There are certain automotive brands which were so exotic – and so expensive – that they will forever be associated with another era. A time when the great Gatsby held his extravagant feasts and flamboyant Spanish brandy barons boasted of their vast wealth.
Prosperity could be advertised with expensive cars, and were it to be truly sumptuous, one could acquire beauties and technical wonders from the likes of Rolls-Royce, Bugatti, Duesenberg, Maybach or Horch. At the very top, Duesenberg SJ was from America, the 12-cylinder Rolls-Royce Phantom III from the UK, the supercharged Mercedes-Benz SSKL from Germany, the massive Bugatti Royale from France, Isotta-Fraschini from Italy, and last but certainly not least, the imposing Hispano-Suiza which had Spanish origins but was built in France.
The brand’s roots go back to 1901, when a Swiss engineer, Marc Birkigt, convinced his Spanish employer, Emilio La Cuadra – prominent producer of batteries and electric buses – to allow him to build a car. The collaboration resulted in La Cuadra which was the first Spanish car, but far from a commercial success; only six were built before the company faced financial difficulties. Fortunately, fresh money came from a gentleman named J. Castro, who took over the company’s obligations, assets and the most valuable employees, including Marc Birkig. In 1904, the Labor Inspectorate closed the company based on a large number of discrepancies with the authorities, and that first rescue became but one chapter in the exclusive marque’s history.
Now the scene was set for the second rescue, and the result was the formation of the most famous Spanish car brand – if we disregard current day’s SEAT. The new company kept the same name: Fabrica La Marc Birkig de Automobiles of Barcelona. The financial rescue came from a wealthy Spaniard named Damien Mateu, who led multiple businesses until his death in 1929. But it’s of course all about the cars, and they were named Hispano-Suiza, which literally means: Spanish-Swiss and clearly explained the combination of Spanish funding and Swiss engineering.
Spain’s young King Alfonso XIII showed early interest in “Los Hispanos” and owned about 30 of them during his reign. The company recognised his loyalty by naming a model after him. The lightweight and powerful Hispano-Suiza Alfonso XIII was introduced in 1912. Its 3.6-litre, 60 hp engine gave it strong acceleration and a top speed in excess of 100 km/h.
Up through the 1920s and 30s, the company produced several vehicles which helped establish the company’s reputation as one of the world’s absolute elite cars manufacturers. The first, and the car considered by many to be the most influential of them all, was the Hispano-Suiza H6 shown at the 1919 Paris Motor Show.
The wealthy “hombre sportif” André Dubonnet – yes, the one with the sweet aperitif – won the race in Boulogne in a H6 in 1921 and repeated the feat two years later at the wheel of the larger 8-litre Hispano, which was then nicknamed “Boulogne”. It was a story which created quite a stir in the colourful press – which was of course not yet in colour – and Hispano-Suiza enjoyed the fame.
However, Hispano-Suiza production in France ceased later in 1938, yet continued in Barcelona for a few years until it was finally stopped by World War II. With the war over, the old Barcelona factory would again produce cars; though this time it was the amazing Pegaso which emerged from the factory halls up through the 1950s – Spain’s entrance into the exotic sportscar market. Sadly Pegaso, just like Hispano-Suiza, saw their story cut short and the last sportscar left the factory in 1958 after which they only produced commercial vehicles.
Two years ago, I was inspired to write an article about Hispano-Suiza on the Danish ViaRETRO as there were signs of the proud old brand being resurrected. The backstory was that the Supreme Court of Spain had declared that the exclusive rights to the trademark Hispano-Suiza had expired, and as such the sole rights for using the name was deprived from the original owners. Their reasoning was that the company had not manufactured a single motor vehicle – or anything else really – under the brand name for the past 80 years. The court had spoken: The Hispano-Suiza name was free.
At that time, I wrapped up my Danish article with a quiet prayer that the new owners of the name would use it gently and respectfully!
Now, the new and modern Hispano-Suiza is introducing its first production car since 1946 at the upcoming 2019 Geneva Auto Show. The model will be called “Carmen” and will be an electric “hypercar” based on a monocoque chassis made of carbon fiber. The design – which thus far has only been revealed as a silhouette – is a sleek and curvaceous shape, and they have stated that the
engine powertrain will come from QEV Technologies, a company which works with – among other things – Formula E teams.
The silhouette photograph displays lines similar to those of the graceful 1938 Dubonnet Xenia, but the details are scarce until the new car is revealed in Geneva in two months time. Then we will see whether the mighty brand is to make its comeback with due respect for its heritage, or whether it had been best served by remaining a concluded part of the history books.