L'Automobile Hispanio-Suiza

By Kent Karslake
Part I: 1906-1914
This account of one of the world's most respected makes, from the talented pen of Kent Kerslake, deals with the period 1906-1914. A further instalment, covering the later activities of the great French firm, will be published in June.—Ed.
Of all the makes of car which attained to fame in the "Edwardian" and "vintage" periods, the Hispano-Suiza is perhaps the one the fame of which is the most difficult to assess. With others such as Vauxhall, Bentley, Bugatti, Mercédès, one feels, by comparison, that one knows where one is. In some respects, the Hispano-Suiza established, in its day, a réclame that was greater than theirs; but to-day we have no Hispano-Suiza Owners' Club, and the entry lists of Vintage Sports Car Club events, for example, do not suggest that one is called for.
The number of Hispano-Suiza cars in this country at present is, in fact, probably pretty small, and at no time has been very large. Since 1919, every edition of the Hispano-Suiza has been an expensive car, and undoubtedly the majority of people who bought expensive cars preferred to buy a Rolls-Royce. Some models have been extremely fast, but it has probably always been possible to find as fast a car that was cheaper. Throughout its history, therefore, the Hispano-Suiza has been a car for the few; but with these few, the Hispano-Suiza cult has amounted almost to a disease. As a correspondent in The Autocar put It in 1943: "There was something about Hispanos that was different from anything else. No sooner had one sold a Hispano and bought something else, then one started looking for another H.-S."
The "something different" may probably be accounted for by the rather remarkable fact that throughout the history of the marque, every single Hispano-Suiza has owed its origin to the genius of one man, the man in question being M. Marc Birkigt, the Swiss engineer whose nationality is represented by the second-half of the name of the car. In conjunction with Spanish interests, the company which was to make the Hispano-Suiza was founded in Barcelona in 1909, and while the name of the car thus had a merely logical origin, there is no doubt but that the purely onomatopoeic effect of Hispano-Suiza is exceedingly powerful. There used, for instance, to be a French car called, in this country at least, a Mass; it may have been a very good car, but it is hardly surprising if it is no longer famous.
I do not know at what date the first Hispano-Suiza emerged from the Barcelona factory, but it was not until the end of 1906 that the car made its appearance at the Paris Salon, where it was hailed as "the first Spanish car." There were two models, both with four-cylinder engines, a 20/24 h.p. with a bore and stroke of 100 by 120 mm. (3,758 c.c.) and a 40-h.p. of which the cylinder dimensions were 130 by 140 mm. (7,438 c.c.). Already there may be noted a predilection for "tidy" dimensions—throughout its history there was always, it seems, an Hispano-Suiza engine with a bore of 100 mm., although the number of cylinders was varied from time to time; and it may also be noted that the capacity of the 40 h.p. was as near as may be twice that of the 20/24-h.p. engine. We shall have occasion to refer to these approximate capacities again later. For the moment it may be remarked that the "normal speed" of the smaller engine was stated to be 1,200 r.p.m., and of the larger 1,000 r.p.m., although the latter would attain 1,000 r.p.m. "without trouble."
Apart from the engine size and speed, the characteristics of the two models appear to have been closely similar. The cylinders were cast in pairs, the valves were placed on either side of them in a T head, and, a remarkable feature in 1900, the crankcase and gearbox were bolted together to form a unit in a manner which was to enjoy considerable longevity in Hispano-Suiza circles. In the case of the smaller chassis, at least, the gearbox had four speeds, with direct drive on third; and already there may be noticed a reluctance to employ more than two of what the French call "demultiplied" speeds. The drive was by an open propeller-shaft with torque rods, and there were ¾-elliptic springs at the rear, which The Autocar described, a trifle cumbrously perhaps, as follows: "Semi-elliptical springs are fitted to the rear axle, but the rear of the springs is attached to each frame member by means of a half semi-elliptical spring, which takes the place of the usual spring-horn."
In 1907, the 20/24-h.p. and the 40-h.p. four-cylinder models, the latter now renamed the 40/50 h.p., were supplemented by two new types, which were remarkable in that they had "square" six-cylinder engines. Mare Birkigt was thus an early convert to the six-cylinder engine, of which he was later to make a speciality, while the "square" engine was to reappear at a later date when it was a much greater curiosity than it was in 1907. The dimensions of the 30/40-h.p. engine were 115 by 115 mm. (6,213 c.c.) and of the 60/75 h.p. 130 by 180 mm. (10,858 c.c.), while in other respects they seem to have resembled the four-cylinder models. The chassis price of the 60/75,-h.p. model was £1,000, whereas among other contemporary high powered six cylinder chassis, the 60-h.p. Napier cost £1,295, the 75-h.p. Mercédès £1,800, the 60-h.p. Benz £1,560, the 60-h.p. de Dietrich £1,280 and the 60-h.p. Itala £1,600. On the other hand, the 40/50-h.p. Rolls-Royce chassis cost only £950.
Reading between the lines, it would appear that it was the enthusiasm of King Alfonso XIII of Spain for automobilism that was responsible, a couple of years later, for a radical reorientation of Hispano-Suiza policy. In 1909, motor racing was in so parlous a condition that not even the Automobile Club de France could succeed in organising its great annual race. But voiturette racing, as 1908 had proved, was still flourishing, and in 1909, therefore, the King of Spain presented a cup, known as the Catalan Cup, for a voiturette race to be run at Sitges, near Barcelona; and Hispano-Suiza, as the sole Spanish manufacturer, could hardly do otherwise than enter for it. Hitherto, the Coupe de l'Auto voiturette races in France had been consistently won by examples of the single-cylinder engine, but in this direction not even Marc Birkigt could hope to emulate the excesses of Sizaire-Naudin and Lion-Peugeot. The Hispano-Suiza voiturette racer had a four-cylinder engine, and, as such, it could, under the regulations, which coincided with those of the 1909 Coupe de l'Auto, have various dimensions between 75 by 75 mm. and 63 by 140 mm. Of these, the first give a capacity of only 1,323 c.c., compared with 1,852. c.c. for the long-stroke engine, a discrepancy which presumably took account of the higher crankshaft speed which a short stroke should have permitted. And if the "square" engine attracted anyone, it should have attracted Marc Birkigt, the author of the "square" six-cylinder Hispano-Suiza. But in fact it attracted no one, and the Hispano-Suiza voiturette engine had dimensions of 65 by 140 mm. There was at least something homely about the stroke, which was the same as that of the original 40-hp. engine of 1906. The four small cylinders of the voiturette engine were cast en bloc, but otherwise the car resembled its forbears, with a T head, a multi-disc clutch and open propeller shaft.
In the Catalan Cup race, Zuccarelli on one of the Hispano-Suizas held the lead for three rounds before he went out with a seized clutch, but his team-mate Derny turned over and the only Hispano-Suiza, to finish was that driven by Pilliverde, which was last. The performance was typical of a first racing appearance, and promising as well. In the Coupe de l'Auto at Boulogne a month later, teething troubles which spelt unreliability had been overcome, and the team of three cars finished complete, in fifth, sixth. and seventh places, out of nine finishers. All that remained to be found was speed.
In 1910 the voiturette formula limited the bore of four-cylinder engines to 65 mm., and left the stroke unlimited. In the case of the Hispano-Suiza engine, this latter dimension was thereupon increased, for the Catalan Cup, to 180 mm., a significant figure, in view of what was to happen later. Thus equipped, Zuccarelli ran third to the two victorious Peugeots. But the French cars were still too fast for the Hispano-Suizas, and by the time the Coupe de l'Auto was run, the stroke of the later's engine had been further increased to 200 mm. At last this did the trick. Although, the stroke of the four-cylinder Peugeot engine was advanced 260 mm., and that of the two-cylinder to 280 mm., the French firm had sacrificed both engine and chassis reliability in the process, and it was Zuccarelli's Hispano-Suiza that came in first, at 55.6 m.p.h., with Chassagne, on the second car, third and Pilliverde sixth.
According to contemporary observers, this Hispano-Suiza voiturette engine developed over 60 h.p. and the firm thereupon determined to reproduce a modified version as a standard model. For this purpose a new bore was adopted of 80 mm., this was combined with the stroke of 180 mm. used in the 1910 Catalan Cup racer. This gave a capacity of 3,604 c.c., or nearly 1,000 c.c. more than the 2,646 c.. of the victorious Coupe de l'Auto engine, but presumably the standard model was kits "poussé," as it developed about the same power. In an advertisement published by Hispano-Suiza Cars (Great Britain and Ireland), Ltd., in 1913, this is described as "the famous Hispano-Suiza engine which, although rated at 15.9, develops the extraordinary horse-power of 64. This remarkable power is developed by reason of the long stroke, of which we are the pioneers. 'We lead, others follow.' The delights of the rapid and easy acceleration possible with this engine are well worth trying . . ."
Some of the French participants in the Coupe de l'Auto might, one would have thought, have contested the Hispano-Suiza claim to have been the pioneers of the long-stroke, but among those who appreciated "the delights of the rapid and easy acceleration possible with this engine" was the King of Spain, and the 80 by 180 mm. car became known, in consequence, as the "Alfonso model," or type Alphonse XIII."
The long-stroke influence, moreover, was reflected in the history of the old 20/24-h.p. 100 by 120 mm. model of 1906, for in 1910 its stroke was increased to 150 mm., and its capacity to 4,700 c.c. It was now known in England as the 30/40-h.p. model, and in this guise, still apparently with a T-head engine, its manufacture continued at Barcelona until 1922 or 1923.
At the same time, M. Birkigt was not, apparently, a complete devotee of the long stroke, for, a bore of 80 mm. having been established for the Alfonso model, it was combined with is stroke of 130 mm., familiar as that of the 60/75-h.p. six-cylinder model, in the 15/30 h.p. model to give a capacity of 2,610 c.c., and with a stroke of only 110 mm. in the 12/20-h.p. model, to give a capacity of 2,202 c.c. This stroke had not, it seems, been used before, but it was destined to have quite a future in Hispano-Suiza circles.
The history and characteristics of these smaller 80 mm. bore engines are exceedingly obscure. I have never, to my knowledge, seen one of them myself, nor met anyone who claims to have done so, although they appear to have remained in production from 1910 to 1913. It is possible, of course, that in some cases they have been mistaken for "Alfonso" engines, and escaped notice in consequence.
In the May, 1949, number of Motor Sport, Señor Antonio Fernandez Nava, writing from Barcelona, stated that "all the Hispano-Suizas before the Kaiser War were all Spanish cars.' Only since that conflict were Hispano-Suizas made in the French works . . ." I am afraid, however, that I must beg leave to refute this statement. I have seen it stated that, at one period, production was carried on in Switzerland, but, of this I have, myself, no positive knowledge. On the other hand it is, I think, certain that the enormous reputation gained by the Hispano-Suiza in France as a result of the Coupe de l'Auto victory of 1910, resulted, in 1911, in the establishment of a branch factory on the outskirts of Paris. The Alfonso model may also have been built at Barcelona, but the majority of the cars of this type shipped to this country in 1912, 1913 and 1914 were built in France.
In its original form, this car had a three-speed gearbox and semi-elliptic springs all round, but at a later date a four-speed model was introduced, and at the same time ¾-elliptic springs were fitted at the back—a curious reversion to the "half semi-elliptical spring, which takes the place of the usual spring-horn" of 1906. An Alfonso Hispano-Suiza was the first car that I ever owned, and the one from which I caught the Hispano-Suiza "disease." Perhaps no car since has given me quite such vivid emotions, but all that is longer ago than I altogether care to remember; this is very definitely not an account of personal reminiscences, and as the Editor of Motor Sport still has one of these cars actually in service, I propose to hand over to him for first-hand details of its specification and performance:—
The "Alfonso," officially the type 15T, had a bore and stroke of 80 by 180 mm. Whether it owed its outstanding performance to its long-stroke, as its makers claimed, I do not know, but certainly there was nothing otherwise particularly remarkable about the design. Indeed, it was singularly straight-forward.
The deep light-alloy crankcase measured approximately 11 in. by 13 in. and carried the main bearings and a camshaft on each side. Head and block were integral—held down by ten studs—and the inlet valves were on the off side and the exhaust valves on the near side. The camshafts were driven by bronze and steel pinions from the front of the crankshaft, which ran in four plain bearings. Steel pistons, each with three normal rings and a wide-pin cut away to clear the gudgeon-pin, were fitted, at all events in later versions, and the tubular connecting rods were comparatively slender, actually 1 in. in diameter. There was a sparking plug in the centre of each combustion chamber, supplied from a ZU4 Bosch magneto beside the crankcase, driven from the off side, or inlet, camshaft. A water-pump was driven in like fashion from the exhaust camshaft.
The carburetter, bolted directly to the block on the off side, was of Hispano-Suiza construction of three-jet type, with an elaborate water jacket round the mixing chamber. It had an air control under the care of the driver and a curious threaded cap over the air inlet which permitted further manual control of the air. The valve springs were exposed and simple tappets slid in very substantial external bronze guides, 2½ in. long, each one held to the crankcase by two studs. Correct tappet clearance was five-tenths mm. Above each valve was a large brass valve cap, those on the inlet side containing compression taps.
Petrol feed was originally by a small air pump driven from towards the back of the exhaust camshaft, but my car has been converted to autovac feed.
The alloy sump held a gallon of oil, which was circulated, seemingly, at almost zero pressure, to the drilled crankshaft by a gearless rotary pump driven from the off-side camshaft. The correct delivery pressure was actually 3.5 metres, and it was prevented from exceeding 5 metres by a relief valve, the spring of which bore on the gauze filter surrounding the pump. The sump level was maintained by a float-actuated valve, with a float-chamber like a carburettor's, which was rather reluctant to cut off the main supply, contained in a small cylindrical reservoir on the near side of the chassis, matched on some cars, I believe, by a dummy on the opposite side. In my experience these engines use next to no oil. A screw-down stop-cock was provided on this tank to cut off the supply more positively than the float when the car was garaged.
The size of the radiator was one of the "Alfonso's" most imposing features It was a honeycomb, with a cooling surface of approximately 440 sq. in.; there was no header tank. The rather small-bore outlet pipe from the head and the inlet piping to and from the water pump were of copper, as was the sump breather, which lived at the centre of the crankcase in front of the cylinder block. A four-bladed fan was driven by an endless belt from the crankshaft, its pulley sliding in its mounting on release of two bolts, so that adjustment could be effected.
As Karslake has stated, a h.p. of 64, at 2,300 r.p.m. was claimed for this engine. It was a handsome unit, for in the chassis the great size and height of its crankcase necessitated by its long stroke, was not apparent, and the cylinder block was quite shapely, offset by the copper water piping, while the engine was set well back from the radiator. It was mounted in the chassis on bearers integral with the crankcase.
On early cars a small multi-plate clutch bolted to the heavy flywheel was used; it was replaced on later models by a smooth-acting cone clutch. The flywheel, attached by six bolts to the crankshaft flange, has teeth for an electric starter on my car, and a large dynamo is mounted at the front of the engine and driven by an endless belt. These may have been additions, and such luxuries did not, I feel, normally figure in the "Alfonso" specification, although I have seen others so endowed. The transmission embraced an open propeller shaft and, this, the gearbox and the bevel-drive rear-axle were, I am inclined to think, a trifle on the delicate side for the power the engine developed. Early cars had ½-elliptic springs all round, later ones ¾-elliptic back springs, and the chassis was made in two wheelbases—8 ft. 8 in. and 9 ft. 10 in.; the track was 4 ft. 0 in. and 4 ft. 3 in., respectively. The maker's weight for these chassis was 13 cwt. and 15 cwt., respectively. A choice or back-axle ratio was available, including 3.0 and 3.25 to 1 ratios. The gearbox, three-speed on early cars, four-speed on later models, was controlled, delightfully easily, by an external right-hand lever, the gearbox naturally being in unit with the engine, although the flywheel was exposed. The hand brake operated via rods rather small expanding brakes on the rear wheels and the foot brake a smooth, powerful two-expanding shoe transmission brake in a large, 4 in.-wide, ribbed drain behind the gearbox. It had a very simple turnbuckle adjustment under the floorboards. The front axle was an I-section beam with Elliott-type steering pivots and steering was by worm and sector with provision for taking up wear. It was geared to give about 1¼ turns, lock to lock, and the column was inclined at 32 deg. The chassis was lubricated by eleven screw-down grease-cups. Not present on my car, but. nevertheless an "Alfonso" feature, was a small air-cooled single-cylinder 35 mm. bore air-compressor mounted vertically on the gearbox lid, this being used for inflating the tyres, via a small automatic valve in the top of the compressor. This extra cost a modest £6.
Centre lock wire wheels of the pawl and ratchet type carried 815 by 105 or 820 by 120 tyres according to chassis length. A rough computation of the gear ratios on my car gives: 11.5, 6.0, 4.25 and 3.25 to 1. In 1914 the long-chassis car was modestly priced at £465, and the short chassis could be had for as little—only it was more then!—as £425.
From my experience I would put the top speed as around 60 m.p.h., coupled with a very effortless 50 m.p.h. cruising speed, a most endearing top-gear performance, and excellent hill-climbing capabilities. The fuel consumption was in the region of 17 m.p.g. There is no doubt, however, that the short-chassis cars, lightly bodied, could top 70 m.p.h., and at Brooklands in 1914 Leslie Nicholson lapped in his "Alfonso" at no less than 81.51 m.p.h.
There is no doubt but that this car, judged on the performance it offered, was one of the more outstanding fast touring cars of its era, besides possessing some very charming characteristics of its own.
At the present time I believe that, including my own car, three "Alfonso" Hispano-Suizas still exist in this country, together with two or perhaps three in America and one in Australia.