Simanaitis Says

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ONE OF the world’s first sports cars was named after an auto enthusiast who was also a king. The Hispano-Suiza Type 45CR, introduced in 1911, possessed everything sporting of the era and soon became known as the Alfonso XIII.


Alfonso León Fernando Maria Jaime Isidro Pascual Antonio de Borbón y Habsburgo-Lorena, 1886 – 1941, King of Spain 1886 – 1941.

Alfonso succeeded his late father Alfonso XII to the Spanish throne from birth. As Alfonso XIII, he fled Spain when the Second Spanish Republic was proclaimed in 1931. In 1941, in exile, he abdicated in favor of his son Juan and then died six weeks later.

Throughout his life, Alfonso was an avid motor sports enthusiast, establishing the Catalan Cup for voiturette racing in 1909. From the firm’s 1904 beginnings in Barcelona, Hispano-Suiza motor cars attracted his interest.

In The Alfonso Hispano-Suiza, one of the Classic Car Profiles, English classic car authority Bill Boddy observed “King Alfonso had a number of these Hispanos and drove them far and fast; legend has it that the purpose of some of his high-speed journeys at the wheel of these cars was better left undisclosed…!”

Not incidentally, Alfonso was the father of six illegitimate children in addition to his six legitimate heirs.

The name Hispano-Suiza reflects this automaker’s Barcelona origin and the Swiss nationality of Marc Birkigt, its immensely talented engineer who led design of the company’s cars and aero engines.


Marc Birkigt, 1878 – 1953, Swiss engineer extraordinaire, Hispano-Suiza designer.

As the 20th century drew to a close, Birkigt was one of 26 nominated as Car Engineer of the Century. Other honorees included Ettore Bugatti, Henry Ford, Gabriel Voisin (see “Les Autos Voisin,” and William Edwards Deming (see “W. Edwards Deming—A Man of High Quality,” Ferdinand Porsche won.


1919 Short-Chassis Hispano-Suiza Alfonso XIII. This and other images from Classic Cars in Profile Volume 4, general editor Anthony Harding, Doubleday and Company, 1968.

The Hispano-Suiza Type 45CR, soon to be graced by King Alfonso XIII with his name, was efficient and lithe. In an era of 10-liter behemoths, its Birkigt-designed inline-four displaced 3.6 liters. The engine was mounted low and aft in the chassis, giving a low center of gravity and nimble handling.


The Hispano-Suiza Alfonso typified rakish motoring.

Other aspects of the car enhanced its voiturette nature, though were less innovative. The engine had a T-head, its inverted valves actuated by pushrods and twin camshafts residing in the light-alloy block. Boddy noted that the valve stems and springs “were quite naked and unashamed.”


The Alfonso’s inline-four had a long stroke, 180 mm versus its 80-mm bore. It revved to 2300 rpm and produced 64 hp.

Brakes were typical of the era. Primary retardation was provided by a pedal actuating a transmission brake directly on the driveshaft to the rear axle. Rear wheels had drum brakes operated by a right-hand lever. No front brakes were fitted.


An Alfonso seen in the paddock of Brooklands circuit, c. 1920s.

Wrote Boddy, “But, in its day, what a fascinating motor-car it was!” The Alfonso was capable of 85 mph in standard tune, very quick for the era. And, recalled Boddy, his particular Alfonso “was certainly capable of climbing the old Birdlip Hill out of Gloucester without coming off second speed.”


This Hispano-Suiza Alfonso now resides in the U.S. See for an entertaining video from The Revs Institute for Automotive Research.

Your car’s wire wheels glinting in the sunshine, its steering wheel a’twitter in your hands, the wind tousling your cap—all this and a royal heritage. What more could a sporting driver desire? ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2015


  1. Whitemule
    January 4, 2015

    Superb car for such a insuferable character.

  2. Marshall Schuon
    January 4, 2015

    I first came across the Hispano-Suiza as a kid in the early 1950’s, reading my way through the “Saint” mystery novels by Leslie Charteris. Simon Templar’s chariot of choice was a speedy Hispano-Suiza and I wondered about them for a longish while. Finally, whilst writing the NYT cars column, I did get to ride in one in a parade of old cars down Broadway. I was smiling a lot. 🙂

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