“Some makes of motor car have suffered from the sycophancy of their admirers, and have even threatened to go sour on us through an overdose of adjectival extravagance. The 6-cylinder Hispano-Suiza is one of these, and the paeans of praise first rang in the hall of the Paris Salon at its unveiling in 1919. The big Hispano, bearing on its radiator cap a statuette of the flying stork insignia of Guynemer’s ace squadron of Hispano-engined SPAD fighters, was one of the most beautifully proportioned machines of the decade and the subject of the most elegant bodies produced by the coachbuilders of Paris and London. With its refinement combined with its vast range of power and faultless engineering standards it was alone in its class in Europe…War-profiteers and surviving members of the aristocracy on both sides of the English Channel were keen buyers of the big six Hispano; and with the ‘blower 4 ½’ Bentley, it must have figured heroically, if fictionally, in more books than any other motor car.” Richard Hough, A History of the World’s Sports Cars, 1961.
Imagine the pride of Monsieur Pierre Lorillard Ronalds making his approach at a society function in late Autumn 1924 in his magnificent new Hispano-Suiza, still gleaming from its recent delivery from arguably Paris’s finest coachbuilders, Messrs Kellner. Pierre Ronalds’ commission of his smart black Coupé de Ville recognised the engineering and coachbuilding finesse of Hispano-Suiza and Kellner respectively. Ronalds would well remember the achievements of Hispano-Suiza engine Spads in the recent hostilities and recognised the significance of the sculpted radiator emblem, ‘La Cigogne Volante’, this being the insignia of Captain Georges Guynemer’s Stork Squadron of fighter planes.
The legendary Société Francaise Hispano-Suiza operated from Rue du Capitaine Guynemer at Bois Colombes, Paris, a business-like operation whose quality products were the choice of European industrial tycoons, Hollywood film stars, Indian Maharajahs and the World’s Royalty. Engineering precision had been refined in aircraft engine development and was the envy of the World’s leading motor car manufacturers. Swiss engineer Marc Birkigt was the genius behind Hispano-Suiza, both at the drawing board and in the engineering shops, and it was his design, the H6 model, that was unveiled to the World in 1919.
The all-new silky-smooth, six-cylinder H6 was to be the mainstay of Hispano-Suiza production through to 1934. The H6B model of 1922 was a further refinement and, although many chassis carried formal coachwork, this belied the high speed motoring that the powerful 6.6 litre engine provided. Mr Ronalds would appreciate its ease of handling, the huge torque of its engine requiring merely three-speeds for the gearbox, and its innovative and highly efficient servo-assisted brakes were a design later to be adopted by no less than Rolls-Royce.
Amongst its peer group of the ‘hyphenated greats’, Isotta-Fraschini, Pierce-Arrow and Rolls-Royce, the Hispano-Suiza stood proud, its distinctive and magical name ensuring its place in history.
Chassis ‘11038’ was despatched from the factory on 27th November 1924 and Mr Ronalds had specified rakish, razor edged Brougham- or Coupé- de Ville coachwork by Carrosserie Kellner at 127, Avenue des Champs-Elysées, one of a small select group of Parisian coachbuilders, later to be chosen to clothe one of the magnificent Bugatti Royales.
The sixty year old Ronalds was used to his comforts and a connoisseur of quality, coming from the fabulously rich American Lorillard tobacco family of New York, one of the oldest in the U.S.A. His home at 11, Rue de la Baume, still standing today, was one of the finest private houses in Paris. ‘11038’ was his fourth Hispano-Suiza and he kept the car until his death in February 1928 when it passed to Madame Carmen de Romero, also of Paris and again a Hispano-Suiza client.
The subsequent history of ‘11038’ is a mystery until the summer of 1967 when photographer and automobile enthusiast Ludo Pivron was filling his Delahaye 135MS cabriolet at a petrol station in the French countryside. By habit he asked the attendant if he knew of any ‘old cars’ locally, and was referred to a local scrap dealer. “I left to follow up this lead and came across a rather gruff 70 year old who agreed to open up the creaking doors of a dilapidated warehouse where, sure enough, sat a coupé de ville protected by sheets of rusty metal” recalls Mr Pivron in a recent letter which accompanies the car. “The disjointed walls of the building had allowed air to flow through; everything was in order, despite the cabin’s open windows. The rear wooden panel was tired, but the interior, complete, was sound and original: the large steering wheel with its various controls, the enormous headlights still in place…the venerable motor car, saved from wartime requisition (which had finished barely a quarter of a century earlier), had undoubtedly been driven there under its own power.”
Mr Pivron continues his story: “The scrap merchant, Monsieur Marchand, grumpy as his profession suggests, finally let it be known that he would consider parting with this treasure for 3,000 French Francs, a colossal sum at a time when my Delahaye cost 500 Francs and an MG PB cost 1200!”
“Half an hour later, back home, I spoke to an industrialist who had just had a 1939 Georges Irat Roadster restored, with front wheel drive. He thought the price very high, even though he had been an engineer at Hispano-Suiza. A few weeks passed and I learned that the Hispano-Suiza had found its way to Paris where it was now for sale at a Volkswagen dealership for 9,000 French Francs.”
“At this point the industrialist decided he wanted it, and after years of expert restoration, he gave this sumptuous H6B back its former lustre. I remember the car was black…A grand automobile.”
The industrialist to which Mr Pivron refers was Alain Balleret, born in 1910 and during the 1930s head of Hispano-Suiza’s experimental department entrusted with, amongst others, developing the marque’s sodium filled valves. His daughter Marie-Blanche writes: “Since then, his passion for cars and metallurgy led post-war to the creation of a precision engineering laboratory and the purchase, near St Etienne, of a steelworks and a foundry with integrated workshops. In the 1970s my father created the Hispano-Suiza Club of France with the technical side entrusted to his long-time friend Mr Hermann, a former Hispano-Suiza director and inventor of the multi-fuel engine used in the AMX tank.”
“Until his death on 1st January 1988 my father organised numerous Hispano-Suiza tours including many in conjunction with the American club…The H6B was restored by a master coachbuilder near St Etienne, Mr Saillant (now deceased) and was inaugurated for my wedding in June 1971. Since then it has taken part in many rallies including the Monte Carlo in 1973.” Chassis ‘11038’, during Mr Balleret’s ownership, shared a motor house with the fabulous one-off Hispano-Suiza ‘Xenia’, today in a prominent US collection.
Following Mr Balleret’s death, the Kellner-bodied Hispano-Suiza remained cosseted in the motor house at the family’s chateau, last seeing service on the Barcelona-Paris rally some 3-4 years ago. Emerging in 2007, it was delivered to Geneva for professional recommissioning. The carburettor was entrusted for rebuilding to Mr Limpaler, a specialist in the North of France, and all the running gear was carefully checked, cleaned and tested. A recent road test saw the car performing strongly and briskly. Oil pressure was good, steering and brakes precise and all mechanical and electrical aspects working correctly. Most surprising of all, on the straights this 84 year old Hispano-Suiza was able to pull clear of modern traffic. The engine block has been carefully checked for corrosion (including removal of the inlet manifold to see inside) and given a clean bill of health.
This quintessentially French Coupé de Ville, in its now gently matured livery with highly polished aluminium bonnet and wheel discs, is magnificently equipped with original Bleriot dipping headlamps, a Cicca brass-trumpeted Tenor electric horn (loud enough to shift anything ahead) and windscreen-mounted opera side lamps. It is upholstered to the chauffeur’s compartment in black leather and to the rear in beige cloth. Luxury fittings include interior electric light, wind-down divisions to the front compartment, rear passenger vanity set and speaking tube. Driving equipment includes side-mounted spare wheel, two-piece opening windscreen, running board-mounted tool chest, polished aluminium dash panel with complete Hispano-Suiza instrumentation, telescopic front dampers and a rear luggage carrier and removable trunk with fitted suitcases (complete with original keys) for the grand tour. Accompanying the car are its old French Carte Grise, current UK registration document, fresh MoT roadworthiness certificate, new road tax disc, and a fascinating history file.
Offering the best of open and closed motoring and suitable for all climates, with ample room in the lavish rear compartment for guests or keeping younger passengers busy, this handsome Coupé de Ville is the perfect motor car for entertaining. ‘11038’ is also well able to hold station on the elite motor tour and would be a welcome and serious contender in the conservation class on the premier Concours d’Élégance lawns.