Jay Leno discusses the joy of aero-engined specials
After reading Delwyn Mallett’s excellent article in Octane 170, on Lord Lorne Jacobs’ homage to Malcolm Campbell’s Bluebird with its 24-litre, 12-cylinder Napier Lion Aero engine, I had to go to my garage and take out my own aero-engined special. It’s a 1915 Hispano-Suiza, a car I’ve owned for just about 30 years.
It’s far from stock but mostly period-correct. It’s a 1915 Hispano chassis, with the gearbox from a 1919 Delage bus, a non-synchro four-speed. It’s driven by a 1915 Hispano engine out of a SPAD aircraft. This is the engine that won World War One, much as the Merlin won World War Two. Designed by Swiss engineer Marc Berkigt, it was the first mass-produced V8 aero engine and made about 300 horsepower. Over 50,000 were built; in Spain they were built by Hispano-Suiza, in England they were built by Wolseley, and in America they were built by Wright-Martin.
It’s a very clever design that’s easy to assemble and repair. One of the coolest features is that the bearings are built into the crankcase. That’s because the men who flew these planes measured their lifespan in hours. In the rare cases when they did make it back to base there was a good chance they had spun a bearing. Because the bearings were in the oil pan they could just take off the crankcase and bolt the new one in and be flying again in less than an hour.
Back in the day, when you wanted to go fast, you took the engine out of an aircraft and you put it in a car. That’s because in the teens and early ’20s, aircraft engines were just bigger, better and more powerful versions of automobile engines. Plus, they were more reliable because they usually had two ignition systems and dual spark plugs and two magnetos.
As much as I enjoy modern supercars and high-revving engines, there’s nothing that can compare to the low-end torque of these 18.5-litre monsters. The redline is about 2000rpm; going down the road at 70 you’re barely turning 900rpm. When you get into the sweet spot, which is about 1500-1800rpm, the engine really begins to sing. That’s when you begin to feel like Georges Guynemer, the French flying ace who was finally taken down after 54 victories. He failed to return after a mission on 11 September 1917. He was only 22 when he was killed, but he inspired the nation with his quote: ‘Until one has given all, one has given nothing.’
The flying-stork hood ornament, which is on all Hispano-Suizas after that war, is a tribute to Guynemer’s squadron emblem. The engine even has the Zenith aero carburettor on it. When the engine is upside-down it’s still able to get fuel and not starve, which comes in very handy should you drive off a cliff and go upside-down. The engine will still be running when you land at the bottom.
One of my favourite expressions is ‘horsepower sells cars but torque wins races’. How much fun it would be to chain one of these torquey 100-year-old monsters to a modern, 900bhp supercar and see which one could drag the other one further. Even the fact that the transmission is unsynchronised isn’t an issue at all. The low revs combined with huge gears means it quickly goes through the ’box without even double-declutching.
With the straight-through exhaust system each cylinder fires like a shotgun. As the revs start to climb the whole vehicle feels like a Gatling gun. There’s a wonderful sense of theatre to the whole process. Turn on the master switch, hit the pre-oiler button for about ten seconds, turn on the left mag, turn on the right mag, pump the Kigass to shoot a couple of thimbles-full of gas into the cylinders, adjust the carburettor altitude adjustment, pump the gas pedal once, hit the starter button and the engine literally explodes into life.
This car is fast even by modern standards, so imagine what it was like back in 1915. Most people in 1915 had never ridden in an automobile. Imagine going from a horse-and-wagon to this. As you look down the long hood you get the feeling you’re not passing other vehicles, it’s more like you’re strafing them. Imagine flying a biplane without wings.
When I was younger I always used to feel sorry for the generations that came before me because they never got to drive the type of vehicles I thought were cool: the muscle cars, the Ferraris, the McLarens, the Lamborghinis. Now I feel sorry for the current generation, because they’re missing out on a form of engaging, visceral automotive excitement that we’ll probably never see the likes of again.
Jay Leno – Comedian and talk show legend Jay Leno is one of the most famous entertainers in the USA. He is also a true petrolhead, with a massive collection of cars and bikes
This column was originally printed in the November 2017 issue of Octane.