Last revised: 26-1-2009

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Car of the Month - November 2005

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Hispano-Suiza T49 - cabriolet body by D'Ieteren - manufactured in 1929

The predominantly hierarchical class system of Spain during the 19th and early 20th century sort of prevented this nation to get to grips with the industrial age. Most of the capital was in the hands of the conservative nobility which usually didn't feel much for venturing it on novel ideas and techniques which took most of Western Europe by storm and frowned upon private enterprises by common men. This frustrated developments and modernization and Spain more or less lost contact with the modern world.
This reflected on the emerging car industry in Spain which didn't show anything like liveliness, variety and progress found in countries around Spain like France and Italy. This didn't mean there was no enthusiasm for the new automobile at the start of the 20th century in Spain; quite the opposite in fact. King Alfonso XIII himself was a devoted promoter of establishing a car industry in Spain and liked driving racing cars. The main problem was that there was hardly a market for cars in feudal Spain.
Never the less one world-renown make emerged from Spain, comparable to the likes of Rolls Royce, Mercedes, Bugatti, Isotta-Fraschini etcetera, and it was named Hispano-Suiza. The company was established in 1904 in Barcelona and the name referred to the cooperation between the two founders: financial backer Don Damian Mateu y Bisa from Spain and technical wizard Marc Birkigt from Switzerland. The aim of the company was no less than to produce cars which distinguished themselves by dependability, speed, silence and elegance and they did so with gusto.
A variety of internationally acclaimed models left the factory in Barcelona but most of the production was exported, especially to France. This lead to the establishment of a branch factory near Paris, France in 1911. It was there where the most upper-class Hispano-Suizas were produced during the interwar years, most notably the 6-cylinder H6 model and the J12 model with V12 engine. Both these models were powered by magnificent power plants which were derived from the aircraft engines which made Hispano-Suiza famous since the first World War.
The prices of these cars were astronomical and could only be afforded by the most wealthy. Next to the car production in France the factory in Barcelona continued to make cars, but these were slightly more realistically priced. In 1924 the Spanish adaptation of the H6 model was introduced, still after the designs of Marc Birkigt. These were named the T48 (a 4-cylinder model) and the T49 (a 6-cylinder model) and were made up to 1933. The T49 engine had a relatively modest displacement of 3746 cc compared to the 6594 cc of the H6, but still featured the single overhead camshaft, aluminum block, Nitralloy steel cylinder liners and detachable head from the advanced H6 design. It produced 90 hp @ 4000 rpm, where the H6 offered a leisurely 120 hp @ 2600 rpm. To distinguish the less oppulent T49 from the H6 it's often referred to as the "Barcelona", after its place of manufacture. The T49 shown here is fitted with simple yet elegant cabriolet bodywork by Belgian coach builder D'Ieteren, a company which was celebrating its 200 year anniversary in 2005.

Hispano-Suiza car production did not even last a quarter of that milestone. Production in France was stopped in 1938 by political machinations (Hispano-Suiza was an important foreign-owned supplier to the military, especially aero-engines) and in Spain in 1944, also by political decree. In Spain the vehicle producing part of Hispano-Suiza became the state-owned ENASA in 1946, and its products were marketed under the Pegaso name. In France what was left of Hispano-Suiza acquired Bugatti in 1953 and ultimately became part of SNECMA, a concern supplying to the aircraft industry. The Hispano-Suiza trademark still survives an various mechanical products and now and again appears on prototype cars made by Mazel, a Spanish engineering firm.
The most sought after Hispano-Suizas these days are the big French 6 and 12-cylinder models with the finest bodywork; these are often valued exceptionally high at classic car auctions and alike. The Spanish produced cars from the same period may be less valued but can be very attractive as well, as is shown by this example.

© André Ritzinger, Amsterdam, Holland

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