The holiest of ghosts

Brian Sewell salutes a vintage racer so rare, so perfect, that he wonders whether it ever existed at all...
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Believing in the Hispano-Suiza J12, "the last and greatest automobile in the high performance vintage tradition,'' is not unlike believing in ghosts - we have heard of them, yet very few claim to have seen one.

They are not the commonplace of auctions at Christie's, nor are they the stuff of motor museums. Even when, half a century ago, any mews in Kensington might boast a Phantom II, a Mercedes 540 or a Cord 812, the Hispano was not to be found. I have never seen one on the street, not even in last year's historic Mille Miglia, in which two dozen rare Bugattis played their part, but I have seen one - at least I think it was a J12 - floating high above the hoi polloi of a motor show at Earls Court, as inaccessible as a divinity, boat-tailed in gleaming timber, perfect for an admiral. I understand that Picasso owned one, but such a work of exquisite engineering is to most historians of art contemptible, and I can find no reference to it among their thousand exegeses.

Why then am I, one of their number, writing in such terms as "exquisite engineering'' about a car that I have not driven and am uncertain that I have ever seen? To this quite reasonable question my irreverent response must be to direct my readers to the outpourings of Christian theologians, not one of whom had direct experience, evidence or proof of the existence of the Trinity; like most of them with that, I approach the Hispano through the medium of earlier witnesses, confident that they, before they wrote, had seen and heard the Hispano, had driven it and had some justification for their opinions.

The late LJK Setright, the greatest of all writers on cars, knew more about "exquisite engineering'' than any other man I've known, and if he opined, as he did, that Hispano was the rightful holder of the title "The Best Car in the World,'' then he is to be believed until one knows otherwise for oneself. Setright was in some senses very like Marc Birkigt, the Swiss genius behind the Hispano (and the the Suiza bit of the name) - a gunsmith with a precocious interest in engines who, at the age of 23, had his first car in production. He designed everything that bore the name Hispano-Suiza, never allowing cost to compromise his concept or engineering integrity.

The Hispano-Suiza became the supreme French car and Birkigt, in designing engines and guns for aeroplanes and exploiting patents, became extremely rich, rich enough to make very few cars but make them perfectly. Between 1931 and 1938 only 114 J12s came off the line; just 44 are known to survive.

The engine was a lightweight V12 built in accordance with aircraft practice, its cylinder dimensions square at 100mm x 100mm - in 1931 a full generation ahead of British thinking, its capacity 9,420cc, its power a lazy 220bhp at 3,000rpm. Within a year an optional development was offered by lengthening the stroke to 110mm; this raised capacity to 11,310cc (1.4 litres less than the Bugatti Royale) and power to 250bhp at 3,000rpm.

Flexibility was so great that Birkigt considered three forward gears enough, the middle gear being almost superfluous. The chassis, low-slung, ranged in wheelbase length from 135in to 158in and was entirely vintage-conventional, cart-sprung with semi-elliptics fore and aft, but testers, even a generation later, proclaimed it to have superb road-holding and a ride that silently ironed out the bumps and ruts . As with all Hispanos, the brakes were ahead of their time, and the steering was praised for its lightness and accuracy.

Bodies were, as with R-R, works of independent genius in which Birkigt had neither hand nor nod of assent - but he was served well. Prices for complete cars were in the £3,000-£3,500 range, well over £1,000 more than the Phantom III, the most expensive British rival. Every J12 seems to have been capable of 100mph - sporting coupés considerably more. In 1934 The Autocar wrote of it cruising easily at 100mph, of it reaching 60mph in 12 seconds, of it being "magnificent, astonishing" and "superlatively good''. In comparisons with Duesenberg, Maybach and Packard, the Hispano was triumphant.

The larger engine may never have been tested by such writers; it was intended primarily for French railways (as with the Bugatti Royale), and was, according to one source, fitted to only three cars between 1935 and 1938, though this may be an error.

The Spanish Civil War wiped out their factories and we wiped out the French in the Second World War, when Hispano was taken over by the Nazis and BMW, but the cars had already drifted into desuetude in 1938 through the French government's semi-nationalisation of what was deemed primarily an armaments factory.

Birkigt retired to designrifles and died in 1953. Hispano-Suiza survives as an adjunct to the aircraft industry; there has, thank the lord, been no attempt to revive the marque and wreck its reputation.

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