercedes-Benz. Spanish-backed, with engineering directed by the brilliant Swiss Marc Birkigt, Hispanos were built in Barcelona and Paris. The factory began racing seriously in 1909, and in 1910 engineer-driver Paul Zuccarelli drove his Hispano home third behind two works Lion Peugeots in the Catalan Cup race for Voiturettes – the GP2 category of the period. In the year’s most important Voiturette race, for the Coupe de L’Auto, the advanced four-cylinder monobloc-engined Hispanos then triumphed – Zuccarelli winning from his team-mate Jean Chassagne with Louis Pilleverdier sixth.

For 1912 Birkigt designed a new six-cylinder engine supercharged from an additional two-cylinder compressor driven by an extension of the crankshaft. If Birkigt had an engineering weakness it was the crankshaft design on these early cars, and although his pioneering supercharged racing engine developed a claimed 100bhp on the dyno – terrific for a 3-litre at that time – it was dogged by breakages. The project had to be abandoned, unraced. Into 1913 Birkigt developed a new 3-litre racing engine, using ball main bearings to improve bottom-end reliability. One such was installed in a short-wheelbase ‘Alfonso’ chassis, drawn from the performance-car series so favoured at the time by King Alfonso XIII and named after him. They are recalled today as perhaps the earliest true ‘sports cars’. Birkigt’s men then bodied a new competition car – perhaps because it was headed for Brooklands – as a true single-seater, only just wide enough to house its centreline-seated driver and with a long, tapered tail. Hispano historian Emilio Polo tells how the finished car’s piscine appearance, combined with the smell of burning castor oil being reminiscent of frying fish, saw it nicknamed ‘La Sardina’.

This exotic single-seater made its low-key debut, rather curiously, at Brooklands driven by Frenchman Leon Molon, before he made a demonstration run at Gaillon hill climb in Normandy, where ‘La Sardina’ was not allowed to compete because it was a freak – not a proper car with a minimum two seats and a riding mechanic. In his demo run Molon had still climbed Gaillon like a homesick angel, but French trade and industry gossip doubted his alleged time of 33.4 seconds, so Hispano arranged a re-run at which Louis Massuger drove and official ACF timekeepers confirmed a new best of 29.6sec. ‘La Sardina’ had re-emphasised Hispano’s class handily in time for the Paris Salon at which the company launched new models, and Birkigt was feted as “…the doyen of the modern school of automobiles”.

They subsequently ran ‘La Sardina’ in the Spanish Tibidabo hillclimb where Massuger won his class and set second fastest time to a 200hp Benz. Just a week later Massuger reappeared with this fishy device in the most prestigious Spanish event of 1914, the 20km Navacerrada hillclimb outside Madrid, in the presence of the enthusiastic King. Tibidabo had produced further rumblings about Hispano cheating so, anxious to comply with the minimum two seats/riding mechanic rule, a second cockpit was cut in tandem behind the first, and no doubt the smallest optimist they could find was plopped into it to accompany the intrepid Massuger. Navacerrada was decided by the organisers calculating a target time for each class, the winner being whoever improved most upon that target. Under this formula, Massuger and ‘La Sardina’ won outright.

But this great coup was immediately marred by the Royal Automovil Club España (RACE) then issuing a communiqué voiding ‘La Sardina’s success at Tibidabo ostensibly because it ran there as only a single-seat prototype. Hispano protested privately, the RACE ignored them, whereupon Hispano both protested publicly and cancelled its club membership – shades here of Enzo Ferrari, 250LM and the Italian Club in 1964. Hispano then declared it was cancelling its subscriptions to journals supporting the club, which I can’t imagine filled the publishers with dread and which

I suspect really indicates that Hispano threatened to retract its advertising from them – a far more potent threat. A driver named Bertin then won his class in ‘La Sardina’ at Boulogne in July 1914, and A?G?Brown drove it at Brooklands in August, before war broke out, and the fun was over. ‘La Sardina’ is a most notable predecessor of the Alfa Romeo Tipo B Monoposto and other centreline-seated, open-wheeled racing cars. But I’m unconvinced about the attraction of tandem-seated competition. At least when they two-seated their racer, unlike the Bedelia cyclecars in which it was the passenger who arrived first, Hispano-Suiza did the decent thing and ensured that first in the firing line would be the fellow most responsible for the accident…