White Elephantitis

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Two Fine Specimens

The two fine specimens referred to were tamed by Mr. Gerald Albertini and consist of his famous tulipwood Hispano-Suiza and a just-post-vintage straight-eight Isotta-Fraschini.

The Hispano-Suiza is a truly historic car, having been bought as a chassis by little Andre Dubonnet and given its unusual body by Nieuport Astra to his own taste. The work was undertaken for Dubonnet by Henri Chasserio.

The car is a 1924 sports chassis, 6C, with a six-cylinder 110 by 140 mm. 8-litre engine, No. 3,200, similar to those used in the racing Boulogne Hispanos of 1923. The body is a tulipwood cigar, two occasional seats being situated under a panel in the long tail, ahead of the petrol tank which, holding 52 gallons, is one of the largest ever, rivalled only by that on the Morley blower-Bentley.

Dubonnet had this Hispano-Suiza prepared specially for the 1924 Targa Florio, in which, in spite of being hampered by six punctures, he finished sixth in this gruelling race over the tortuous mountain course in Sicily, and fifth in the Coppa Florio. To achieve this result Dubonnet had to race for over 8½ hours over the Madonie circuit and although he must have been feeling distinctly secondhand at the end of this gallant drive, he had the satisfaction of beating such famous drivers as Foresti, Wagner, Lautenschlager, Brilli Peri, etc., driving cars far more suited to the world’s most strenuous motor race. Indeed, with its three-speed gearbox, long wheelbase and poor steering-lock the Hispano-Suiza could easily have defeated a lesser driver than Andre Dubonnet under such conditions.

Similar Hispanos had done well at Boulogne, Dubonnet had won at San Sebastian in 1923 and Barnato subsequently broke records with one of these great cars at Brooklands. The Targa Florio car seems to have passed into the hands of Alec KeiIler, who owned it from about 1925 to 1935, after which it was laid up in Plymouth. A bomb-splinter damaged the tail but otherwise it remained in original trim. In 1950 it was acquired by Forrester-Walker and refurbished by the Hispano-Suiza expert, George Briand. Gerald Albertini happened upon it at the roadside, left a note on the windscreen, and some months later, in 1956, it passed into his ownership.

At the time the handsome, long-tailed tulipwood body was marred by ugly grey cycle wings — originally long, flat flowing wings had been fitted. Albertini detested the cycle type substitutes so he had four helmet wings made of matching tulipwood, these suiting the car so well that had he thought of the idea in 1924 he could easily have secured a position at the works as Hispano’s coachwork consultant! These beautifully made wings are entirely in keeping with the remainder of this beautifully-balanced motor-car and the rear ones even contain a pair of folding steps to facilitate entry to the back seats! Incidentally, credit for the bodywork restoration must go to Panelcraft Ltd.

Taking stock of the car after the initial shock of encountering such an exotic beast has been overcome, one finds a narrow cockpit with near-side door, a steel facia tight-packed with instruments that are either Jaeger or Hispano Suiza (with petrol gauge by Nivex), a r.h. accelerator, the handbrake inside the body and the slender gear lever in its open gate located externally in typical Hispano fashion, a generous vee-sereen and that most handsome of radiators, flanked by Lucidus headlamps, which can be dipped by means of a man-sized lever set behind the gear lever. The gear lever, and the seating, have been somewhat modified, simply because Dubonnet was a small man, Albertini is not.

Under the long bonnet the overhead camshaft engine displays the traditional clean lines expected of an Hispano-Suiza and the famous flying stork mascot rides above the dumb-iron apron. The mechanical servo brakes are naturally retained. Wire wheels are shod with 6.50 by 20 tyres. The usual H.-S. 24-volt starting, 12-volt general electrical service is retained and the centre of the instrument panel is enhanced by one of those expensive switchboxes with rotary selector.

Although Albertini does not use this splendid motor car as bread-and-butter transport (for which purpose he has a modern Bentley and, for bulldozing London traffic jams, a Land Rover) he has driven it a great deal, including nostalgic journeys to the Cote d’Azur. He tells me it gallops along very effortlessly in the upper 60s and 70s, the absolute maximum being probably 105 m.p.h. On runs like this fuel is consumed at the rate of about 11 m.p.g. (range over 570 miles!) but London inflates this to a mere eight m.p.g. The 45 h.p. engine is happy on ordinary Esso and Mobiloil is used in the (wet) sump.

I asked Albertini what were the Hispano’s nicest attributes and he said without hesitation “incredible silence and agility.” “Come for a run round the Park,” he added. This delightful experience confirmed that the big car is exceptionally quiet, its gearbox inaudible and only the merest hint of latent power coming from the exhaust. The flexibility is matched by very good brakes and the machinery is extremely accessible, The restricted lock, further hampered by the long front wings, merely means taking corners well before you get to them, while steering and gear change require no embellishment beyond saying that they are to Hispano-Suiza standards! One drawback is that no means has been found of preventing oil from seeping up the rev-counter drive onto the driver’s trousers. So this instrument is disconnected — it has coloured segments ending at “three-three” and Albertini counts 3,500 r.p.m. as the sensible limit.

The appearance of the tulipwood Hispano causes plenty of comment, as well it might. A popular gibe is the shout of “How many rivets, mister? “, while a nervous passenger is reassured on remembering how easy it is to “touch wood.” It is splendid to know that this historic car is in such good and appreciative hands — indeed, so fond of his car is Gerald Albertini that in his London flat he has a large glass case containing an exactingly accurate scale model of it, executed by Rex Hays.

If the “white elephants” of motordorn are cars of large dimensions and many litres, Albertini has displayed a weakness for such animals; earlier this year he obtained a fitting stable companion for the Hispano-Suiza, in the form of a 1931 Isotta-Fraschini 8A with Lancefield false convertible two-door body, its stately lines embellished by dummy hood-irons for the rear quarters. It seems that this massive carriage, its bonnet longer and higher, its radiator wider, than even those of the Hispano, was bought originally as a present by a man for his girl-friend — a lucky amazon, no doubt, undismayed a veil by six-foot bonnets and vast steering wheels! She must have pressed too hard, for a year later a rod poked through the side of the 7.3-litre straight-eight power unit. Repaired, the car is believed to have run a mere 13,000 miles. Jack Barclay Ltd. restored what had been ravaged by years of idleness and now Albertini has a closed carriage which is complementary to his sports-tourer. It has two little Zenith carburetters, mechanical brakes, the same size Dunlop Fort tyres as the Hispano, again the sort of electrical switchbox you don’t see on modern cars, and a simply enormous central gear lever controlling, very easily, the three-speed gearbox. I found its deep-throated engine ebullient but docile when I came to drive the car. The specification is quite standard, the body now in fine condition, with plenty of room in the boudoir behind the front seats, and a big trunk on the back to take the luggage.

A pair of excellent specimens, these two great motor cars! — W.B.

Footnote: Mr. Albertini is currently engaged in another task of restoration, on the ex-Barnato Brooklands 3-litre Bentley with the original Jarvis pointed-tail racing body.

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