This week’s history article is about another pioneer of motoring: Hispano-Suiza – translated as Spanish-Swiss, which it sort of was. In 1898, a Spanish Army captain called Emilio de la Cuadra started a company to build electric cars. He met a young Swiss engineer in Paris called Marc Birkigt, who became instrumental in designing cars for the company.
In 1902, de la Cuadra sold out to another investor, Damien Mateu, who renamed the company Fabrica Hispano-Suiza de Automoviles. This lasted a year or so before they were reformed as La Hispano-Suiza Fabrica de Automoviles. Birkigt designed some huge seven litre engines and they started to manufacture very high-end luxury vehicles.
Spain wasn’t a big enough market for the company so they hit the French market, which was much larger and they built a local factory in 1911 calling the subsidiary firstly Hispano France and then in 1914 renamed it to Hispano-Suiza. Like many car companies, they switched to military equipment during the First World War and Birkigt who had already designed massive volume engines for cars, designed a revolutionary aero engine, which set the benchmark for future engines. He used his experience in the motor industry to develop a cast aluminium overhead cam V8. This design was much lighter, stronger and more powerful than the other aero engines on the market that still used a radial design where the cylinders were in a circular formation around the crank. The Hispano engine was a huge success for the company.
After the war ended, Hispano released the H6 luxury car, which was in production for 14 years. This car was even grander than a Rolls-Royce and was powered by an evolution of the aero engine being a 6.6 litre straight six motor, basically half of an aero V12 that Birkigt had designed. The original model also had the world’s first power brakes – the torque generated from a drum brake on the transmission shaft provided the power to operate the wheel-mounted brakes. The H6 lasted three years when it was updated to the H6B. In 1924 the H6C came out with the 6.6 replaced by an eight-litre motor!
Also in 1924, the French subsidiary went public with the Spanish parent selling 29% of the stock. This was the start of the split of the company into two pieces as the parent company gradually sold down its stake. Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, the company built aero engines and high-end luxury cars, even licensing technology to others such as Rolls-Royce. In 1933, they replaced the H6 series with the J12, another large luxury sports convertible with a 9.5 litre V12 using pushrods rather than the overhead cam seen on earlier engines. The engine was increased to eleven litres in 1935 and it was the last model with the final cars being produced in 1938.
The H6 and J12 models weren’t the only cars made by Hispano-Suiza. The H6 and J12 were made in France with smaller T series cars built in Spain. In addition, the HS26 or “Junior” and K6 models were also made for a while in France. All low volume and destined for the upper end of the market.
The Second World War was looming and Spain was already going through it’s own war at the time and so the factories switched completely to aero engines providing equipment for the Allies, although they couldn’t build them quick enough for the war effort. Bearing mind that one factory was smack in the middle of the war zone and one was in a neutral but war damaged country, this isn’t too difficult to see why they had production volume problems!
When the war ended, the two companies were now separate entities. The Spanish side was sold to ENASA in 1946. This company, Empresa Nacional de Autocamiones SA used the facilities to build trucks and buses, first under the Hispano-Suiza brand and then from the 1950s under the Pegaso brand. ENASA was owned by INI, a State controlled holding company that also owned SEAT for a while. ENASA was bought by Iveco in 1990, so when you see an Iveco truck on the road, you are seeing the descendant of a Hispano-Suiza.
After the war ended the French company also decided not to go back into car production and continued to concentrate on aerospace and built a Rolls-Royce engine under licence plus other aircraft equipment. In 1968 they were absorbed by SNECMA who also gobbled up Bugatti at the same time. SNECMA had been founded after the war to merge some French aero engine manufacturers and was the joint developer of the supersonic engines for the Concorde passenger jet.
SNECMA merged with Sagem, a French electronics company in 2005 and the resulting company is now called SAFRAN. The Hispano-Suiza brand is still operating inside SAFRAN and supplies Airbus, Rolls-Royce and others with technology – many of the Airbus planes including the huge A380 use Hispano-Suiza components!
Update: February 2019
A new “hyperlux” electric Grand Tourer will be shown at the 2019 Geneva Motor Show. The car is the Hispano Suiza Carmen – note that the name doesn’t have the hyphen and the model name is taken from the grand-daughter of Damien Mateu. It is expected to be built in Spain. More details to follow….