The Hispano Suiza H6 (1919 – 1933)

The long-gone Spanish car maker Hispano Suiza is worth remembering today as the quality of their aircraft-inspired H6 car of 1919 was quite outstanding, and its design was so advanced it remained at the pinnacle of car manufacturers for a decade.

The Hispano Suiza is a little-known car name now, but in its heyday, the H6 model wrested the title of “The Best Car in the World” away from Rolls Royce’s Silver Ghost.

Hispano Suiza was famed for its aluminium V8 aero engines which powered around half the Allied aircraft during World War One. After the conflict, seeking new markets, the company unveiled a remarkable luxury car at the 1919 Paris Auto Show: the H6.

The engine borrowed design features from the company’s aero engine and the quality of the rest of the H6 car surpassed anything else on the market. But why was there a stork sitting on the bonnet?

A shot of the Hispano-Suiza H6C 1928 from the front, showing the lack of the body: that had to be bought separately!
The Hispano-Suiza H6C 1928 from the front, showing the lack of a body: that had to be bought separately.

The Hispano Suiza H6 Production Years

The Hispano Suiza H6 was made between 1919 and 1933. Only around 2,700 were built.

  • Technical Specifications of the 1919 Hispano Suiza H6:
  • Engine: single aluminium cylinder block, six steel lined cylinders, a bore of 100 mm and a stroke of 140 mm sweeping a capacity of 6 1/2 litres, a single overhead camshaft, and a seven-bearing crankshaft machined from a single billet of steel with full pressure lubrication.
  • Power output: 135 bhp at 3500 rpm.
  • No magneto, instead it had twin coil ignition, twin plugs per cylinder providing redundancy. Three-speed gearbox, with right-hand change. Spiral bevel final drive in the rear axle.
  • Powered brakes by mechanical servo on all four wheels – a world first – with a handbrake on the rear wheels.
  • The suspension was semi-elliptic leaf springs front and rear. Wheelbase 3.69 m.
  • Tyre Size 935 x 135 (source uniquecarsandparts).
A picture of the Hispano-Suiza H6C chassis without the body. Everything was made beautifully.
The Hispano-Suiza H6C chassis, demonstrating the level of finish

Who Made the Hispano Suiza Cars?

“Hispano Suiza” simply means “Spanish-Swiss” in Spanish.

The name refers to the founders of the company; Spanish artillery captain Emilio de la Cuadra, who began making electric cars in Barcelona, and a Swiss engineer, Marc Birkigt, who Emilio de la Cuadra hired in Paris to design and build the new petrol (gasoline) engines.

Several car models were built before the First World War. Birkigt was an inspired designer and then drew an aero engine design for the Spanish and French air forces which foreshadowed the very best car engines of today.

A yellow Hispano-Suiza Alfonso XIII T15 from 1912 .
The Hispano-Suiza Alfonso XIII T15 from 1912

King Alfonso XIII of Spain was the Hispano-Suiza designer Marc Birkigt’s patron, and his country’s last monarch. He enjoyed beautifully made fast cars.

A photo of the gear and brake levers of a Hispano Suiza
The exquisitely-made gear change and brake levers.
A picture of a very original Hispano-Suiza Alfonso XIII Torpedo Sport from 1912, with an unrestored greenish-grey bodywork and red wheels.
The Hispano-Suiza Alfonso XIII Torpedo Sport 1912

The 1919 Hispano Suiza H6

The huge success of their Hispano Suiza HS 8A aero engine made enormous profits and an enviable reputation for the manufacturer.

After the First World War, there was a slump in orders for military aero engines so Hispano Suiza capitalised on its profits and image by going into luxury car production. Rolls-Royce followed a similar trajectory.

Drawing on his aero engine experience Birkigt designed an aluminium engine for the H6 car of six cylinders in a row, using an aluminium cylinder block, a single overhead camshaft, and a crankshaft made from a single piece of billet steel.

There was full pressure lubrication, unusual at the time, and it had twin coils instead of a magneto, and twelve sparking plugs, ensuring aircraft-like reliability.

The 6 1/2 litre H6 car engine developed 135 bhp using a single Solex carburettor: nearly as much as the original Hispano Suiza aero engine.

A shot of the Hispano-Suiza H6C engine, with black shiny enamel and beautiful detailing.
The Hispano-Suiza H6C engine

A new factory in France built the chassis, and the H6 coachwork and interiors were also created in France.

A photo of a Hispano Suiza H6C chassis without a body
Hispano-Suiza H6C chassis without the body.

From the “cigogne volante”, or flying stork on the radiator to the 25-gallon fuel tank in the rear, this stunningly beautiful car was truly a Grand Tourer, or “une veritable grande routière”.

It cost a staggering £1,600 in the UK, a sum which could buy nine Morris cars.

In France, it was 110,000 Francs, and there you could have ten Citroens for the same money. And this was just for a bare chassis: the body then had to be added. It was thus the most expensive car in the world.

Art Déco was immortalised in the 1919 Hispano Suiza H6 in the intricate metalwork of mascots, headlights and engine vents, and in the colours and textures of the upholstery and furniture.

This style had emerged in France just before the First World War, taking cues from the bold shapes of Cubism, the primary colours of Fauvism and soon the exoticism of Egyptomania: King Tutankhamun’s tomb was excavated in 1922. 

A photo of a Hispano Suiza H6C chassis without a body from the front, showing the radiator.
Hispano Suiza H6C chassis without a body, showing the name plate on the radiator

Egyptian styles had become popular for women’s fashion too: they flung out their Edwardian mother’s corsets, bustles and dresses and ditched their complicated long hairstyles and hats.

What they wanted now was short, bobbed hairstyles, silk pyjamas and short drop-waisted dresses. And the car they wanted to be seen in was the Hispano Suiza H6.

As a result of the car’s technology and fashionable looks, Hispano Suiza H6 owners included Picasso, King Alfonso of Spain and the flying ace André Dubonnet.

The car inspired a best-selling novel, L’Homme à l’Hispano by Pierre Frondaie, in which an impoverished gentleman is given a luxury car by friends and passes himself off as wealthy, attracting a lover. It inspired two films which added still further to the car’s reputation.

As well as having an advanced engine the H6’s brakes were remarkable at a time when most brakes were terrible: there were huge alloy drum brakes on all four wheels and they came with power assistance: a first in the motor industry.

This worked from a mechanical servo drum clutched from the transmission, so all the time the car was rolling there was power assistance available.

A picture of the Hispano-Suiza H6C 1928 transmission brake, showing shiny silver drums and a black chassis.

This braking system was licensed to Rolls-Royce who used it, amazingly, until 1976 on the final series of the Phantom VI (it was not used on the monocoque Silver Shadow in 1965 and its successors).

It was even cleverer than it looked, anticipating modern electronic anti-lock brakes. If the rear wheels locked up during heavy braking, power assistance was lost until the wheels unlocked and started revolving again. Autocar magazine said this:

It does not matter whether the wheels are locked over or whether the car is travelling at high speed, there is no deviation and no uncertainty, the car merely drawing up as though grasped by an invisible hand’.

Autocar, May 1920

The H6 wasn’t perfect; it had only three gears and a crude cone clutch, and hill starts were tricky. To some, the stork mascot on the radiator cap looked like a depressed seagull.

But all considered the Hispano Suiza H6 was as beautiful, well made and advanced as its predecessor, the Rolls Royce Silver Ghost.

And yet today this is a car only remembered by the most discerning car connoisseurs.

Which Engine was in the Hispano Suiza H6?

The Hispano Suiza had a very advanced engine and it has a fascinating predecessor: an aircraft engine. Back in 1912, a “Kaiserpreis” had been offered for the best German aero-engine by Prince Henry of Prussia, and the Daimler company had entered a 7-litre 6-cylindered Mercedes engine with lightweight ‘upperworks’.

These were forged steel cylinders closely surrounded by metal water jackets, with overhead valves seated directly in the cylinder heads operated by an overhead camshaft.

They had copied this method of construction from a French Panhard engine of 1903 and the Antoinette 8V. The power was 84 hp, and the whole thing weighed only 313 lbs (142 kgs).

This DF80 was used in the successful Mercedes racing car of 1914 (one of these was bought by Henry Royce, and he copied the Mercedes engine in turn for his Rolls Royce Eagle aero engine. As is usual today, everyone was copying everyone else).

Marc Birkigt was also watching closely and thought he could do better. Instead of welding expensive and leaky water jackets around each cylinder like Mercedes, he proposed a one-piece cylinder block made of aluminium, with four cylinders formed by steel liners.

This made an immensely rigid and lightweight engine, and his design has gone on to become the accepted norm for modern car engines.

Like Mercedes, Birkigt used a single overhead camshaft over the line of cylinders. Furthermore, to make the Hispano Suiza HS 8A aero engine he placed two of these four cylindered cylinder blocks on a crankcase at 90 degrees, forming a V8 engine of 12 litres and 140 bhp. The power eventually was increased to 330 bhp.

Incidentally, Birkigt hadn’t invented the V8 engine, that was Levavasseur, who in 1903 had patented a fuel-injected eight-litre V8 engine, a machine now so identified with American muscle-car culture of the sixties it might come as a surprise that it was invented by a Frenchman!

This new Hispano-Suiza aero engine was installed in the single-seater SPAD VII fighter and this power advantage eventually enabled the Allies to regain air superiority over the Germans. 40,000 examples were built.

The famous French fighter ace Georges Guynemar flew a Spad VII of the Stork Squadron and that’s how the bird became associated with Hispano Suiza.

How Much is a Hispano Suiza H6 worth?

A 1925 Hispano Suiza H6B Transformable Cabriolet by Belvallette sold for US$445,000 in January 2020 (source Sothebys).

But some restoration projects sell for rather less: US$149,000 was achieved in March 2022 for an H6B rolling chassis: #11007 (source: glenmarch).

And another 1921 H6B was tipped to make between €500,000 to €700,000 in 2022 (source: La Gazette Drouot).

Where Can I Buy a Hispano Suiza H6 For Sale?

Sotheby’s, Bonham’s and other car auctions plus are good sources of these cars.

The Hispano Suiza H6 Speedster

Five racing H6Bs with short wheelbases and slightly bigger engines were built in 1922. They were open racing cars and were eventually named the “Boulogne Speedster” to recognise the H6’s 1 – 2 – 3 win at the sports car race at Boulogne by the drivers Dubonnet, Garnier and Boyriven in 1923.

The Hispano Suiza H6b and H6c Models

The H6B had a slightly more powerful engine. The H6C was an updated version of the H6B with an 8-litre engine developing 160 bhp (source:

The H6C Boulogne Tulipwood Torpedo

The 1924 H6C Dubonnet Boulogne Targa Florio speedster is probably the most famous Hispano Suiza of all. It was commissioned by the ex-flying ace and racing driver André Dubonnet, whose family had amassed a considerable fortune from the cognacs and aperitifs that still bear their name (source: tweedland).

Dubonnet ordered a special lightweight body of under 100 lbs (45 kgs) from an aircraft manufacturer, Nieuport, who obliged by building what was essentially an aircraft fuselage. Nieuport had built the famous 27 series of single-seat fighters.

The H6 body was constructed (it was said) of strips of tulipwood, an extremely light and strong wood weighing just 490 kg per cubic metre (whereas, say, mahogany weighs 673 kgs per cubic metre).

These strakes were riveted onto aluminium ribs in the manner of boat construction. This wooden body was then attached to an H6C Boulogne chassis powered by an 8-litre, 195 hp (145 kW), H6C engine.

Dubonnet entered the car in the 1924 Targa Florio in Sicily and came sixth in a field of 37 starters.

Dubonnet finished the gruelling event without a body or mechanical failure and drove home to Naples afterwards. The car eventually found its way to England, where it was discovered in the back of Hooper’s Coachbuilders in 1950 and then bought by an enthusiast.

This car is now in the Blackhawk Museum near Danville, California. Unfortunately, it has been over-restored, with the glorious patinated old wooden body stripped back to the raw wood and given a plastic varnish finish (source Geraldwingrove).

At this point it was discovered that the body was in fact planked in Honduras mahogany, not tulip wood after all. The ‘Tulip’, it would appear, is a stylistic term, referring to the tulip (rounded and pointed) shape of the rear of the body! Someone got the wrong end of the stick…

This car, with cream leather upholstery and a polished copper undertray now sadly resembles a bad replica (source: tripadvisor).

The 1938 Hispano Suiza Dubonnet Xenia One-Off

The 1938 Hispano-Suiza H6B Dubonnet Xenia was perhaps the apogee of the Art Déco look. The wraparound windscreen and cockpit, the teardrop silhouette and the silver aerodynamic bodywork recalled the glory days of fighter aircraft. Some consider it the most beautiful car ever made.

The car employed an independent coil spring suspension designed by the Hispano Suiza enthusiast André Dubonnet. This was a kind of leading arm arrangement hung off the ends of the axle beams.

It was briefly popular in the 1930s and 40s, being used from 1934 to 1939 by General Motors for the independent front suspension of their Chevrolet cars. It was soon superseded by better systems. It featured coil springs and shock absorbers enclosed in oil-filled containers which were prone to leaks (source wikipedia).)

Only one example was built, and the car was named after Dubonnet’s second wife Xenia Howard Johnston who sadly died after just four years of marriage. Hispano Suiza was soon to die, too, after the Spanish Civil War and the trading difficulties of the Second World War.

Thankfully the car itself survived the war, having been carefully hidden, and is now on display at the Mullin Museum in California. (source: wikipedia)

The Hispano Suiza H6 Carmen

What of Hispano Suiza today? After all, the company closed in 1946. In 2019 a new Hispano Suiza was announced.

The Carmen is a 1005 bhp electric sports car that loosely recalls the Hispano Suiza Dubonnet Xenia. It accelerates from 0-62mph in less than 3.0sec and is largely made of carbon fibre. And in a funny way, it goes right back to the first Hispano Suiza cars of 1898, which were electric.

But now there is an extraordinary legal dispute about who actually owns the name, with – or – without the hyphen (source: motortrend).

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