America and the V8: a love story (from France)

Here’s an interesting little meander through time that takes us through the greater part of the past century – from the air war over the Western Front to Texan boogie rock.

In the 1900s, the design and development of internal combustion engines became a French speciality and in their bid to increase reliability and profitability the Monobloc engine was created. Effectively this meant that far fewer individual components were needed if the the cylinder block, cylinder head and crankcase were all forged as a single item.

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An early Monobloc design

Available as early as 1905 from manufacturers such as De Dion Bouton, the Monobloc truly came of age in the hands of Swiss designer Marc Birkigt, whose Hispano-Suiza V8 was lighter and more powerful than any other aero engine in the Allied arsenal… becoming effectively the Rolls-Royce Merlin of World War 1.

The Hispano-Suiza first found fame in the SPAD S.VII in which Capitaine Georges Guynemer briefly became the most successful Allied air ‘ace’ of the war, then became the power plant for Britain’s S.E.5 – arguably the greatest fighter design of the war. When the Americans arrived, they opted for the later SPAD S.XIII as their front-line fighter and in these machines were written the legends of Eddie Rickenbacker, Frank Luke and Raoul Lufbery, among others.

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Eddie Rickenbacker’s patriotic SPAD – beautifully captured by Jim Dietz

As with all Monoblocs, even the Hispano-Suizas encountered some problems along the way. Primarily this was down to the outsourced manufacturing quality of components rather than the fundamental engine design – although most failures would serve to highlight any inherent weakness around the gasket and exhaust.

Nevertheless, the sophistication and power of the V8, together with the enthusiasm for ‘ace’ pilots in SPADs, set America thinking. If it could use its industrial might to iron out any kinks, then V8 power could become central to postwar living.

The most effective solution to the Monobloc‘s problems was to adopt side-valve design, reducing the stresses on the weakest links in the chain. It was with the side-valve ‘Flathead V-8’ engine that Ford Motor Company took the motoring world by storm between the wars.

Having established the mass production of motor cars with the Model T of 1908, Ford was content to rest on its laurels for 18 years until the advances in engineering that emerged from World War 1 finally caught up with the old ‘Tin Lizzie’.

Ford’s belated response was the Model A, which was barely less Spartan in its simplicity than the Model T but was packaged far more elegantly and, unlike its predecessor, featured controls in the same layout as most other mass-market cars.

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The Model A Ford brought modern motoring to the masses

The Model A was a success, averaging almost a million sales per year, but the car buying market was growing ever-more sophisticated and demanding. Rivals such as General Motors were keen to offer an ever-increasing range of options based as much upon personalisation and comfort as they were to efficiency, while in Europe levels of style and sophistication were reaching their zenith.

Ford decided to try and outdo both.

The result was really only a single solution that went under many names, but for the sake of brevity it shall be called the 1932 Model B. As many major components as possible were carried over from the Model A but alongside the traditional 4-cylinder engine but alongside it in the showrooms was something rather special: a Monobloc V8 called the Model 18.

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Ford’s version of the Monobloc V-8: the side-valve ‘Flathead V-8’

This was a Model B fitted with what Ford called its ‘Flathead V-8’. At a stroke, the Blue Oval could offer a smoother-running, more powerful engine for just $10 more than the standard 4-cylinder model. In total the Model B was also available with an array of 14 body styles, from standard sedans through roadsters, coupés, woodies and trucks… the very model of platform-sharing diversity.

The Model B and Ford’s Flathead V-8 became motoring icons overnight – and remained that way for decades. They were cheap to buy, relatively cheap to maintain and sold at a rate in excess of 300,000 units per year.

In 1933 the Model B was reworked again. As Ford’s motor won a following, so the car that it belonged to was given a longer wheelbase, a radiator grille shaped like a medieval knight’s shield and smoothed out styling on the inside and out. The Flathead V-8 was also tweaked; gaining better ignition to boost power. This would become the Model C, with the Flathead V-8 version being named the Model 40.

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The 1933 Ford put a stylish face on a wide array of bodies

 

The V8 took hold among all American automobile manufacturers thereafter, but thanks to its low cost and endless variety of cars, Ford produced arguably the greatest icon of American motoring between the wars.

Not only that, but there were now European Ford V8s being built in England and Germany, led by the Ford V-8 Pilot. It was a boon to moonshine runners during prohibition, and in this era of Jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, the whole world fell under the spell of these smooth American engines.

During World War 2, V12s were the weapon of choice in the air but in the late 1940s, Ford’s faithful Flathead V-8 was still a mainstay of post-war motoring. It became the focus of a cottage industry of tuners and tweaks – either those who wanted to race on the drag strip and stock car circuit or continue to keep one step ahead of the law.

The birth of the hot rod movement and the NASCAR stock car racing series ensured that Flathead V-8s remained at the forefront. Kids bought them, stripped them, tuned them and had a whale of a time in their Little Deuce Coupes and a whole host of other variations on the theme.

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The Beach Boys had their ’32 Ford – the Little Deuce Coupe

But then in the mid-Fifties, General Motors went and moved the goalposts with its ‘small block’ V8. This was a relatively fuel-efficient 90-degree V8 with overhead valves and pushrod valve train that would set new standards for light weight, compact size, general simplicity and remarkable durability.

After 40 years, the V8 Monobloc was history.

Chevrolet’s V8 became – and largely remains – the weapon of choice for America’s hot rodders and racers, who called it the Mighty Mouse for its ability to punch above its weight in the tuning shop – and colloquially the Mouse ever after. And among the legions of fans that the Mouse has won over the years was a man called Billy Gibbons, who is also among the world’s finest blues guitarists and one third of the boogie-rock band ZZ Top.

In 1976, Gibbons went to Don Thelen of Buffalo Motor Cars and Ronnie Jones of Hand Crafted Metal. The guitarist wanted to create the ultimate hot rod with the iconic looks of the 1933 Ford Model C and the refined power of a small block Chevy. It would take seven years to realise that dream – and the result was the legendary ZZ Top Eliminator.

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Billy Gibbons (centre), with Frank Beard (thank you Matthew Carter!) and Dusty Hill – ZZ Top

While the car was being completed, Gibbons just happened to be in the process of turning ZZ Top’s brand of gnarly Texan blues-rock into a powerhouse of radio-friendly unit shifters. ZZ Top created an album that was to become as much a part of the Eighties cultural experience as Tom Cruise, big hair and shoulder pads… and it too was called Eliminator.

The completed car became the basis for the album’s artwork. It also starred in all of the videos for the hit singles that it spawned – Gimme All Your Lovin, Sharp Dressed Man and Legs. In fact the car provided the story in all the videos, in which young men were rescued from Cinderella-style drudgery by a bevy of beautiful women, who scooped them up and carried them off in the Eliminator to a world of good times, cheap sunglasses and bearded blues-rock.

Nice!

Now, there are few elements of the American Dream that are as instantly recognisable as the burble of a V8 engine. It’s a 90-year love affair that shows no sign of slowing down, for all the Elon Musks of the world. So just remember, next time you see a Hot Rod or watch a NASCAR race – or when your favourite TV cop arrives at a crime scene in a jet black Escalade – it’s as all-American as escargots de Bourgogne, fine champagne and fresh fougasse. Indeed, as all-American as the Statue of Liberty itself.

Vive les États-Unis d’Amérique!

56th Daytona 500

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Celluloid dogfights: a brief history

With a title that sounds like a b-side from the late David Bowie, the S&G reflects upon the too-few attempts to portray World War 1 in the air on the silver screen.

In many ways it is a tragedy that stories of the young pilots in peril during World War 1 have not received as much of the high quality of storytelling as their counterparts in the trenches. Perhaps it is the lack of poetry. Perhaps it the combined legacy of Biggles, Snoopy and Captain Flashheart that serious depictions of the airmen of the great war are so few and far between.

Whatever it is that has caused this massive gap in popular culture is utterly and fundamentally wrong-headed. Here endeth the lesson, now let’s watch some aeroplanes and dream of the day that Peter Jackson actually gets on with making the ultimate cinematic tribute.

Grand-daddy of them all is Howard Hughes’s movie Wings (1927), featuring a whole lot of veteran pilots flying war surplus aircraft. Even then, genuine machinery was becoming hard to come by and one could never mistake California for Passchendaele in a million years but enough about this epic film was authentic in a way that nobody since would ever attempt to match.

The advent of World War 2 somewhat stifled demand for movies about World War 1. Not until the 1960s was there another blockbuster about flying over the Western Front and it came in the form of The Blue Max (1966), starring George Peppard. As with Wings, the aerial sequences were filmed for real, with just enough authentic-looking replicas of Fokker Dr.Is, Fokker D.VIIs, Pfalz D.IIIs and S.E.5as to conceal the makeweight Tiger Moth contingent in the rear. The back screen projection for the actors’ close-ups look rather quaint in this day and age but it was a stronger film than it receives credit for.

Fast forward to 1975 and you have the hottest star of the era, Robert Redford, lighting up that million megawatt smile as The Great Waldo Pepper; a tale of barnstormers in the midwest in the days after World War 1. In the final section of the film, director and writer George Roy Hill goes all-out to recreate the filming of Howard Hughes’s Wings – including putting his actors into biplanes for their close-up shots. It is a riot that quickly gets out of hand when Waldo, the ace in his own mind, goes head-to-head with Ernst Kessler, the German ace of aces…

George Roy Hill went out of his way to celebrate the World War 1 airman in war, in peace and most importantly in popular culture while, at the same time, the British took a very different approach. The movie Dawn Patrol (1975) and the BBC TV series Wings (1976-77) attempted to tell the story of the air war as sneering social commentary. Both appear to have been written by North London socialists in penance for Britain’s imperial past. Jeremy Corbyn probably has the DVD box set of Wings in pride of place on his Soviet-era wall units. Ghastly.

After decades of silence about biplanes (and triplanes) over the Western Front, in came Hollywood with a bright young star, James Franco. Predictably, this is a tale of how Americans tried to win the war before Woodrow Wilson had got under starter’s orders. Flyboys (2006) was loosely based on the story of the Escadrille Lafayette in 1916-17 and is actually a good deal less infuriating than it might have been – although the speed of the CGI Nieuports and Fokkers seems to owe more to Star Wars than to The Blue Max.

And finally we have the slightly poetic violence portrayed in The Red Baron (2008) – a German movie filmed in English to try and maximise the international audience.

There is an awful lot to commend this one, but despite being a veritable feast for the eyes it’s all a bit flat with no edges whatsoever, turning the real-life Red Baron into something of a gauzy nonentity. There are moments of beauty that the PlayStation graphics of Hollywood would have overlooked but, oddly, if I were trying to conjure up some enthusiasm for World War 1 flying in someone without much exposure to it, I’d play something else. This film just isn’t quite as good as it could have been, in the same way that Flyboys isn’t as bad as it should have been.

It is quite interesting to see how techniques – and the speed of the aircraft – have changed over the years. So too are the perspectives of the film makers themselves. As the centenaries continue to roll round over the next couple of years, these films may well be dragged out of the hangar on occasion. As the remaining links between our lives and those that the films attempted to portray slip deeper beneath the waves, that is something of a worry. There really was so much more than any of what the movies have given us. Future generations may as well study Snoopy…

 

The centenary of air power

In 2016 there will be many anniversaries to be marked in what is the centenary of one of the busiest and most tragic years of the First World War. One consistent theme through the year is the fact that it marks 100 years since military aviation came of age and was organised along clear lines of aircraft design, production and front-line tactical use.

When Europe descended into war in the summer of 1914, the sole purpose of aircraft was to act as a forward scout, observing the enemy’s movements and reporting back to their masters, whether on land or sea. From this limited brief, individual enterprise was then primarily responsible for increasing that scope of services to the bombing of selected targets and the interception and destruction of enemy aircraft.

Until 1916, the primary aircraft were observation machines designed for the purpose of reconnaissance, with a few faster ‘scout’ type aircraft being fitted with machine guns in an effort to shoot the enemy’s machines down. But then in 1916 a diverse array of specialised aircraft types was conceived, designed and built at an utterly phenomenal pace, identifying and fulfilling the same roles that air forces have performed from that day to this.

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The Nieuport 17 was one of the first of a new breed of aircraft to emerge in 1916

Between New Year and the summer of 1916, ‘scout’ aircraft evolved into the thoroughbred fighter and this was deployed in dedicated squadrons whose existence was purely to attack enemy aircraft. Despite the rise of the fighter, the standard two-seat military aircraft design remained the most numerous of all the types in service, but was sub-divided into pure reconnaissance machinery, light bombers and the first generation of multi-role strike aircraft.

Fighters made for good propaganda – with the scores of individual units and, more importantly, their leading pilots – becoming an obsession on both sides of the lines. Germany had already enshrined its first ‘aces’ Max Immelman and Oswald Bölcke as heroes of the age, and their achievements inspired other young men to follow them.

Soon Britain would be cheering Albert Ball to the echo and France would fall under the spell of Georges Guynemer, but there was of course the thorny problem of how to bring news of the death of these supposed supermen. Georges Boillot, the lion of Peugeot’s pre-war Grand Prix team and one of the early French aces would be killed in May, his compatriot Jean Navarre would be invalided out of the front line a month later. Max Immelman would die in June, followed by Bölcke in October.

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Georges Guynemer was one of the ‘superstar’ pilots to emerge in 1916

While the headlines and newsreels were dominated by the dashing single-seater pilots, still greater significance was the appearance of the first strategic bombers – heavyweights designed to carry the maximum destructive payload for the furthest distance. From the start of the year when bombs were being dropped by hand onto enemy troop emplacements and aircraft sheds, both sides on the Western Front had the fundamental capability to reach the capital cities of their respective enemies and reduce areas of them to rubble.

Designing individual aircraft types and then producing them in volume was one half of the equation. So too was the production line of young men to fly and fight in these machines, resulting in a giant leap forward in aircrew training in order to fulfil the new roles and to plug the gaps in front-line squadrons that would inevitably occur as the air war grew more effective at killing these magnificent men in their flying machines.

The first records of how many men were to be required to fly these aircraft began in July 1916, and over the course of the next six months it was shown that the inclusive total of killed and missing was 419 men, which represented one casualty per 206 hours flown by the RFC. The number of men in the air would increase, as would the number and frequency of losses, in line with the growth of the combatants’ air services.

A thumbnail sketch of what happened in each month of 1916 now follows. In the course of the next 11 months or so, the S&G will be returning to some of the aircraft, airmen and stories of the time to commemorate this most remarkable year in the history of mankind.

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The perspective of war on the land and in the air changed forever in 1916

January

  • Requirement for large scale night flying instruction recognised by British Air Ministry to counter the threat of Zeppelin raids on London and other UK targets
  • Nieuport 17 fighter prototype flies
  • Junkers J.I all-metal monoplane fighter prototype flies
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In Britain, early 1916 was spent worrying about Zeppelin raids on the home front

February (Battle of Verdun begins)

  • Germany commissions squadrons consisting purely of single-seat scouts tasked with shooting down enemy aircraft – the first fighter squadrons
  • Airco DH.2 fighter enters service with the Royal Flying Corps – Britain’s first dedicated interceptor
  • Sopwith 1½ Strutter light bomber reaches Royal Naval Air Service squadrons in France
  • Sopwith Pup fighter prototype flies

March

  • Royal Flying Corps establishes the first Home Defence squadrons around London
  • Nieuport 17 fighter reaches Armée de l’Air squadrons in France
  • Fokker D.II fighter reaches German Air Service squadrons in France

April

  • Royal Flying Corps aircraft fly supplies to the besieged city of Kut in eastern Iraq – the first airlift in military history
  • Spad S.VII fighter prototype flies
  • Gotha G.II heavy bomber prototype flies
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Gotha’s new series of heavy bombers would bring terror from afar

May (Battle of Jutland)

  • Sopwith Pup fighter reaches Royal Naval Air Service squadrons in France
  • Sopwith Triplane fighter prototype flies

June (Battle of Mecca)

  • Royal Flying Corps conducts intensive reconnaissance of the Somme valley in France and targets German observation balloons and aircraft which might be able to capture information about preparations for the coming assault
  • Royal Aircraft Factory RE8 reconnaissance prototype flies

July (Battle of the Somme begins)

  • Royal Flying Corps provides 105 aircraft in the front line supporting the July 1 assault with artillery observation, reconnaissance and ground attack missions
  • Royal Flying Corps begins detailed measurement of the casualties suffered to measure training requirements and tactics
  • Fokker D.I fighter reaches German Air Service squadrons in France
  • Albatros D.II fighter approved for service use and begins equipping fighter squadrons
  • Fokker D.III fighter prototype flies
  • Felixtowe F2 flying boat prototype flies
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The Albatros D.II placed attacking speed over dogfighting manoeuvrability

August (Battle of Doberdò)

  • Royal Aircraft Factory BE12 reconnaissance aircraft reaches Royal Flying Corps squadrons in France
  • Spad S.VII fighter reaches Armée de l’Air squadrons in France
  • Gotha G.II heavy bomber reaches German Air Service squadrons in the Balkans
  • Airco DH.4 bomber prototype flies

September

  • Manfred von Richthofen, the future ‘Red Baron’, scores his first victory in air combat
  • Gotha G.III heavy bomber reaches German Air Service squadrons in the Balkans
  • Fokker D.III fighter reaches German Air Service squadrons in France
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Manfred von Richthofen (right) inspects a captured Airco DH.2

October

  • Bristol F.2B multi-role fighter prototype flies

November (Battle of the Somme ends)

  • German Air Service forms ‘England Squadron’ of Gotha heavy bombers for the purpose of attacking London with large-scale bombing raids
  • Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5 fighter prototype flies
  • Albatros D.I fighter enters service with German Air Service squadrons in France
  • Royal Aircraft Factory RE8 reconnaissance aircraft enters service with Royal Flying Corps squadrons in France

December (Battle of Verdun ends)

  • Sopwith Triplane fighter reaches Royal Naval Air Service squadrons in France
  • Handley Page 0/100 heavy bomber enters service with Royal Naval Air Service squadrons in France
  • Sopwith Camel fighter prototype flies
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The first of the mighty S.E.5 fighters

Many anniversaries are to be planned, commemorations made and aircraft flown – including a Scottish-built Sopwith 1½ Strutter recreation and the return of the Sopwith Triplane to flying duties for the Shuttleworth Collection after its 2014 landing accident. Much to see and do, particularly at Old Warden in the UK and, doubtless, Peter Jackson’s brilliant facilities in New Zealand. And of course at all the commemorations planned this year. We will do our best to keep you up-to-date on what’s happening.

Hispano-Suiza: kings of engineering

As the 19th Century drew to a close, the automobile was a thing of wonder that preoccupied many brilliant minds in Europe and North America. Among those who saw an opportunity was a Spanish artillery captain named Emilio de la Cuadra. He began to work primarily on electric-powered machinery using batteries from a Swiss engineer based in Barcelona, Carlos Vellino. It was very soon clear, however, that electric cars had issues in terms of range and practicality that did not afflict their internal combustion-powered rivals.

As a result of this, de la Cuadra began looking into a gasoline-electric hybrid solution. The problem was that the batteries were unwieldy and the engines were poor, leading Vellino to engage a fellow countryman – a watchmaker who had turned his attentions towards internal combustion, by the name of Marc Birkigt.

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La Cuadra developed a hybrid operating like a 21st Century car

The first engine that Birkigt produced for the La Cuadra motor company was a hybrid, with an electric motor whose charge was maintained by a single-cylinder internal combustion unit. At its unveiling the car broke down, however, which was a mortal blow to the company. With de la Cuadra and Vellino’s coffers empty, their creditors moved in for the kill during 1901.

The company ended up in the ownership of one J. Castro – of whom little is known, barring his good sense in retaining Birkigt, despite the failure of his hybrid. With de la Cuadra out of the picture a new name was required for the business, and to reflect its Spanish-Swiss heritage the name Hispano-Suiza was settled upon.

Birkigt built a four-cylinder internal combustion-powered car that worked very well but, in J. Castro’s efforts to make money, the company priced its products out of reach. By 1904, the business had run aground once again.

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J. Castro tried and failed – but gave Hispano-Suiza its name

Birkigt then reached into his own pocket to save Hispano-Suiza, while attracting investment from a successful industrialist called Don Damian Mateu. Two new Hispano-Suiza cars were revealed at the 1906 Paris Motor Salon – both effectively the Castro-era four-cylinder models of 3.8 and 7.4 litres respectively. The young King Alfonso XIII ordered the first of many Hispano-Suiza models that he would come to own and additional funds were raised by selling off shares in 500 peseta chunks.

Suddenly Hispano-Suiza was moving fast. Patents on the four-cylinder cars were sold to companies in Switzerland and Italy, while opulent six-cylinder models were readied in 1907. The company grew as fast as its reputation and range of products, with a talented young Italian engineer by the name of Paolo Zuccarelli joining Birkigt’s technical team from the minor marque of Florentia.

Zuccarelli pushed on with the development of small capacity ‘voiturette’ cars and with nudging Hispano-Suiza into the greatest shop window of them all: motor sport.

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Paolo Zuccarelli became the leading light for Hispano-Suiza in motor sport

The factory built cars, called the 45CR, featured 2.4-litre engines developing 45 horsepower from what was then the standard configuration of a ‘T-head’ sidevalve with intake valves are on one side of the engine block and the exhaust valves on the other. The cars made their debut at the 1909 Copa Catalunya, with Zuccarelli driving the lead entry and an Italian mechanic named Ravelli alongside him. Two more cars were entered for Louis Pilleverdier / Castanera and Louis Derny / Reus.

The race was over 13 laps of a course of closed roads measuring 28 km and the Hispano-Suiza entry was impeccably turned out under Birkigt’s watchful eye and with Isidoro de Salazar, the company marketing manager, in tow. Pilleverdier finished fourth but the other two cars both retired with broken crankshafts – not before Zuccarelli had led a significant portion of the race, however.

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The Hispano-Suiza 45CR – a racing car par excellence

A few weeks later the Hispanos returned to action in the Coupe des Voiturettes in Boulogne, in which the trio finished fifth, sixth and seventh. The team grew in experience and confidence through successive races into 1910, with the main competition coming from the French entries of Libor, designed by a brilliant young engineer called Ernest Henry, and the Lion-Peugeot of the Frères Peugeot company.

The latter team relied heavily on a brilliant Italian driver by the name of Giosue Giuppone. At the 1910 Coupe de l’Auto, all three of the major teams – Libor, Peugeot and Hispano-Suiza – used 3.0-litre four-cylinder T-head engines and were very evenly matched. Giuppone’s story ended when he encountered two cyclists making their way around the course during the race, one of whom darted across to seek cover on the left hand side of the road.

Despite throttling back the engine and braking hard, Giuppone clipped the bicycle, which was thrown into the ditch, while the Peugeot went into a lurid spin and threw Giuppone and his mechanic Péan out into the road. The mechanic was uninjured but Giuppone landed on his head, suffering a fractured skull that was to prove fatal.

The race was won by Paolo Zuccarelli’s Hispano-Suiza, marking the team’s first international victory. The second Peugeot followed him home, driven by Georges Boillot, while Pilleverdier’s Hispano-Suiza finished third. The event was filmed for posterity, with Zuccarelli’s drive attracting significant renown for the Hispano-Suiza marque.

Much was to change as a result of the 1910 Coupe de l’Auto. Boillot established himself as Peugeot’s new team leader and Zuccarelli was recruited to join him, with another fine driver/engineer called Jules Goux completing the line-up. The ‘superteam’ was completed when Ernest Henry became Peugeot’s technical mastermind.

Hispano-Suiza retired from competition – but the success of the 45CR led to demand for production versions of the car. The result has become regarded as the first purpose-built sports car: the Hispano-Suiza Alphonso XIII, named after the Spanish king (who added one to his ever-increasing fleet). This dapper little car with its race-winning pedigree caused a sensation, and Birkigt’s expansion of the Hispano-Suiza marque continued apace.

New factories were built in the Parisian suburbs of Levallois-Perret and, later, Bois-Colombes. Hispano-Suiza assumed dual nationality – French and Spanish. The range of cars also made their way across the English Channel, with a service depot opening in Fulham and a showroom in Shaftesbury Avenue.

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The world’s first sports car: Hispano-Suiza Alphonso XIII

In motor sport circles there was considerable ill-feeling directed towards Peugeot, which had begun to dominate the greatest races on both sides of the Atlantic using engine designs that many believed were ‘stolen’ from Hispano-Suiza by Zuccarelli. Yet such concerns were soon to be trampled into the dirt by the headlong rush into World War 1.

Hispano-Suiza became a prized asset for France, building trucks and aircraft engines. Traditionally, aircraft engines were manufactured by machining separate steel cylinders and then bolting these assemblies directly to the crankcase. Birkigt believed that it would be much more effective to make the block from a single piece of cast aluminium, into which thin steel liners were secured.

Manufacturing an engine in this way simplified construction and resulted in a lighter, yet stronger more durable engine that was capable of significantly more power than its predecessors. Thus was born his V8 ‘monobloc’ engine, one of the most significant advances in achieving air superiority over the Western Front and beyond.

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Marc Birkigt (left) and colleagues with a ‘monobloc’ V8 engine

The enormous potential of the single overhead camshaft ‘monobloc’ V8 was finally revealed when if was fitted to the SPAD S.VII fighter, which reached front-line squadrons in the late summer of 1916. It was faster and more rugged than any other type on the front line, and was to seal the legend of France’s leading ‘ace’ Georges Guynemer.

The SPAD series was developed right through to the end of the war, by which time the Hispano-Suiza was pumping out 220 hp in the last of the S.XIII fighters to see service, piloted by men such as Eddie Rickenbacker. The versatility of the engine also allowed for the construction of a small number of S.XII models that featured a Hotchkiss cannon mounded between the two cylinder heads and firing through the propeller boss. When it worked, the effect on the wood-and-canvas aircraft of the time was astonishing.

In Britain the best-known recipient of Birkigt’s engine was the Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5, which in many of the later S.E.5a models featured a modified version of the ‘Hisso’ engine built under licence in the UK: the Wolseley Viper. The S.E.5s were used as high-performance, high-altitude interceptors working in tandem with vast fleets of Sopwith Camel fighters flying below – the equivalent of the Spitfire and Hurricane during World War 2. Operating together in vast fleets, they did much to sweep the German Air Service out of the skies.

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Georges Guynemer’s SPAD S.VII on public display, 1918

Hispano-Suiza returned to car production in peacetime, with a new series of cars powered by a smaller V6 design based upon Birkigt’s wartime ‘monobloc’. Hispano-Suiza became the byword for performance and innovation, and licences for Birkigt’s engineering were much in demand from prestige car manufacturers world-wide. Even Rolls-Royce used a number of Hispano-Suiza patents through the 1920s and 1930s, such as servo-assisted brakes for all four wheels.

The sleek, elegant lines of the Hispano-Suiza coupés by stylists such as Hibbard & Darrin and D’Ieteren between the wars were groundbreaking, and directly influenced the competition from Mercedes-Benz, Delahaye and other prestige marques. Most often they would be crowned by the radiator emblem of a stork in flight with its wings dipped, the emblem of Escadrille 3 of the 12th Combat Group: Georges Guynemer’s squadron.

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Style et luxe: the Hispano-Suiza stork adorned some amazing engineering

This high summer was not to last, however. Birkigt was among the Hispano-Suiza holders to receive lawsuits from the French authorities in the early 1930s, who decided that the money paid for the tens of thousands of ‘monobloc’ engines in the war was effectively profiteering.

Lawyers settled that argument, but with the rise of a Spanish republic Hispano-Suiza’s longest-serving patron, King Alfonso XIII, fled into exile. The firm’s celebrated factories became a state holding for the construction of military trucks and aircraft engines. No more of its sumptuous cars would ever be seen.

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Hispano-Suiza went out on a high: 1938 Dubonnet Xenia coupé

In 1938 the story of Hispano-Suiza, the builder and innovator of automotive excellence, came to an end. Never again would it take leadership in aviation technology either. Marc Birkigt lived on until 1953 and his legacy remains that hint of Hispano-Suiza that resides in the best automotive engineering of today – both in luxury cars and utilitarian hybrids.

Once or twice attempts have been made to revive Hispano-Suiza as a modern brand. Thank God none have yet succeeded. It was a truly unique chapter in engineering history.

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A modified Audi R8 is the latest attempt to relaunch Hispano-Suiza cars

A Great War hero: Part 5 – grand finale

In March 1918, three Nieuport 28 scouts of the 94th Aero Squadron became the first American aircraft to fly over the enemy lines on the Western Front. Leading them was Major Raoul Lufbery, with 16 confirmed victories in air combat. In formation with him were two rookie pilots: Doug Campbell and Eddie Rickenbacker.

Gervais Raoul Lufbery - the experienced commander of 94th Aero Squadron

Gervais Raoul Lufbery – the experienced commander of the 94th Aero Squadron

In fact seven American volunteers flying with the French and the British had already achieved the five victories required to ‘make ace’ – but all previous scores were annulled upon the creation of America’s own air arm.

As commander of the 94th Aero Squadron, Lufbery – whose parents emigrated from France when he was six years old – found himself in command of a bunch of raw recruits. The majority of them were fresh-faced college boys… but then there was Rickenbacker. The square peg in a round hole.

‘Rick’ detested the privileged backgrounds and sense of superiority exuded by his fellow pilots – most of whom he had given hell to in training, when he was detailed to manage the logistics and maintenance of the flying school. He named them the ‘million dollar guard’ and – out of his hearing – they joked that he was a German agent.

Rickenbacker stands amid some of the 'million dollar guard' for an awkward photo

Rickenbacker stands amid some of the ‘million dollar guard’ for an awkward photo

For all their wealth and privilege, the other pilots resented Rickenbacker’s pre-war fame and his clear enjoyment of celebrity status. He was regarded as uncouth, domineering and profane – and undoubtedly for good reason.

Rickenbacker approached the job of being a fighter pilot like a tradesman. While the collegiate around him would often indulge in horseplay, the off-duty Rickenbacker spent his time on the ground working on his aircraft, checking its guns and obsessively scrutinising his ammunition for faulty rounds.

By doing so his aim was not only to survive, but also to create the best chance of shooting down enemy machines. As a racing driver he had not won a major prize but as an airman he could yet join the ranks of Guynemer, Richthofen and Ball as a hero – and all the wealth and privilege it might bring him in peacetime.

Although Lufbery scored a victory on 12 April it remained unconfirmed, thus the first enemy aircraft to officially fall to American guns was claimed by Douglas Campbell two days later. It would be another 15 days before Rickenbacker managed to get a claim recognized – a Pfalz D.III shared with another 94th Aero Squadron pilot, the Harvard-educated writer James Norman Hall, who would later write the swashbuckling classic, Mutiny on the Bounty.

James Norman Hall's Nieuport 28 on the field

James Norman Hall’s Nieuport 28 – in which he helped Rickenbacker get blooded

Rickenbacker later admitted that he was spraying bullets all around the vicinity of the doomed machine and, perhaps, the more experienced Hall – a Lafayette Escadrille veteran – had done the lion’s share. Nevertheless, Rickenbacker’s relentless approach meant that soon he was scoring regularly and in contention to become America’s first ‘ace’.

One man who was out of the running for that title was Raoul Lufbery who, like so many of the old hands, was to fall in the final months of the war. The legend went that on 19 May Lufbery’s aircraft caught fire during low-level combat over his own airfield and, having climbed onto the wing in desperation, he fell, wreathed in flame, to his death. That’s certainly the version that Rickenbacker’s memoirs preferred.

In fact, Lufbery’s aircraft is believed to have hit turbulence after he had undone his straps to fix a jammed machine gun and he was simply thrown out of the cockpit. Not an uncommon fate, as it turns out – although perhaps too ignominious for so great a warrior.

Rickenbacker (left) and Kenneth Marr flank America's first official air ace: Douglas Campbell

Rickenbacker (left) and Kenneth Marr flank Douglas Campbell

Lufbery’s demise meant that Harvard-educated Douglas Campbell was the only man standing between Rickenbacker and the title of ‘ace’. On 28 May the two men patrolled together and brought down an Albatros two-seater, which, through a clerical error, was credited to Rickenbacker alone.

Much to Campbell’s chagrin, ‘Rick’ never attempted to correct the mistake. Nevertheless it was Campbell who, on 31 May, was officially credited with being the first American to reach five victories. He would score only one more before a bullet wound in the back saw him miss all but the few final days of the war.

In his book Fighting the Flying Circus, Rickenbacker was generous in his praise of Campbell’s contribution. No doubt there were wry smiles all round when, in conclusion, Rickenbacker wrote: “In reality Douglas Campbell’s victories total seven, but for one which was downed to my certain knowledge he never received any official confirmation.”

Rickenbacker had himself ‘made ace’ by the time that Campbell was invalided back to the USA – but his own score would also remain at six until September. A chronic ear infection took ‘Rick’ off the squadron strength for almost three months and, when he returned to action, the 94th was a very different unit – not least because the Nieuports had been traded in for Spad S.XIII machines.

Rickenbacker adored the fast, strong V8-engined fighter. In the space of six weeks, he was credited with destroying five observation balloons and 15 aircraft at the helm of his Spad – of which 13 were the superb Fokker D.VII fighter.

Complete with star-spangled wheels, Rickenbacker scored 20 kills in his Spad 'old number 1'

Complete with star-spangled wheels, Rickenbacker scored 20 kills in Spad ‘old number 1’

The other pilots who had previously detested him at first begrudgingly indulged him and then even began to warm to him, while he rose to become first flight commander and, later, Captain and commanding officer. He could be insufferable, profane and egocentric – but he got results.

During this period another American pilot, Merian C. Cooper, entered the fray. Cooper was a cinematographer who would later create the ‘creature feature’ genre with Chang (1927) and, most famously, King Kong (1933). But in 1918 he helped create Eddie Rickenbacker’s star appeal by filming from the rear seat while Jimmy Meissner flew an Airco DH4 bomber as a camera plane (its cockpit rigged up to look like a Spad from the camera’s viewpoint).

Completing the formation was a captured Hanover two-seater that was usually employed for air-to-air practice. Two 94th Squadron stalwarts, Reed Chambers and Thorn Taylor, piled gleefully aboard the Hanover to play the roles of a devilish Hun crew for Cooper’s camera.

The trio then staged a fight and successfully filmed it – although the formation drifted over the lines, attracting plenty of unwanted attention! A segment of the film can be seen below, with Rickenbacker looping and wheeling his Spad, dubbed ‘Old Number 1’, around the ‘Huns’.

While building his legend, ‘Captain Eddie’ was determined to lead by example: he ordered incessant practice and instruction for his men and did his level best to ensure that the 94th Aero Squadron would go down in history as one of the elite fighting units of the war. He was hard on the men, but insisted that nothing he asked was a job he would not willingly do himself – and proved this time and again.

At the end of the war, Rickenbacker returned to the USA as the people’s champion with 26 confirmed victories and the Medal of Honor, seven Distinguished Service Crosses, the Légion d’honneur and Croix de Guerre glittering on his breast. He would go on to live a life of extraordinary success, crushing failure and superhuman courage – but always in the guise of ‘Captain Eddie – Ace of Aces’.

The 94th Aero Squadron returned as the embodiment of Yankee-Doodle brilliance; with its fleet of Spad fighters resplendent in an array of star-spangled, candy-striped and lightning-flashed personal liveries that made Richthofen’s Flying Circus appear positively frumpy.

94th veteran Reed Chambers with his completely star-spangled Spad

94th veteran Reed Chambers with his completely star-spangled Spad in peacetime

Today when we look at photos of Captain Edward Vernon Rickenbacker, we see the splay-legged stance, flashing grin and devilish eyebrows. He is the embodiment of the great action hero – primarily because it was this image that he sought to portray.

There are tens of millions of extraordinary stories from that conflict. What’s truly remarkable is that Eddie Rickenbacker himself so successfully stage managed his own story to reach out to millions. Rickenbacker wanted to be an icon: the embodiment of a unique ‘up-and-at-‘em’ attitude that he believed should be the cornerstone of society.

By any measure he succeeded.

The commemorations to mark 100 years since the start of World War 1 have now passed. Each centenary that follows over the next four years at Ypres, Gallipoli, Verdun, the Somme and elsewhere – will have its fair share of myth and reality to choose from as we continue to honour those stories.

As ‘Captain Eddie’ has long shown: there is value in both.

'Captain Eddie' of the 94th

‘Captain Eddie’ of the 94th