The Hispano-Suiza of the classic era was favored by gentlemen racers for its performance and by
women for its style. One paid dearly for the car: its chassis was the most highly priced in Europe, several
thousand dollars more expensive than a Rolls-Royce. Custom coachwork added significantly more to the
tariff from there.
The Hispano-Suiza embodied Marc Birkigt’s compulsive pursuit of perfection. World War I had
made him famous. Fifty thousand of his V-8 aero engines had been built by nations around the globe to
power Allied aircraft to victory. Birkigt felt that his postwar automobile should measure up to that
achievement. The engine of the H6, basically a six-cylinder version of one bank of the aviation unit, was
exquisitely wrought. Its jewel-like seven-main-bearing crankshaft machined from a 770 pound billet
weighed 99 pounds. The massive chassis was complemented by a servo-assisted four-wheel brake system so
exemplary that Rolls-Royce began paying royalties for it in the mid-1920’s. At its introduction in 1919,
there was no more technically advanced automobile in the world than the Hispano-Suiza.
But the car’s fame was due in significant measure as well to the coachbuilders who plied their art on
the Hispano-Suiza chassis. The marque, a consistent winner at the concours d’elegance that were the social
events of the motoring season on the Continent, was invariably the dernier cri in fashion. Among French
coachbuilding houses favored by Hispano-Suiza, Kellner Frères of Paris was particularly prolific. The
display car shows Kellner at its sporting best. Georges Kellner Jr., creator of the torpedo body style, here
used the short wheelbase (133 vs. 145 inches) H6C chassis to design a skiff body of marvelous proportion
Matchless is a word to be used gingerly when talking about automobiles. The marriage of Hispano
and Kellner was one of those rare ones that was truly made in heaven. It ended in 1938 when the last
Hispano-Suiza chassis was built and Kellner closed its doors.
Photos – Peter Harholdt
Briggs Cunningham imported the first Ferrari to race in the US and you can see it in the museum. Learn more