“Spanish-Swiss” is the literal translation for Hispano-Suiza; and the Alfonso for whom this
particular model was named was the King of Spain. Chief engineer Marc Birkigt was the Swiss connection.
That his nationality was honored in naming the Barcelona company in 1904 was an act of supreme
prescience. Not only would the then 26-year-old Birkigt be responsible for every Hispano-Suiza design for
the next three decades, but he would ever after be regarded as among the most talented automobile engineers
Alfonso XIII was Birkigt’s patron. Spain’s last monarch – whose exile in 1931 heralded in a 44-
year-long republican interregnum punctuated by a bitter civil war – began acquiring Hispanos for the royal
garage in 1907, although the “carriage trade” cars the firm was producing were a bit tame for his taste.
Luckily, Birkigt was thinking similarly, and in 1909 designed a long-stroke T-head four-cylinder
engine for use in voiturette racing, dominated at that time by French one-and two-cylinder cars. In 1910
Hispano won the prestigious Coupe de l’Auto race in Boulogne at a speed 8 mph faster than the year
previous. The victory spelled finis to singles and twins in voiturette competition henceforth and suggested
the wisdom of marketing a production version of the winner. Alfonso XIII cheerfully agreed to lend his
name to the new Hispano-Suiza model.
Whatever one’s definition of a sports car, the Alfonso was among Europe’s first. It was a purposebuilt,
high performance, two-seater production automobile – not a former Grand Prix car sold to a sportsman
or a sports tourer with room for five. A genuine 75 mph car off the showroom floor, the Alfonso was capable
of 90 mph in race tune – and many an Alfonso owner raced his. While King Alfonso himself did not, he
relished fast drives into the countryside “like a cannonball in a cloud of smoke”, sometimes with a
thoroughly frightened chauffeur at his side, other times alone for pursuits that had nothing to do with the
affairs of state.
Photos – Peter Harholdt
Briggs Cunningham imported the first Ferrari to race in the US and you can see it in the museum. Learn more