1934 Hispano Suiza
A Hispano won France’s prestigious Coupe de l’Auto race in 1910, and this racing voiturette would form the basis of the Alfonso XIII model introduced in 1912. Arguably the world’s first series-production sports car, the Alfonso was powered by a long-stroke 3.6-litre engine and was capable of over 80mph, a staggering performance at the time.
Its successful exposure in France led to Hispano-Suiza setting up a factory in Paris in 1911, the better to exploit the potential of the large French market. Indeed, although the marque was of Spanish origin, it was Hispano-Suiza’s French-built cars that established it in the front rank of luxury automobile manufacturers following the end of WWI.
One of the most famous of marques of all time, Hispano-Suiza was founded in Barcelona, Spain in 1904, its name (literally, Spanish-Swiss) recognising both its place of origin and the contribution made by its chief designer, the Swiss engineer Marc Birkigt. The latter had designed the La Cuadra car in Barcelona in 1900 and then the Castro. When Castro went out of business, a new company - Fabrica De Automoviles, La Hispano-Suiza - was formed, headed by wealthy investor Damien Mateu.
Two four-cylinder models were shown at the Paris Auto Show in 1906, and in 1908 the range expanded with the addition of two sixes. Spain’s young King Alfonso XIII was an early devotee of the marque. One of Hispano’s first customers, he purchased a trio of four-cylinder models at the Madrid Show in 1907, and would own some 30-or-so examples during his reign.
During the conflict, Hispano engines had powered some of the Allies’ finest fighter aircraft, and post-war the marque would adopt the stork emblem of French ‘ace’ Georges Guynemer’s Escadrille des Cicognes, whose SPAD biplanes had used Hispano’s V8 aero engine. Not surprisingly, the first post-war Hispano - the H6B - drew heavily on this expertise, being powered by a Marc Birkigt-designed, 6,597cc, overhead-camshaft six derived from one half of a proposed V12 aero engine. A seven-bearing design enjoying the benefit of pressure-fed lubrication, the latter was built in unit with the three-speed gearbox and featured aluminium-alloy pistons running in steel cylinder liners screwed into the light-alloy block. Maximum power was a heady 135bhp produced at just 2,400rpm, and the almost flat torque curve afforded walking-pace-to-85mph performance in top gear. A handful of prototype H6Bs was made at the company’s Barcelona factory - King Alfonso XIII taking delivery of an early example in April 1918 - before production proper commenced at Bois-Colombes, Paris.
Sensation of the 1919 Paris Show, the H6B featured a light yet rigid four-wheel-braked chassis that matched its state-of-the-art power unit for innovation. Indeed, so good were its servo-assisted brakes that Rolls-Royce acquired the rights to build the design under licence. The H6B combined performance with flexibility, comfort with good handling, and safety with reliability in a manner that enabled Hispano-Suiza to compete successfully with Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Bugatti, Isotta Fraschini and the USA’s luxury marques. Large enough to accommodate formal coach- -work, it was also fast enough to appeal to the more sportingly inclined: aperitif king Andre Dubonnet won the Coupe Boillot at Boulgone in 1921, while Europe’s coachbuilders vied to build their finest coachwork on this genuinely thoroughbred chassis.
The finish of the Hispano-Suiza was superlative and the car’s inherent glamour was such that it was featured in two popular novels of the early 1920s, l’Homme de l’Hispano and The Green Hat. The world’s most advanced automobile at the time of its introduction and for many years thereafter, the H6B was cataloged until 1930, by which time a little over 2,000 chassis had been completed. An 8-litre version - the H6C - was listed until 1934.
The H6’s successor, the Type 68 J12, debuted at the Paris Show in 1931. Introduced at the height of the Depression, the J12 was Birkigt’s final masterpiece. Its power unit was a 9,424cc V12 featuring pushrod-operated overhead valves instead of the H6’s overhead camshaft, a change that enabled the J12 to match other luxury makes for silence of operation.
Wheelbase lengths ranged from 135” to 158”, catering for all styles of coachwork from sporting to formal, but with 200 bhp on tap, the J12 was capable of reaching 100 mph no matter what type of body it carried. Like its H6 forbear, the J12 attracted the attention of the Continent’s leading coachbuilders, and some of the most outstanding designs of the 1930s are to found on the J12 chassis.
Chassis no. 13041
One of only 44 J12s known to exist, this fabulous example wears close-coupled berline (sedan) coachwork by the Paris-based firm of Fernandez et Darrin. A matching numbers car with known history, it was purchased new by famous French textile magnate and racehorse breeder, Marcel Boussac (1889-1980), owner of the fashion house Maison Dior and Paris’s St Cloud racetrack. Its second owner was Walt Wyman.