Veteran - Edwardian - Vintage, March 1978

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A section devoted to old-car matters

Hispano Souza and Supercharging

In the “Books Review” pages of this issue of Motor Sport I have accorded high praise to the new book by Johnnie Green, published by Dalton Watson, about those legendary Hispano Suizas. I have done this because Green has made an attempt, admittedly mainly in pictorial form, to cover the history of a very important make of motor car, which has been all too little delved into in the past. Admittedly, it is obvious that even Johnnie has found it difficult to unravel the hidden mysteries of this great Franco/Spanish make.

Captions which read “I would dearly love to know …”, “The sedanca limousine below is thought to be . . .”, “The one above could be by . . .”, “I ought to know whose coachwork this is, . . . it is I feel by Kellner…” “The upper car is thought to be a post-war edition . . .”, “We are not committing ourselves over this extremely clean-looking drophead”, etc:, point to his problems. However, they are mainly those of coachwork identity and as the book contains so many pictures of even the rarest Hispanos, one hundred for instance of the Spanish-built cars alone, I hope it will he felt that I am justified in the praise I have accorded this, the first complete book, surely, about Marc Birkiges masterpieces.

There is, though, one aspect of Johnnie Green’s work which troubles me. He very kindly accords me far more praise as a knowledgeable automobile historian than I deserve, as a preliminary to saying that he is indebted to rite “for most of the competition records and details of the Catalan Cup and Coupe de l’Auto Races”. Flattering as this is, I am fearful that I may have misled him! You see, there are two pictures in Johnnie’s book of the slim, tandem-seated 1912 3-litre Hispano Suiza named, we are told, the “Sardine”, and the caption says that these cars were supercharged. One picture is of a car about to start in a contest of some kind, a Speedtrial I would think, and the other is, it says, of the same car, with Louis Massuger, an Hispano Suiza Director, seated in the front (or Pilot’s) seat. Further, the picture caption says that this is the type of car raced at the 1914 Mid-Summer Brooklands` Meeting. But were these cars ever supercharged ?

There is no disputing the fact that Marc Birkigt tried out a form of forced-induction on an engine intended for the 1912 Coupe de l’Auto race (I write Coupe de l’Auto thus because it means the Cup presented—for the race—by the French paper l’Auto; to render it differently is like calling a Concours d’Elegance, i.e. a beauty show, whether for cars or female forms, a concours, which simply implies a contest, of any sort).

This supercharged engine was discovered by W. F. Bradley. Bradley was a journalist to his finger-tips, if an automobile journalist, and he wrote a graphic account of the loud noises that emanated from behind the walls of the Hispano Suiza factory in the Paris suburb of Lavallois, in the spring of 1912, and of how, when he tried to discover what engine was emitting this “harsh, piercing exhaust note”, he was sent packing, by the Manager, M. Lacoste. (Green confirms that in 1911 Hispano Suiza had taken over an ex-tram depot at 39, Rue Cayce at Lavallois Perret, where the racers and the production Alfonso XIII cars were made, until the outbreak of war.)

To revert to Bradley’s delightful story, and casting aside any doubts about whether a 3-litre engine would have made all that much more noise, he goes on (“Motor Racing Memories, 1903-21”, Motor Racing Publications, 1960.) to tell how by a pure chance, after meeting an engineering friend, he came to realise that what Birkigt was up to was supercharging one of his T-head engines; whereupon Bradley wrote an accurate description of this power unit, with his own drawings, for The Motor, angering Lacoste but gaining the, understanding of Birkigt. Bradley Says this engine, intended for the 1912. Coupe de /’Auto race, was boosted by a “supercharger cylinder”, but he goes on to say that “a cylinder cracked during the bench tests and, as it was impossible to make another casting in time, the first supercharged engine was withdrawn”.

So, clearly Hispano Suiza did have a blown engine, as early as 1912. It was not the first supercharged automobile engine in the World, however. One of the first technical writers in comparatively recent times to pity attention to this aspect of motoring history was Laurence Pomeroy, FRSA, MSAE. In the second volume of his great work “The Grand Prix Car” (Temple Press, 1949) he devoted a complete chapter to the beginnings of blowing. In this he first describesthe work, in America, of Lee Chadwick and his engineer John Nichols in this field, who Pomeroy says, built a blown car which won a hill-climb in 1908, thus being the first successful supercharged competition car. Pomeroy then mentions the experiments of Sizaire and Birkigt, both of whom, according to this reference, were working on supercharged engines by 1911, the former with a centrifugal blower, the latter with a piston-displacer. Bradley says of the supercharged Hispano Suiza venture that after the mechanical disaster “the first supercharged engine was withdrawn”. Whether he intended to imply that this was the World’s first engine of this kind, ignoring the Chadwick, or the first Hispano engine of the type, I do not know. I wish I did, because taken in the latter sense this means that no further Birkigt blown engines were made and this would answer the query relating to Green’s new book, which I am approaching. Pomeroy makes it clear that Birkigt had supercharged one of his well-known T-head engines by giving its inlet camshaft four additional cams from which push-rods actuated overhead inlet valves fed, via :a rotary valve, the Supercharger being provided by two pumping cylinders driven from the front of the crankshaft. Bradley ascribed 100 b.h.p. at 3,000 r.p.m. to this 3-litre engine, some 40 b.h.p. more than that probably developed by the production T-head 3.6-litre Alfonso Hispano Suiza.

Kent Karslake, in his hook “Racing Voiturettes” (Motor Racing Publications, 1950) thinks that, at all events by 1912, these engines intended for the 1912 Coupe de l’Auto race (implying that more were made) probably had overhead-camshaft valve gear, like that used a few years later for the catalogue Barcelona-model Hispano Suiza.

The reason why Birkigt was busy with supercharging was no doubt because he was anxious to repeat the notable success which his cars had achieved in coil:aerie racing in 1910. After building cars for the King of Spain’s first Catalan Cup race of 1909 and later sending these to the Coupe de l’Auto, only to be beaten by the Lion-Peugeots, Birkigt prepared a team of 2.6-litre racing cars, again with four cylinders, for the 1910 voiturette races. After gaining a third place in that year’s Catalan Cup contest, Zuccarelli won the Coupe de l’Auto for him, with Chassagne’s Hispano Suiza in third place, the “meat in the Birkigt sandwich”, although I doubt if he would have thus expressed it, being Goux’s Lion-Peugeot. In spite of Johnnie’s kind remarks about me, I cannot give you an adequate reason why Birkigt refrained from contesting the 1911 Coupe de l’Auto, won by Bablot’s Delage. But it can be seen that he had good reason to return to voiturette racing in 1912. His supercharger experiments were presumably directed to this end, although it seems strange that he left them so late that there wasn’t time to cast new cylinders (whether it was the working or charging one(s) that cracked isn’t known) before race-day, which should have been no trouble to an engineering concern of Hispano Suiza’s calibre. There exists, however, the story that what Birkigt had intended for the 1911/12 racing season was a four-cylinder, sixteen-valve, twin-cam engine, the drawings of which were stolen from him by Ernest Henry and sold to Peugeot, who so successfully ran this revolutionary and significant design in 1912/13. I do not believe this sacrilegious story, and disposed of it in Motor Sport for July 1974. But I do see that it’ this had happened, Birkigt might have been obliged to resort to something different for his 1912 racing voiturettes, which could explain his late start on a blown power unit for the 1911/12 season. . . .

It seems, however, that the supercharged Hispano Suiza engine was never raced. Karslake gives no reason for the rumoured Hispanos of this type failing to appear in the 1912 Coupe de l’Auto race, but he does give their alleged dimensions as 85 x 132 mm.

It has to be realised that, courageous as was Birkigt’s flirtation with forced-induction, he was too early with it, for it was nine more years before this form of horsepower-boosting was ready for the race-track. In the Ronald Barker/Anthony Harding book on the great automobile designers and their work this HS gets but a few lines, and in Leonard Setright’s work on the same subject, in spite of the chapter-heading “Engine Developers”, it is not mentioned at all—he is more concerned with blacking the name of Ernest Henry. On that basis alone it seems unlikely that a supercharged Hispano Suiza was ever raced; but of the slim cars which Green illustrates, one at least apparently appeared in some minor races at Barcelona, at the 1913 Gaillon hill-climb, and then at Brooklands.

Now we come to what I wish to disassociate myself from, in Green’s book. He refers to the 3-litre racing Hispano Suiza known as the “Sardine” as having a “supercharged T-head engine”, and he seems to think of it as ready for the 1913 race, but ineligible as superchargers were by then banned. I incline to the opinion that this car had a single overhead-camshaft engine, and that it was never run in competitions in blown form. I think, moreover, that it was not a Coupe de l’Auto car so much as a racing version of the o.h.c. Barcelona Hispano Suiza.

But I do not know for certain. Back in 1951 Kent Karslake, whose interest in, and respect for, the Hispano Suiza stemmed from ownership of an Alfonso model when he was an Oxford Undergraduate, and I had a precarious journey (due to bad weather) in a Transair Avro Anson I to watch the Spanish Grand Prix and while in Barcelona we visited the Pegaso factory, where Hispano Suizas had once been made. A modicum of history was collected, of which Green makes little use in his book, but nothing that threw any fresh light on the Hispano Suiza racing cars.

I have checked the Brooklands records and while it is true that, among Alfonsos, of which the fastest seems to have been Leslie Nicholson’s, which lapped at 81.51 m.p.h., there was a red and yellow 85 x 130 mm. Hispano Suiza entered by E. J. Rossiter and driven by A. G. Brown, which at the 1914 Mid-Summer Meeting lapped at 93.09 m.p.h., winning the 100 m.p.h. Long Handicap at 86 m.p.h., I rather think it was a single, not a tandem-seater. In those days supercharging was so unlikely that no bold “S” signified this on race cards, so I have no means of knowing if Rossiter’s car was force-inducted. Had it been, though, this would surely have been widely proclaimed, nor, I think, would the wily Mr. Ebblewhite have put Brown to start 30 seconds before Geach’s Coupe de l’Auto Peugeot of the same capacity—which could lap at over 95 m.p.h. I certainly would not care to be as dogmatic as Johnnie Green about it. Especially as it has been stated that about fifteen of the tandem-seated Hispanos were built, with normal engines, the narrow width of the chassis of these cars suggesting to me the use of the o.h.c. rather than a T-head engine—they were apparently named “Sardines” on account of the smell of their oily exhausts, not because of their cramped bodywork. . . .

Green’s book, then, while a most important pictorial contribution to Hispano Suiza history (which is what Dalton Watson specialises in), does not reveal much more about the mysterious but very remarkable cars created by Marc Birkigt, than has already been revealed by Karslake in Motor Sport, Lord Montagu in his “Lost Causes” books, and in some of my own writings, and I note, and I must say I don’t blame him, that Johnnie skates carefully round what constitutes a Boulogne and a Monza Hispano Suiza!—W.B.

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