The Hispano Suiza J12
Ahead of us, the road unwound like a slender grey ribbon, rippled and kinked and narrow. The big Hispano loafed along in high gear at 50 mph, the steering quick-quicker than you'd ever expect-its leaf spring suspension firm without being harsh. Way out at the end of the long blue hood glided the lovely stork mascot, pointing this way and that as the road twisted and the Hispano, with just a hint at the wheel, followed it. The road began to climb steeply and, after briefly thinking about it, I shifted down to second gear.
"You didn't have to do that," said George Schieffelin, my companion and the car's owner. "Once under way there's so much torque you hardly ever have to shift."
This business of torque and shifting is one of the few anomalies about the Hispano-Suiza V-12. If one desires, he can cruise along in third gear no matter what the terrain. However getting the big car away from rest can pose problems because the first gear ratio is too high. Living in a hilly town and owning one of these cars would be a problem, especially since Hispano clutches were always rather weak and the works cautioned against the evils of clutch slipping. In fact, this example once experienced both buckled clutch plates and overheated clutch springs, which promptly lost their temper.
Sweeping downwards now, the road curves gently right, then tightly left. The Hispano is equipped with enormous brakes, power assisted via a unique gearbox-driven servo. There is rather too much pedal travel, indicating a need for adjustment-quickly done thanks to the ingenious design of the actuating levers and the booster itself-but there is still more than enough stopping power. The brakes take full effect shortly after one first depresses the pedal.
Through the corner now and onto what passes for a straight section on this rural two-lane in central New Jersey. Sunlight glints in the stork's outstretched neck and approaching cars slow to a crawl at the oncoming specter of chrome and paint and big yellow-tinted headlamps. A cool rush of air funnels in through the cowl-mounted vents keeping the interior comfortable despite the heat of the day and the heat pouring off the engine and out through the hood louvers.
Hard on the throttle now and the Van Vooren-bodied pillarless saloon begins to irresistibly accelerate. The slender white needle sweeps across the speedometer dial as the torque builds, and out of the tailpipes comes the exhaust's healthy burble-deep, melodious and quick-paced. It is that unique twelve-cylinder cadence which in this case reminds one more of a Ferrari than a Lincoln or Packard twelve. This is not the sort of feeling one normally associates with the refined elegance of the finest of classic era automobiles. But the Hispano-Suiza Type 68 stands alone to some degree, even when considered as part of the genre which-taken as a whole-includes the finest cars ever made.
Sailing boats on Lake Geneva spread their wings against a panoply of dark green trees, splendid homes and fine resorts. The lake is as popular a venue for racing sailors as it is for seekers of tranquility, and for many years, Marc Birkigt had a home on its shore. During the Twenties he earned a reputation as a tough and successful skipper, flitting round the buoys to many victories in an International 8.5 Meter or big Swiss Twelve Meter sloop. His lakeside villa at Versoix was at first a summer haven, ultimately a gracious and serene place in which to grow old. Birkigt died there in 1953.
Had he not been the man he was, Marc Birkigt might have passed a lifetime as peaceful as the lake he loved, working in his native, neutral country on whatever engineering problems most fascinated him. Instead, his career, like that of many Swiss engineers, took him away from his homeland, initially to Spain. There in 1899, Birkigt found work in Barcelona designing an unsuccessful electric bus with two other Swiss engineers, Messrs. Velino and Bouvier.
Eventually he came to be associated with a pair of wouldbe Spanish automakers, first Emilio La Cuadra-and after failure of this company, J. Castro. When Castro's firm ran into difficulties in 1904, it was reorganized by a group of wealthy businessmen in June as Fabrica de Automoviles La Hispano-Suiza.
Thus was acknowledged the important part a twenty-six-year-old Swiss would have in the new Spanish company. Birkigt's values were to be so strongly imprinted on the organization that the surviving company today reflects in a very real way the engineer who was for so many years its heart. In a succession of factories and design offices, Birkigt passed a lifetime amidst a profusion of machine tools, automobiles, trucks and-most important perhaps-aviation engines. Eventually too, he concentrated on aircraft armament. His royalties and patents made him a wealthy man.
Behind him, Marc Birkigt left several legacies. Among them was the creation of what most consider the first sports car, the four-cylinder T-head Type Alfonso XIII of 1911, racing versions of which had ended the supremacy of one- or two-cylinder voiturettes. His contribution to our world as we know it was honored by France, which awarded the engineer the Legion of Honor for his design of the Hispano-Suiza V-8 aero engine. Many of the greatest French, British, American and Italian aces became identified with Hispano-powered fighters. Among the most prominent were Rickenbacker and France's brilliant, tubercular Georges Guynemer-a friend of Birkigt's. It was the graceful stork emblem of Guynemer's SPAD which would one day soar above the radiator of Hispano-Suiza automobiles.
Honored along with Birkigt was Jean• Lacoste, (known around the factory as ‘Jules’) father of the famous tennis player, Rent, and for years administrator of Hispano-Suiza in France. An Hispano branch had been established there in 1911, first in the Paris suburb of Levallois but moved to the famous Bois-Colombes site in 1914.
After the Great War, Birkigt continued his prolific career in automobiles, designing several justifiably coveted models before turning more and more'to the development of aircraft engines and cannon. It is perhaps this last endeavor, taken together with the great engineer's innate sense of privacy and the lack of a complete, objective biography, which is responsible for another Birkigt legacy-a lingering sense of mystery about who he really was and details of much of what he did.
To begin with, he could have become a painter, such were his artistic talents. but Birkigt-a tailor's son born in Geneva on March 8th, 1878, orphaned about a decade later and raised then by his maternal grandmother, chose instead to become an engineer. He entered Geneva's Ecole des Arts et Mftiers in 1895, studied engineering and physics and displayed an inherent sense of form, drawing talent and design.
During all his years with Hispano-Suiza, Marc Birkigt relied heavily on these abilities. By the time he sat down at his drawing board, a design might have already been worked out in considerable detail on the back of an envelope or on a dining room tablecloth.
Birkigt's grandson, Bernard Heurteux of Club Hispano-Suiza in France, remembers that once his grandfather became involved in solving a problem, he was oblivious to all else. "Lunch time, appointments, board meetings were forgotten," Heurteux told me. "Madame Birkigt had an agreement with Monsieur Colas, the plant 'concierge.' When dinner time came (usually nine o'clock) Colas would step in M. Birkigt's office and literally drag him away from his drawing board."
Mostly, Birkigt worked six days a week, despite the irritation this sometimes caused his family: He had a son, Louis, and a daughter, Yvonne. A contemplative, slow-talking man with a broad forehead and blue eyes, the engineer approached each job with meticulous care, often conceiving the machinery required to make a component at the same time he drew the part itself. He believed in doing everything well and expected co-workers to reflect the same values. It is said that he had little praise for those who toiled with him. To those who made mistakes, Birkigt quietly explained how he would correct the problem. His solutions were not disputed.
He didn't work all the time. Besides sailing, Birkigt enjoyed the company of his long-time Spanish patron, King Alfonso XIII. The two shared a love for both cars and hunting. He also enjoyed music, especially opera and most especially the works of Richard Wagner. Meticulous and elegant, he could also display a keen sense of humor when relaxing with his family.
By the time he began work on the Type 68 Hispano-Suiza-probably in late 1929 or 1930-Marc Birkigt had behind him some three decades of engineering experience. His first V-12 had been an aero engine,• the wet sleeve design of which was adopted for the Type 68 and for later versions of the H6, Birkigt's seven main bearing six.
The H6 series Hispano-Suizas were produced from 1919 through 1931, and were for all those years the most expensive European chassis. Nevertheless they sold well to an established clientele of royalty and to the fabulously wealthy. In comparison with their Rolls-Royce competition, these Hispanos offered better, more entertaining performance and, in 1925, Henry Royce acquired a license to produce Birkigt's four-wheel servo-assisted brakes. What the Hispano lacked in comparison to the Rolls-Royce was some smoothness and silence. It was for these reasons and to offer still greater performance that Birkigt saw a market for what was, in essence, a V-12 powered H6 chassis. The twelve would provide high torque at low rpm and, with pushrods rather than the H6's overhead cam, offer mechanical silence as well. Birkigt's decision to produce the new model was largely unilateral.
Although Prince Stanislas Poniatowski acted as the company's public relations man, and Lacoste and a Mr. Chevallier then handled the firm's commercial affairs in France, there was no sales or marketing force per se. "Marc Birkigt decided what should be made and how," says Bernard Heurteux. "Due to his high ability as a designer and due to the magnificent quality of anything made in the plant, no salesmen were needed. Mr. Chevallier's job and that of his department was to make certain that the prices were 'right' and that contracts when drawn were favorable."
Thus the V-12 decision was made apparently with relatively little discussion and certainly no bureaucratic considerations. "I think it is true to say," recalls Heurteux, "that conferences were unheard of at Hispano and that M. Birkigt never wrote a memo or a letter in his business life."
Birkigt's automotive V-12-which would be produced using some of the same machinery as the aero engines-was a sixty degree 9.425-liter unit of
100 mm (3.94 inches) bore and stroke. It was based on a two-piece aluminium alloy crankcase, the lower portion of which carried three-and-one-quarter gallons of oil, a vane-type oil pump and a drain valve. The upper crankcase section contained the beautiful seven main bearing, seventy-pound crankshaft-machined from an enormous 970-pound billet-one water pump for each cylinder bank, and a hefty petcock, which opened the crankcase, drain valve. The factory recommended oil and filter changes every 4000 kilometres.
The alloy blocks affixed by completed the engine’s basic structure bolts so as to be fairly easily removable-ostensibly for decarbonisation which was recommended at 25,000-to 30,000-kilometer intervals-into which were screwed the exceptionally hard, glass-smooth nitrided steel cylinder liners. A special metal gasket prevented leakage of coolant into the cylinders. The blocks were finished in glossy black enamel applied under pressure.
It is likely that the foundry work involved in creating the Hispano's thin wall castings has never been surpassed. Experts who have viewed the disassembled V-12 on display at the Cunningham museum note that such quality is rarely achieved, even in the somewhat easier mediums of iron or steel alloys.
Bronze valve seats and cast iron valve guides were pressed into the alloy blocks. The gear-driven camshaft rested in seven lead-bronze bearings, its twenty-four lobes shaped "to secure a maximum of silence and power." The valves themselves were actuated by roller tappets and closed by two springs as protection against float or one spring breaking. Exhaust valves were nickel steel, intakes steel. A pair of Hispano-Solex downdraft carburetors distributed mixture to each cylinder bank.
The V-12's beautifully-machined lightweight connecting rods followed aero engine pattern and were hollow with finned caps at the lower end to abet cooling. The bottom ends of the rods were secured with tapered pins in shear rather than bolts, the rod bearings babbitt-lined steel shells. Pistons were aluminium alloy, flat-crowned in the case of V-12's with 5:1 compressionrated at 190 hp-or domed to yield an optional 6: 1 and 220 hp. Both power ratings were obtained at 3000 rpm.
Ignition of the big V-12 was also novel with two plugs located opposite each other on each cylinder. Dual Scintilla magnetos-later models used two SEV distributors-fired the plugs, the left-hand mag firing all the plugs on the intake side of the cylinders, the right hand firing the exhaust side. The arrangement was intended to eliminate possibility of breakdown caused by ignition failure.
Built in-unit with the twelve was the usual Hispano three-speed gearbox, now with a synchronized second ratio. The familiar friction-type brake servo was located at the rear of the gearbox. It was essentially an internal expanding brake-linked to the brake pedal-the drum of which was driven by a worm gear from the propeller shaft. The backing plate was connected to the shaft carrying the brake cable levers and this plate could rotate slightly when the brakes were applied. Torque thus generated within the servo was added to the braking force.
In all, the nine-litre Hispano-Suiza was a rather marvellous edifice, which when introduced at the Paris Salon in 1931-could stand comparison with virtually anything of its own or a later era. Well it should have, for the V-12 chassis sold in England for at least £2500 as against about £1900 for a Rolls-Royce Phantom III when that car became available. Still, in France the car cost only about half the price of Bugatti's Royale. In terms of technology and especially materials, not to mention symmetry and sheer cleanliness of lines, the Hispano V-12 engine was perhaps equalled but probably never bested.
For several years, in fact, its only comparable European multi-cylinder competition came from Maybach, which introduced its V-12 in 1929 after Maybach engines carried the Graf Zeppelin around the world. Maybach cut no corners and its eight main bearing twelve was notably practical with its detachable iron heads and dry liners. Too, of all the V-12's produced either in Europe, England or the United States, only the eight-liter Maybach Zeppelin's 200 horsepower was on a par with the Hispano's output.
The 7340 cc Rolls-Royce V-12 must also be mentioned. This engine did not appear until 1935 but it did boast both aluminum block and heads with wet liners made of iron. The Phantom III did suffer initially from valve mechanism ills, a problem which didn't affiict the Hispano. Multi-cylinder engines built in the United States during the classic era were generally very well engineered and carefully made. None of them was as lavish, powerful or expensive as the Hispano. Neither were the twelves offered by the Daimler or Voisin factories.
In 1934, Hispano-Suiza offered another version of its V-12 which makes any arguments about comparative power figures rather academic. The Type 68 bis-the V-12 with stroke lengthened to 120 mm-displaced 11,310 cc and developed a claimed 250 hp at 6: 1 compression. It was primarily intended for railcar use-Michelin conceived a lightweight, rubber-tired coach and built seventy-nine of them-but about a dozen were installed in automobiles.
The prototype Hispano-Suiza Type 68 was well tested by July 1931, by which time Marc Birkigt had used the car for various trips including a run home to Versoix for a summer holiday. Little is known about details of the test runs except that some problems were experienced with the newlysynchronized gearbox. Louis Massauger who had raced Hispanos before the First World War, supervised much of the V-12's development. Before the car was unveiled to the public, journalist Charles Faroux drove one as fast as he could from Paris to Nice and back. It is said the car was then taken directly to the exhibition hall of the Paris Salon and driven onto a large white sheet of paper which revealed not one drop of oil or coolant.
After the V-12's introduction, it was placed in production at the BoisColombes factory under the direction of Francois Develay, production and plant manager, and Edmond Bellinger, head of the machine shop. Perhaps as many as 4000 people worked at the factory at this time, the majority engaged in aviation and defense work. Although many employees of the company appear to have been rather overworked, morale at Hispano-Suiza was high and a club was formed by those with twenty-five or more years of service. In all, about 120 Type 68's-also designated ]12's-were built between September 1931 and November 1938.
A few found their way to this country, most imported by more or less mysterious means by the Best Brothers who operated out of New York's Plaza Hotel or by Clarke D. Pease who had a showroom on 57th Street. A friend of Rent Lacoste, Pease acquired rights to the Hispano trademark in this country and once vainly attempted to sue any owner who hadn't bought his car from him. According to Hugo Pfau, who once worked at LeBaron, Pease went out of business in the early Thirties.
The Hispano-Suiza Type 68 was available to its favored clientcle in four chassis lengths: fifteen feet, called Short; sixteen feet, called Light; sixteen feet three inches, called Normal and sixteen feet eleven inches called Long. Wheelbases ranged from eleven feet two inches to twelve feet two inches on the Light and Normal and thirteen feet two inches on the Long. The shorter chassis weighed 3080 pounds, the longer 3476 pounds, each about three hundred more than the H6 series.
Seldom was a prospective purchaser better able to adapt a chassis to his preferred body style. Stylish cabriolets by Fernandez & Darrin, elegant Kellner coupts, limousines and town cars by Franay or Letourneur et Marchand, Van Vooren coaches, convertibles by Million-Guiet-all were tailored to the most suitable of the profferred wheelbases. So was an enormous black and silver limousine built for the Maharajah of Indore by Gurney Nutting, one of the largest cars-at nineteen-and-a-half feet-that coachbuilder ever turned out.
The chassis frame was noteworthy for its apparent lack of crossbracing-only one member between the airtight firewall and the cross bar behind the rear axle. But it was a deep and sturdy structure and the engine/gearbox unit was used for stiffening. A cardan shaft led from the gearbox to a ball-bearing-mounted universal joint within a rigidly-mounted housing, thence by torque tube to the rear axle.
Semi-elliptic springs were used all around together with friction-type shock absorbers adjustable from the dash on most cars. Marc Birkigt solved the inevitable puzzle of where to run the long steering shaft by doing away with it altogether in the conventional sense. The steering column led down to a vertical bulkhead-mounted steering gearbox which transferred movement-two-and-a-half turns lock to lock-to the steering knuckles via an arm mounted beneath the chassis.
All this added up to create one of the two or three best performing cars of the classic era, even in "smaller" nine-liter form. "A Car Magnificent: Astonishing Acceleration and Ease of Performance," said The Autocar headline. " ... The set of figures obtained from this car are of an amazing order, surpassing, as a whole, any similar set of test data recorded by The Autocar for an ordinary production machine, though one or two individual readings have been equalled before."
The drophead two-door four-seater tested by the magazine accelerated to 50 mph in 9 2/5 seconds, to 60 in 12. Top speed was 100 mph. What cars of equal refinement and elegance might conceivably have bettered these times? Certainly the Duesenberg SJ must be considered and possibly an eight-liter Maybach Zeppelin-taking advantage of its many gears-if not encumbered with a too-heavy body. But all others in vaguely the same league would fall short. A 1936 Type 500 Mercedes-Benz achieved no better than 100 mph and its 0-50 time was 13.4 seconds. None of the beautifully-constructed American multis would have been in the same class either-in terms of acceleration at least-except possibly a Marmon V-16.
Even when the ohc 4480 cc Lagonda V-12 was introduced seven years after the Hispano, it was slower to sixty by almost a second-though with a threemile-an-hour top speed edge over the nine-liter-and had less effective brakes. The Hispano stopped from 30 mph in 26.0 feet, the Lagonda in 32.5 feet. According to W.O. Bentley himself, the Lagonda was too heavy-weight was also a problem with the Rolls-Royce P III-and lacked low end power.
So with the few possible exceptions mentioned, the Type 68 stood alone in terms of performance and accomplished this in a straightforward manner because of its large displacement, superb design, materials and workmanship. Its only obvious faults were the multi-plate clutch* and either the three-speed gearbox-as opposed to a four-speed-or the choice of gear ratios. Finally, it might have been nice to have updated the chassis to include i.f.s. at some time. Marc Birkigt, however, apparently never felt the need to do so and few other designers of the classic era did either. The Hispano suffered little for its lack.
The Type 68's introduction marked the end of Birkigt's most creative involvement with the automobile. The car appeared in the same year Hispano acquired control of Ballot and offered a Ballot chassis powered by a 4 ½-liter Hispano ohc six called the Junior. Other six-cylinder models were also sold during the years the V-12 was in production but Birkigt himself was by then largely involved with the development of supercharged airplane engines and his 20 mm cannon. Car production ceased altogether by 1937 although enough parts were left for special orders and some cars were constructed on this basis at Hispano-Suiza as late as 1938.
Birkigt's fascination with arms and metallurgy dated from his service with the Swiss army as a young man and his involvement at that time with arms development and manufacturing. This experience, together with his early patronage by Alfonso and his service to France in World War I, virtually insured his inevitable continued involvement with political figures, especially in Spain. At least forty Hispano-Suiza T56 cars were supplied to the Spanish government before the civil war. According to Michael Sedgwick and Jost Manuel Rodriguez de la Vina, who collaborated on one of the few Birkigt biographies in 1970, all these cars were sunk in the port of Valencia by Communists fleeing Madrid in 1938.
Although Alfonso lost his throne in 1931, the Hispano connection with the government never lost strength. Franco used a Type 68 as a staff car and was a personal friend of Miguel Mateu, Hispano's director in Spain.
Birkigt himself was in France during most of the Thirties, developing
V-12 aero engines for French fighter planes like the Dewoitine and MoraneSaulnier and producing his 20 mm cannon which was also made in England-Hispano branches by now existed in England, Switzerland, France and Spain-and used in Allied fighters and bombers during World War II.
This famous weapon was similar in some respects to the Oerlikon design used by the Luftwaffe. In fact, Marc a11d Louis Birkigt were acquainted with the Oerlikon's creator, a German named BUrhle who went to Switzerland before the end o( the first war and carried with him plans for a cannon designed by the Rheinmetall company. This became the Oerlikon and before Birkigt designed the Hispano HS404 cannon, the Oerlikon was built under license by Hispano in France, an arrangement the French government understandably found disturbing.
By the time Germany invaded France in 1940, some 17,000 workers in seven French Hispano factories were working desperately to supply needed equipment to the government. The work ceased abruptly, of course, and the Bois-Colombes factories were occupied by the Germans in June 1940 after Birkigt refused to cooperate with them and returned with his family to his Barcelona home.
Birkigt did visit France regularly, however, making trips to the Hispano works at Tarbes, a small city just north of the Pyrenees and outside the occupied zone, until 1942. Rather than a manufactory, the Tarbcs works seems to have existed at this time as. a research bureau and a way to keep together a nucleus of the Hispano-Suiza staff. Equally important, the factory turned out thousands of rather fancy saucepans, an effort to use up substantial stockpiles of high grade aluminum and keep the material from the Germans.
After the Allied landings in North Africa, the Germans occupied the whole of France and Tarbes was stripped of all its machine tools and equipment which were sent to Germany. Within a year the Bois-Colombes factories were destroyed by bombing during September and December 1943.
By then, Marc Birkigt was spending all his time in Spain where he had designed a diesel-powered truck in 1941. The Franco government was planning to rebuild its air force and was negotiating with Willy Messerschmitt to build the ME-109. The project moved slowly because of the war and although talks were begun in 1942, the first plane-designated an Hispano HA-1109 and powered by a fuel-injected 1300 hp version of the HispanoSuiza 12Y V -I 2-didn't fly until March 1 945. The planes were built at the Hispano-Suiza works in Seville. Birkigt had little to do with this project.
Marc Birkigt left Spain in 1945 and returned to Switzerland where he was awarded an honorary doctorate by !'Ecole Polytechnique Ftdtrale de Zurich, considered by some to be the world's toughest engineering school. After his return Birkigt devoted some of his time to young people while his son Louis continued to involve himself with rebuilding both the Hispano-Suiza branch in England and the Swiss company which had not prospered during the war. Louis had long been associated with airplane engine development.
The French company recovered with difficulty under the guidance of Maurice Heurteux and Robert Blum, son of the well-known French politician, Leon. Reconstruction was difficult since no Marshall Plan aid was received and wartime royalties were slow in being paid. The British branch had been half-nationalized, the Spanish company wholly nationalized. Once reestablished in France, Hispano-Suiza began producing jet engines, ejection seats and other products. A Dutch branch was opened in 1951.
After his return to Switzerland, Birkigt spent gradually increasing amounts of time at Versoix working on armaments. He continued to interest himself in Hispano-Suiza's affairs but preferred to leave the major decisions to younger men. Always a retiring person who had spent most of his time alone with problems of engineering and mechanics, Birkigt sought even more seclusion after the death of his bright and promising grandson Marc-Louis Birkigt in an aviation accident. When that happened, it is said, Birkigt began passing many hours contemplating by the lakeside, considering the Alps on the horizon or, perhaps, reflecting on the tumultuous past.
Marc Birkigt died at Versoix on March 15th, 1953-one week after his seventy-fifth birthday-dragged away from his drawing board at last by cancer. The death of this contemplative, methodical, hardworking and brilliant man who had spent so much of his time swaddled in solitude in his quiet office or else in the company of kings, princes, or his own small family, received little attention in the press. In this country, only Newsweek noted with a few sentences the passing of one of the greatest of automobile designers and engineers. Birkigt's other work was not mentioned.
The funeral was a small one-as Birkigt would have wished-but present in the little Versoix cemetery were delegates of the government of France, there to pay last respects to a man whose life had meant rather more to the world than beautiful cars alone. Of those cars, Marc Birkigt's personal vehicle was safe in its garage. It was a black V-12 sedan, owned today by his grandson. "It has to be driven to be believed," Bernard Heurteux told me.
"Marc Birkigt as usual had achieved what he set out to do."