Simplicity is elegance: Hispano-Suiza J12 by Vanvooren

| 5 Nov 2021
Classic & Sports Car – Simplicity is elegance: Hispano-Suiza J12 by Vanvooren

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Few mascots match the character of a car more than the elegant chrome stork launching off the radiator of the fabled Hispano-Suiza J12.

With its long neck resembling the seemingly endless 6ft bonnet, and wings in downward launch strokes to highlight the mighty torque of its 9.4-litre V12, the wader’s grand, rangy proportions perfectly evoke the French-built great.

The brilliant Swiss engineer Marc Birkigt designed three iconic Hispano-Suizas: Alfonso, H6 and J12.

Marque connoisseurs will argue long about which is the greatest, but it’s the 120 J12s built between 1932 and ’38 that have near-mythical status as the finest of their age.

Classic & Sports Car – Simplicity is elegance: Hispano-Suiza J12 by Vanvooren

Ninety years ago the prototype was ready for testing with the fastidious Birkigt often at the wheel.

Although the leaf-sprung, live-axle chassis was conservative, the design excelled with highly developed ideas and superb quality.

At the heart of this masterpiece was a new V12, its single camshaft between the cylinder banks operating short pushrods and rocker valvegear to ensure total refinement as it purred along.

The cylinder blocks were set at a 60º angle, with a square bore and stroke of 100mm by 100mm giving a swept volume of 9425cc.

Classic & Sports Car – Simplicity is elegance: Hispano-Suiza J12 by Vanvooren

Birkigt was an expert of vee configurations, as his water-cooled overhead-cam V8 aero engine established in dogfights powering SPAD and SE5 fighters during WW1.

A V12 aircraft design was on the drawing board but never made production, and all of his automotive units until the J12 had been in-line ‘fours’ or ‘sixes’.

The V12 looked clean and elegant, its integral blocks and heads cast in aluminium but finished in black enamel, just like his aero engines.

Everything was fitted in pairs, with factory-made twin-choke carburettors fuelling the thirsty ports fired by two Scintilla magnetos, supplemented by SEV distributors, and the twin-plug spec operated by a dashboard switch.

Classic & Sports Car – Simplicity is elegance: Hispano-Suiza J12 by Vanvooren

Lift the elongated bonnet and the engine’s clean, seductive black finish, including to the vitreous exhaust manifolds, enhances the fabulous power unit’s purposeful splendour. ‘A masterpiece of order and simplicity,’ observed writer and historian Douglas ‘Bunny’ Tubbs.

With a 6:1 compression ratio, the prototype Type 68 produced 200bhp at a relaxed 3000rpm, which usurped all contemporary grand tourers except the white elephant Bugatti Royale.

To stop this exclusive leviathan, the J12 was fitted with the finest drum brakes, with light pedal operation eased by Birkigt’s advanced servo driven off the gearbox.

The worm-and-wheel steering was hydraulically damped, and once rolling provided easy, precise control.

Classic & Sports Car – Simplicity is elegance: Hispano-Suiza J12 by Vanvooren

Unlike the nose-heavy rival Rolls-Royce Phantom III, the J12, with its radiator and V12 set well back, created a balanced chassis layout that inspired the finest coachbuilders of the 1930s.

For once, the finished body matched the beautiful drawings produced in brochure artwork.

Saoutchik, Graber, and Fernandez et Darrin all built sensational bespoke coachwork for the J12, but Vanvooren created the most elegant lines.

In 1934 such engineering magnificence clothed with drophead bodywork came at a huge price: £3500 in Britain, almost twice the price of the latest Phantom III.

Classic & Sports Car – Simplicity is elegance: Hispano-Suiza J12 by Vanvooren

Story has it that during the launch of the J12 at the 1931 Paris Salon in the magnificent Grand Palais, renowned motoring journalist Charles Faroux of La Vie Automobile requested to borrow the spectacular Hispano flagship for a 1700km test.

The factory agreed and in October Faroux took the new V12 from Paris to Nice and back. Sparing none of its 200 horses, Faroux drove the exclusive exotic as hard as he could.

On its return to Paris the J12 was reversed into the factory showroom on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, whereupon a long sheet of white paper was laid down under the chassis.

Amazingly, during the week it was on show, not a drop of oil or water would blemish the paper – what better confirmation of the French factory’s meticulous assembly of the new flagship model?

Classic & Sports Car – Simplicity is elegance: Hispano-Suiza J12 by Vanvooren

Birkigt was clearly confident about Faroux’s tough challenge, because the previous summer he had taken the prototype for a run from the Bois-Colombes factory to his Swiss home on the shores of Lake Geneva in Versoix.

Perhaps the paper-under-chassis test was carried out upon his return to Paris, too.

Despite the grim economic climate of the time, the super-exclusive J12 managed to tempt wealthy buyers where Bugatti had totally failed with the Royale.

The order book included the King of Romania, three maharajas, the Shah of Persia, financier Anthony de Rothschild, Émile Dubonnet and Pablo Picasso, but the ultimate version of the J12 was produced for racing drivers Whitney Straight and Count Felice Trossi.

Classic & Sports Car – Simplicity is elegance: Hispano-Suiza J12 by Vanvooren

In a reverse of the Bugatti Royale project, this uprated J12 with a bored-out 250bhp, 11.3-litre power unit had originated from a little-known Hispano-Suiza railcar design.

In 1933, Raoul Dautry, then the director general of the Chemins de fer de l’État (the state-owned French railway operator), contracted Hispano-Suiza to develop engines for use in the ‘Micheline’ (rubber-tyred) railcars.

As well as the V12, Birkigt built a prototype flat-12 Type 86 that shared components with both Hispano’s aircraft and automotive units.

When French industry refocused on military contracts, the Hispano railcar project was terminated but amazingly one V12-powered railcar survives in the Yunnan province of China, where it once operated on the Kunming-Haiphong Railway.

Just imagine a dream Bugatti vs Hispano speed test in 1934, matching grand tourers with streamlined railcars!

Classic & Sports Car – Simplicity is elegance: Hispano-Suiza J12 by Vanvooren

Other than a few running along Highway 1 prior to the Pebble Beach concours I’ve never seen a J12 on the road, but those lucky few to have owned one have marvelled at its amazing refinement and silky power, particularly with the later 11.3-litre specification.

Best known of the English owners was Peter Hampton, the renowned collector and Bugattiste, who rated his Saoutchik-bodied two-seater roadster the finest car he’d owned.

With his wife Lola alongside, he regularly took the blue beauty with pigskin upholstery on long road trips including the Scottish Highlands and the Côte d’Azur.

Classic & Sports Car – Simplicity is elegance: Hispano-Suiza J12 by Vanvooren

Hampton was seriously wounded by shrapnel during the Normandy landings in 1944, handicapping the use of his arm, but the J12’s wide range of torque in top proved ideal for his gearchanging challenge.

“If I could take only one car to my desert island it would be the V12 Hispano-Suiza,” claimed Hampton in ’73.

The following owner, American Tom Perkins, was also spoilt for choice from his supercharged collection, which included a Bugatti Type 57SC and Alfa Romeo 8C 2.9.

But when his remarkable pre-war set was sold to Ralph Lauren it was only the J12 that he kept until his death in 2016.

On beautiful days in Marin County, he’d regularly take the Hispano for early morning drives up the deserted coast roads. The blue roadster on the California quayside perfectly complemented his sensational transatlantic yachts.

Classic & Sports Car – Simplicity is elegance: Hispano-Suiza J12 by Vanvooren

The much-missed journalist Ronald ‘Steady’ Barker was another impressed by the J12 when he tested one on the newly opened M1, which in 1960 had no speed limit.

On a Hertfordshire stretch near St Albans, using The Autocar’s electric test speedometer, Barker clocked 103mph on the level and 105mph on a slight descent, the 2.5-tonne J12 consuming petrol at 9mpg during the flat-out runs on a deserted motorway.

The majestic Hispano, top down on a winter morning, must have been quite a sight as it flashed past new Vauxhall Victors near Luton.

Classic & Sports Car – Simplicity is elegance: Hispano-Suiza J12 by Vanvooren

‘Birkigt’s V12 was as quiet as a club library,’ reported Barker in his road test, titled ‘Big Torque, Small Stork’, published on 1 January 1960.

‘With four exhausts and eight silencers, Hispano left little chance of an exhaust burble. Only when maximum crankshaft speed is approached can the engine be felt in the cockpit.

‘The brakes gave full confidence, and even from high speeds there was no hint of axle tramp.’

The ride was ‘top quality for cart springs’, while the Duplex dampers, adjustable from the cockpit, offered ideal options for wide-open boulevards or routes nationale.

Classic & Sports Car – Simplicity is elegance: Hispano-Suiza J12 by Vanvooren

Amazingly, the first owner and the early history of the 1935 Vanvooren-bodied beauty featured here remain a mystery, despite extensive research by owners Peter and Merle Mullin.

So far the Hispano-Suiza Society has drawn a blank on ‘14004’, although it’s believed the chassis first carried a limousine-style body by Fernandez et Darrin.

That was soon replaced by a more stylish drophead design by Vanvooren, one of eight open J12s built by the Courbevoie-based carrosserie in the Paris suburbs.

Classic & Sports Car – Simplicity is elegance: Hispano-Suiza J12 by Vanvooren

Founded by Achille Vanvooren in 1910, the firm was taken over by MJ Dasté in 1919 and established many patents for Silentbloc body construction.

Dasté eventually moved to head up the automotive division of Hispano-Suiza but Vanvooren continued as the de facto body supplier, particularly for cabriolet-style coachwork.

French records have recently revealed that this drophead J12 was registered in 1937 to the Laboratoires de Tirage Cinématographe of 19 Quai du Président Carnot in Saint-Cloud, the wealthy western suburb of Paris.

Classic & Sports Car – Simplicity is elegance: Hispano-Suiza J12 by Vanvooren

The laboratory processed some of the most successful French films during the pre-war years, including the gangster thriller Pépé le Moko and the Jean Renoir-directed anti-war masterpiece La Grande Illusion.

How the proprietor of a film lab afforded such an exclusive car, which even at two years old would have still been expensive, is a mystery.

Like many pre-war exotics, the Vanvooren-bodied Hispano later found its way to California, where in the ’50s it was discovered on a used-car lot in Los Angeles and eventually joined the collection of Richard Paine.

The founder of the Seal Cove Auto Museum, based on the spectacular Mount Desert Island in Maine, displayed the J12 with an eclectic group of mostly brass-era cars.

Classic & Sports Car – Simplicity is elegance: Hispano-Suiza J12 by Vanvooren

Paine ran a successful car dealership and was one of the first to import Saabs to America.

Never able to resist a good deal, Paine was made an offer by collector John Mozart and the J12 headed back to the West Coast.

A perfectionist about his car collection, Mozart had the J12 restored to concours standard and commissioned California-based historic race specialist Phil Reilly, who maintained Perkins’ J12, to rebuild the mighty engine.

Refinished in dark blue, the restored Vanvooren cabriolet was shown four times at Pebble Beach and in 1992 was acquired by Peter Mullin to become one of the stars of his fantastic museum of Gallic coachbuilt beauties in Oxnard, California.

Classic & Sports Car – Simplicity is elegance: Hispano-Suiza J12 by Vanvooren

The J12 has since been a regular concours class winner, including the Designer’s Choice at the Concours of America and Best of Show at the Montecito Concours d’Elegance.

There were few more passionate about the J12 than the late Jules Heumann, furniture designer, president of the Hispano-Suiza Society and Pebble Beach concours saviour.

Heumann owned several Hispano models during his life, including the ex-Count Trossi 11.3-litre short-chassis J12 with Faux Cabriolet bodywork by Vanvooren.

Classic & Sports Car – Simplicity is elegance: Hispano-Suiza J12 by Vanvooren

“For brute force and sophisticated silence, nothing matches the satisfying driving experience of the great J12,” said Heumann.

“Despite criticism that the gearboxes had but three speeds, these cars had immense torque. They are top-gear automobiles, and shifting down to second is seldom required.”

With the Hispano’s right-hand drive, Heumann used to take great delight in passing modern cars on freeways, particularly when climbing hills.

“It was amusing noting the consternation when the behemoth passes. That joy of driving is matched by the exquisite engineering, the elegant design of every part, and superb quality level throughout.

“Doing most of the mechanical work myself on these cars, I cannot help but be impressed over and over again when handling the various components. Marc Birkigt was a genius.”

Classic & Sports Car – Simplicity is elegance: Hispano-Suiza J12 by Vanvooren

The Autocar came to similar conclusions in 1934, with the subhead: ‘A car Magnificent; Astonishing acceleration and Ease of performance.’

The road-test figures timed around Brooklands were: ‘An amazing order, surpassing any similar set of test data recorded by The Autocar for a production vehicle.’

These famed J12s have captivated me since I was a boy because they always featured prominently in books of greatest automobiles and ranges of model cars.

To step up into the spectacular cockpit of the drophead on a beautiful summer afternoon is a dream come true.

Classic & Sports Car – Simplicity is elegance: Hispano-Suiza J12 by Vanvooren

With steering column-mounted levers for ignition timing, choke, hand throttle and magneto all correctly set, and fuel pump activated, the big moment of pressing the J12’s starter finally arrives.

The 9.4-litre V12 wakes with a silky burble, which is barely audible at tickover, but the initial driving operations are disappointingly cumbersome with a heavy steering action and deep, ponderous slices up the three-speed gear gate.

With first a dogleg, the change up and across to second is best done slowly due to the yawning ratio gaps and hefty internals.

The ridiculously high first gear is good for 50mph, second for 80mph, and third, if the road is straight, beyond the ton.

Classic & Sports Car – Simplicity is elegance: Hispano-Suiza J12 by Vanvooren

Pounding flat-out around Brooklands in 1934 must have been something else, but tight Essex lanes are no place for this valuable 2½-tonne super-tourer.

Once into top, the J12 pulls from walking pace like a Chapelon steam loco, and even crawling out of roundabouts the creamy power unit effortlessly picks up speed.

On clearer routes, it’s easier to relax and appreciate the quality controls as the steering lightens.

Thankfully, when white vans impatiently cut in, the impressive assisted brake action pulls up the J12 superbly.

Classic & Sports Car – Simplicity is elegance: Hispano-Suiza J12 by Vanvooren

Most original owners were chauffeur-driven but they missed a fabulous experience at the wheel.

With the view down that bonnet and the famous stork as a sight, there’s a special feeling to controlling this masterpiece.

The J12 impresses today, but in the 1930s nothing rivalled it for refined, luxurious motoring.

Even its modest designer must have smiled to himself as it purred up the drive to his grand Rives Bleues home after a 350-mile run from the Paris works.

Images: Olgun Kordal

Thanks to Peter and Merle MullinPeter Reeve


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