HIS­PANO-SUIZA H6B

This straight-six de­serves to take its place along­side the es­tab­lished greats

Classic Sports Car - - Contents - WORDS RICHARD HESELTINE PHO­TOG­RA­PHY MANUEL POR­TU­GAL

The sky is vast, the light su­per­nal, but there’s no time to take in the scenic vista. Be­sides, another will be along in just a mo­ment. The road cleaves through the moun­tain­side, ver­tig­i­nous drop-offs and the lack of guardrail giv­ing you pause to think or, bet­ter still, not think at all. You feel sus­pended be­tween out­comes, but this is a 1924 His­pano-suiza H6B – widely touted in pe­riod as be­ing the finest car in the world – and torque is such that there is never a lull in for­ward mo­men­tum. Quite the op­po­site. It just pulls, and pulls, and then pulls some more. This stately look­ing leviathan bur­bles along quite hap­pily, with only your forearms threat­ing to wilt un­der the strain. Hair­pin turn af­ter hair­pin turn is start­ing to take its toll, but then, fi­nally, what passes for a straight.

It is at this junc­ture that you ap­pre­ci­ate the car’s silky-smooth ‘six’ all the more. Quite aside from its ar­chi­tec­tural mag­nif­i­cence, it feels un­burstable. There’s barely a rise in reg­is­ter. In top – third – gear the His­pano is per­fectly happy sit­ting at 60-70mph. The heft of the screw-and­nut steer­ing dis­si­pates, mer­ci­fully, and it doesn’t wan­der or threaten to spill. By mod­ern stan­dards, the H6B won’t give a well-driven hatch­back a bloody nose, but it won’t lag be­hind, ei­ther. It’s hard to be­lieve this re­mark­able ma­chine was made al­most a cen­tury ago such is its will­ing­ness, re­fine­ment and, big­gest sur­prise of all, ease of use, once you’ve over­come your ini­tial hes­i­tancy.

Given the lo­cale, Por­tu­gal’s breath­tak­ing Serra do Cara­mulo re­gion, it’s hard not to be over­come by misty-eyed ro­man­ti­cism; to imag­ine you’re André Dubon­net, the mil­lion­aire play­boy and dec­o­rated WW1 fighter pi­lot, tak­ing the fight to Alfa, Mercedes and Itala op­po­si­tion on the ’24 Targa Flo­rio in an H6 ‘Type Sport’, lead­ing the field around the twisty Madonie cir­cuit. Ei­ther that, or en­vis­ag­ing the long-time owner of this car, João de Lac­erda, ter­ror­is­ing the neigh­bour­hood in his leg­endary press-on style. The an­ces­tral seat led straight on to an ac­tive hill­climb course, and he wasn’t above tak­ing it on epic pan-euro­pean thrashes as and when the mood took him. Which was of­ten.

Who could blame him? Every­thing about this car in­vites hy­per­bole. It was al­ways thus. This most French of Span­ish mar­ques was once a tech­ni­cal leader, with count­less patents in its ar­moury. The firm’s prod­ucts acted as blank can­vases for some of the most re­spected – some­times no­to­ri­ous – coach­builders of the day. There were ex­otic cars, and then there were His­pano-suizas. These were ma­chines beloved by cap­tains of in­dus­try and sil­ver-screen icons; by heads of state and your com­mon-or-gar­den beau­ti­ful peo­ple. Hellé Nice had an H6, while

‘It’s hard not to imag­ine you’re André Dubon­net, tak­ing the fight to Alfa, Mercedes and Itala on the 1924 Targa Flo­rio’

Pablo Pi­casso owned three, and that’s just for starters. His­panos were im­mor­talised in count­less nov­els of the era, driven by char­ac­ters such as Maxim de Win­ter in Daphne du Mau­rier’s Re­becca (al­though Lau­rence Olivier drove a six­cylin­der MG in Al­fred Hitch­cock’s big-screen adap­ta­tion). The H6 was the per­fect car for a hero, fic­tional or oth­er­wise, not least be­cause His­pano-suiza had a chic and unattain­able aura.

This was due to the fact that in pe­riod you rarely saw them, es­pe­cially in the UK. Con­sider this: this H6B would have set you back £2100 in 1924, or ap­prox­i­mately £114,000 when ad­justed for in­fla­tion – and that’s mi­nus coach­work. That was roughly 15% more than a Rolls-royce Sil­ver Ghost rolling chas­sis. A com­pa­ra­ble Bent­ley was al­most half as much. The lofty price-tag was un­der­stand­able given the la­bo­ri­ous, hangthe-ex­pense na­ture of the His­pano’s de­sign and con­struc­tion. The 6597cc straight-six, for ex­am­ple, bor­rowed heav­ily from air­craft tech­nol­ogy. It boasted an alu­minium block with steel cylin­der lin­ers, twin spark­ing plugs per cylin­der, and a sin­gle over­head camshaft work­ing the valves. There were also such mod­ern flour­ishes as coil in­stead of mag­neto ig­ni­tion. The sev­en­bear­ing crank alone must have taken an age to whit­tle, with each be­ing ma­chined from steel bil­let weigh­ing 600lb (272kg). The end re­sult weighed only 35lb (15.8kg).

The main talking point, how­ever, was the brak­ing set-up. The H6B fea­tured four-wheel drum brakes, the drums be­ing alu­minium (with steel lin­ers) to re­duce un­sprung weight, which was so­phis­ti­cated stuff. But that wasn’t the big news. His­pano-suiza’s great leap was the use of me­chan­i­cal servo as­sis­tance. This was a tech­ni­cal first, with even arch-ri­val Rolls-royce em­ploy­ing the li­cence-made ‘ser­vo­brake’ ar­range­ment from 1924 un­til the mid ’60s. Ge­nius was at work here, and you could ar­gue that His­pano-suiza de­signer Marc Birkigt was the great­est au­to­mo­tive en­gi­neer of the pe­riod. That, and the most ill-served by his­tory.

Birkigt’s back­ground is mired in con­jec­ture and half-truths. Le­gend has it, per­haps apoc­ryphally, that the Swiss moved to Spain to find work as a min­ing en­gi­neer, only to be asked to de­sign a car. This seems a lit­tle fan­ci­ful, but he mapped out sev­eral ve­hi­cles prior to the for­ma­tion of La His­pano-suiza Fábrica de Au­tomóviles in 1904. He de­signed ev­ery sub­se­quent pro­duc­tion ‘Span­ish-swiss’ model bar one, with work be­ing di­vided be­tween Barcelona and Paris from 1911, the French sub­sidiary pro­duc­ing the more lux­u­ri­ous vari­ants while the lesser mod­els were made closer to home.

WW1 es­tab­lished the mar­que on the global stage, thanks in no small part to Birkigt’s wa­ter­cooled, sohc V8 aero en­gine, which was first seen in 1915. While pre­cise fig­ures are hard to pin down, as many as 50,000 units were re­put­edly made. The H6’s straight-six was rooted in a sub­se­quent V12 aero-en­gine de­sign, the model caus­ing a furore when un­veiled at the 1919 Paris Sa­lon de l’au­to­mo­bile, the slightly more pow­er­ful H6B ar­riv­ing three years later. It was su­per­seded by the larger-dis­place­ment H6C in 1924, with vari­a­tions on the theme con­tin­u­ing to be made as late as 1933.

Un­for­tu­nately for His­pano-suiza, the 1930s would not be kind. The mag­nif­i­cent 12-cylin­der,

9.4-litre (11.3-litre in time) J12 was in­tro­duced in 1931, to a world still reel­ing from the Wall Street Crash two years ear­lier. Scroll to the end of the decade, and pro­duc­tion of mo­tor cars took a back seat as Europe de­scended into hell. The man­u­fac­ture of aero­plane en­gines took prece­dence, but there was no re­vival of four-wheeled trans­porta­tion post-war. This was, in part, due to crip­pling taxes im­posed in France on cars with dis­place­ments of over 2 litres, which also did for sev­eral other great makes.

In 1946, newly in­cor­po­rated com­mer­cialve­hi­cle firm ENASA, which would later pro­duce the ul­tra-ex­otic Pe­gaso GT, ac­quired the Span­ish as­sets, while the largely au­ton­o­mous French arm con­tin­ued apace in the avi­a­tion in­dus­try, mak­ing every­thing from ejec­tor seats to land­ing gear via, iron­i­cally, li­cence-built Rolls-royce en­gines. It later pro­duced tur­bines and, in 1968, be­came part of the Snecma aero­nau­ti­cal giant. At­tempts at a mar­que re­nais­sance have thus far failed to get out of the start­ing gate (see panel).

Which brings us to to­day. ‘Our’ H6B was ac­quired new by Por­tuguese gen­tle­man driver Bento de Sousa Amorim. He col­lected the rolling chas­sis from the Paris fac­tory on 30 May 1924 and re­turned to north Por­tu­gal, from where he be­gan cam­paign­ing the car mi­nus body­work; he merely in­stalled two seats. The pre­cise what-hap­pened-next part is clouded in mys­tery, but, in 1975, it was dis­cov­ered by de Lac­erda, founder of Museu do Cara­mulo. It was ex­hib­ited as found, but this arch-en­thu­si­ast opined that it de­served a body and dis­patched the chas­sis to the UK, where renowned coach­builder Tony Robin­son ex­pertly cre­ated one that closely aped a Kell­ner-style boat-tail out­line of the pe­riod. Then in April 1982, de Lac­erda drove the com­pleted car back from Blighty to Por­tu­gal in just two days.

Photos don’t re­ally lend a sense of scale, be­cause the His­pano ap­pears im­mense up close, fronted by the fa­mous ‘Ci­gogne Volante’ (fly­ing stork) mas­cot – a homage to French avi­a­tion hero Cap­tain Ge­orges Guyne­mer of the Storks Squadron, shot down in 1917 aboard a His­pano­engined SPAD – al­most at chest level. It’s no won­der some own­ers equipped them with corks so as not to im­pale any­one. Clam­ber­ing aboard, it ap­pears even more ele­phan­tine, the bon­net stretch­ing as far as the eye can strain. You sit high in the cock­pit, fac­ing a wealth of in­stru­men­ta­tion, in­clud­ing an eight-day Jaeger clock and a speedome­ter that reads to 110kph.

In the cen­tre of the vast wood-rim wheel sits the ig­ni­tion’s ad­vance/re­tard reg­u­la­tor. At full re­tard, you press the starter and the en­gine fires in an in­stant, a re­minder that this car is used reg­u­larly. It’s hard to avoid Swiss-watch analo­gies here: it’s pre­ci­sion it­self. There’s noth­ing in the way of vi­bra­tion through the struc­ture. The en­gine is barely au­di­ble. Slide the con­trol back to­wards ad­vance, press in the un­yield­ing mul­ti­disc clutch and move the right-hand-sited, re­verse-pat­tern gear­lever into first. It en­gages with a pro­nounced ker-klunk and this be­he­moth moves off at lit­tle more than tick­over.

The first few miles are up­hill. And how. Us­ing first and sec­ond gear, the His­pano climbs with­out protest. Only on straights do you dou­ble-de­clutch into top. Con­sid­er­ing its age, you can­not help but be amazed at how eas­ily it

slots into gear. Any­one rea­son­ably well-versed in old cars would be able to drive it com­pe­tently, so long as you an­tic­i­pate di­rec­tion changes. That, and stop­ping dis­tances. The brakes might have been state of the art in the ’20s, but that was then. The steer­ing, which many mo­tor­ing pe­ri­od­i­cals of the day said was eerily quick, feels leaden by mod­ern stan­dards, but it’s re­mark­ably free from play at the straight-ahead. With cars of this vin­tage, you usu­ally ac­cept they’ll wan­der a lit­tle, but it res­o­lutely stays on its given tra­jec­tory.

An hour in the com­pany of this fab­u­lous car is enough to make you ap­pre­ci­ate more than just the vi­su­als. Every­thing about it screams qual­ity. It is less tax­ing to drive than, say, a vin­tage Bent­ley, and re­ward­ing with it. If the His­pano wasn’t the finest car of its era, it’s hard to think of one that was in any way su­pe­rior. Its out­sized rep­u­ta­tion was earned the hard way, and its spell isn’t in any dan­ger of di­min­ish­ing any time soon.

Clock­wise from main: you’re the one work­ing hard on a ru­ral run; strong over­head-cam 6597cc ‘six’ has bags of torque; it’s all in the de­tails, such as the ex­quis­ite gear­knob for the three-speed ’box; this car’s body shows its reg­u­lar use

Clock­wise from above: every­thing in this welldriven car works per­fectly; the Bri­tish-built body was fin­ished in 1982; turn­ing heads on lo­cal roads; the His­pano’s strik­ing ‘Ci­gogne Volante’ mas­cot is re­ally quite a weapon!

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