Classic Project: Hispano-Suiza H6 luxury car
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Quite apart from being a byword for everything that is required of a luxury classic saloon, the impeccably stylish Hispano-Suiza H6 is something of a fascinating riddle.
Despite the maker’s name (meaning literally ‘Spanish-Swiss’), the car was built for the most part in Paris (with some manufacturing in what was then Czechoslovakia, under licence to Skoda).
Despite its instantly recognisable ‘landau’ outline, the H6 was only ever supplied as a rolling chassis; the best car-body builders in Europe then produced custom exteriors and interiors for their extremely wealthy clientele. As a result, it’s rare to see any two individual H6 units looking the same.
Our impression of the ‘classic’ H6 comes from the handful that are rented out to makers of period TV dramas, such as ‘Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries’ and the like, from which we get the idea that they were high-sided convertible landaus painted in burgundy and black with white-wall tyres. But in fact there are at least half-a-dozen ‘standard variants’, not all with folding roofs.
There were also racing variants, including five short-wheelbase ‘Boulogne’ cars (named after the race track where they won famous victories). Driver Woolf Barnato held eight records in his Boulogne, including a 92mph (148km/h) average speed over 300 miles (480km) at Brooklands in 1924.
Yet perhaps the most original of all the models ever produced was the H6 belonging to racing car driver André Dubonnet, who entered the 1924 Targa Florio in a variant with coachwork made of tulipwood (American poplar). Dubonnet – who came from the enormously wealthy dynasty responsible for the eponymous apéritif – commissioned the aircraft manufacturer Nieuport-Astra to create an aerodynamic body coming in at less than 100lb (45kg) in weight. The result was an astonishing wooden-bodied orange speedster, where strips of tulipwood (though some reports say mahogany) were fixed to the aluminium frame with thousands of rivets. Not only did Dubonnet finish the race with his car unscathed, but he drove home to Naples in it after the event. The Tulipwood speedster is now in a museum in California.
The H6 was basically the car that Bentley and Rolls Royce couldn’t build. However, for all the obvious style, luxury and more than a fair share of mystique, the H6 was a masterpiece of engineering. During the First World War Hispano-Suiza produced some 50,000 V-12 aircraft engines, which became the technology base for the H6 when the company reverted to its pre-war business as an automotive manufacturer. The ‘Hispano’ part of the name refers to the firm’s location close to Barcelona, while the ‘Suiza’ element refers to the Swiss engineer Marc Birkigt who was brought in by the company’s founder Emilio de la Cuadra.
Such was Birkigt’s genius that he was one of the main contenders in the Car Engineer of the Century award (announced in November 1999) that was won by Ferdinand Porsche. Innovations introduced by Birkigt included the first power-assisted brakes on a production car. And yet the H6 had only three gears, relying on the engine’s torque. At the time, gear-changing was considered ‘un-gentlemanly’.
All good things come to an end, and with the worldwide economic depression of the 1930s came a downturn in demand for big and powerful luxury sedans. But the Hispano-Suiza company had made its point and today the H6 family (and its J12 descendants) are universally regarded by classic car aficionados as being among the greatest cars ever built.
Hispano-Suiza H6 facts and figures
Originator: Marc Birkigt (1878-1953).
Unit cost: Chassis price in 1919, FFr110,000 or £1,600 (approx £70-100k in today’s money). Today, expect to pay in region of £330,000.
The bonnet ornament is a sculpture of the ‘cigogne volante’ or flying stork.
Launched at the 1919 Paris Auto Show.
Racecar driver André Dubonnet commissioned his H6 to have lightweight tulipwood bodywork.
Engine based on First World War fighter plane technology.
Despite the name, most models were built in France.
Only 2,350 built (including H6, H6B and H6C models).
First production car to feature power-assisted braking.
100 units were produced under licence by Skoda in Czechoslovakia.
Preferred car of the fictional Duke de Richleau in the novels of Dennis Wheatley.
The H6 has two starter buttons (depending on whether you are using the left or right battery).
At the time of production the H6 was the most expensive car in the world.
General arrangement of Hispano-Suiza H6 based on a ‘landaulette’ coachwork variant c.1923
Engine: 6-cylinder, 6.5 litre overhead-camshaft, producing 135bhp
FMR layout (front mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive)
Suspension: semi-elliptic leaf springs and live axle
Drum brakes with servo-assisted brake system
Transmission 3-speed manual
Radiator cap in form of ‘cigogne volante’