A Hispanic sporting fiesta

Having described how i was fortunate enough to be given a 1914 Alfonso Hispano-Suiza — fortunate because these were exceedingly good sporting cars — I have been asked what I then did with the car. Which gives me an excuse, without I hope seeming too personal, to look back to those times.

When Forrest Lycett gave me his car, four of these 80×180 (3622cc) Type 15T T-head four-cylinder Hissos, well liked by King Alfonso, were active here: Bridcutt’s 1912 car with replica two-seater body; Cuthell’s 1912 ex-Burnand and Maiden car so ably driven in events by Hill, before it went across to America; Major Pitt’s bolster-tank 1914 two-seater, with front-wheel-brake axle from a Sunbeam, which he had used for a pre-war RAC Rally and a Swiss tour in 1946; and my ex-Fuggle, Abbott, Smith, Peter Wike and Tim Carson four-seater which ‘Bentley’ McKenzie had tracked down for Lycett when Edwardianism entered the VSCC domain.

I am not about to proclaim which was the first of what we now call sportscars, but the Alfonso Hispano-Suiza was not far behind in this field, with its good performance, a noticeably nice gear change, and a fine race pedigree acquired via the 1910 65x200mm Hispanos which won the Coupe des Voiturettes race at Boulogne, driven by Paul Zuccarelli, itself a development of the earlier 65x180mm racers. You curbed the eagerness of these desirable Alfonsos with a smooth well-behaved transmission brake, and got them off with an equally smooth cone clutch, although earlier versions had a plate clutch and, to be equally off-stream, half-elliptic back springs instead of the three-quarter-empties on the more recent models.

Lycett had won his class at the 1937 VSCC Littestone speed-trials, been second on formula at Lewes in 1938, third and best on formula at the 1939 VSCC Welsh Rally hill-climb and did a good time at Prescott that year, on a wet course. I entered the car for the 1946 Elstree speed-trials, but a faulty fuel level ruined that.

I next drove ‘Alfonse’ in the 1946 SMM&T London Cavalcade, as they produced petrol coupons for it. As HM The Queen was to view the parade my wife painted the Hispano front axle to smarten us up! It was then down to Cardiff for the next Cavalcade, when my companion Joe Lowrey, skilfully levered a stuck bottom gear out of mesh. On three speeds, ‘Alfonse’ took us and two hitch-hikers speedily up Birdlip hill on the long haul back to Hampshire.

In 1947 we did the VCC rally to Bournemouth, Alan Southon having removed the broken bottom gears and sleeved us to a permanent threespeed situation. In Bournemouth an aged gentleman asked could he see the car’s engine, correctly quoting its 80×80 dimensions; we had no time to open the bonnet for him, which I still feel sad about.

At the 1947 Charterhouse hill-climb Jenks and I won on formula, in 46.6sec, only a second slower than Bridcutt’s H-S, in spite of starting on our 6 to 1 middle gear, and Jenks’s foot slipping off the exhaust cut-out button, so that I lifted off momentarily, thinking the engine had blown up. At the Sandhurst hill-climb, the rotten floor deposited an assortment of dirty rags, tools and tins on the course, which a scandalised commentator told me to go and retrieve, in front of a disapproving, exclusively military audience; but we did make fastest class time, in 54.8sec.

The car’s rotten floor even caused a small boy to fall through it. He had asked at Silverstone if we could give him a lift to Stowe School, from which no doubt he was playing truant to watch race practice; he had to run at the car’s pace to the exit gate before Jenks spotted his predicament… Before that ‘Alfonse’ had one of his fiery moments — okay if you opened up and blew out the flames, but which made my wife leap out very adroitly.

Otherwise I can say that this Edwardian Hispano-Suiza, although fast approaching its sell-by date, served me well, using little oil, its 2/6d CSMA plugs never being replaced, and the beaded-edge tyres never puncturing. But the porous cylinder block wept continually, and the body, like the gearbox, broke up.

I took the body problem to Lawton & Goodman, makers of Whitlock cars, in the Edgware Road, for advice. They looked, and said that never before had they seen a body apparently carved from one piece of wood, so that unless I bought a large tree the position was unsolveable.

Meanwhile Mr Smith, who had a fine private old-car collection and had let me ride in two MCC trials with one of his sons on his Tamplin cycle-car, pressed me to sell him ‘Alfonse’, which I did reluctantly, for £100. Much later, I heard that someone else had auctioned it in Germany for I think £7500. But a year or two ago the old warrior returned to England and was painstakingly restored by another appreciative owner.

Great cars, these Alfonsos. Kent Karslake had one while he was at Oxford, and they were raced preWW1 at Brooklands, Nicholson’s lapping at 81.51mph. But where have they all gone?