The exciting story of Spain's automobiles
A true passion for racing, inspired by the raging bulls of Pamplona and fuelled by the people's desire to achieve automotive immortality
The fight for survival
The 2021 F1 Spanish GP in Catalunya may be in the history books, but this challenging track still remains as the one of the most well known and enjoyed by most, if not all drivers. So what is the history of the cars, engineered and built in Spain?
The beginning of this story was difficult, as the very first automotive company La Cuadra, created in 1898 by a Spanish artillery captain called Emilio de la Cuadra, which quickly changed ownership and then went bankrupt in just five years, and with only two concept cars to show for. A major restructuring took place in 1904, creating La Hispano-Suiza Fábrica de Automóviles (Spanish-Swiss Automobile Factory) based in Barcelona. Four engines were introduced in the next year and a half - a 3.8L and 7.4L four-cylinder and a pair of big six-cylinder engines were produced. This company managed to avoid complete collapse and its largest operations remained in Barcelona until 1946, where cars, trucks, buses, and even aero engines were produced.
Under the inspired leadership of the talented Swiss engineer Marc Birkigt, Hispano-Suiza launched a full range of luxury models in quick succession. Birkigt also recognised the marketing benefits of competing in races. When he learned that Spain's King Alfonso XIII would present one of the trophies during the nearby 1909 Catalan Cup, Birkigt quickly readied Hispano-Suiza's first racing car.
Hispano-Suiza Alfonso XIII (1909) - Credit: Hispano Godo
From ruin to racing
Instead of turning one of the existing models into a competition car, Birkigt opted to start from scratch. The four-cylinder engine differed from any of his earlier designs in that it was constructed from a single block as opposed two blocks of two cylinders. Displacing just over 1.8L, the straight-four featured an innovative 'T-head' with twin lateral camshafts, actuating the side valves through push-rods. The engine was mounted so far back in the chassis, behind the front axle for better weight distribution that it actually amounted for a mid-engine car! Despite having relatively little time to prepare and test the company's first racing car, Hispano-Suiza entered three cars in the Catalan Cup. The Spanish King saw one of the Hispanos get an early lead, but eventually all succumbed to issues and were forced to drop out. Birkigt continued the development of the cars, increasing the displacement and fitting stronger wheels. The work paid off and in 1910, Hispano-Suizas placed first, third and sixth in the prestigious Coupe de l'Auto race.
While continuing the development of new competition cars, Birkigt also used the Coupe de l'Auto winning machine as the basis for a new production model launched in 1911. Officially dubbed the Type 15T or 15/45 hp depending on the market, this high performance Hispano-Suiza is better known as the Alfonso XIII. It received this nickname after the prototype was gifted to the Spanish monarch by his wife. Mechanically the Alfonso XIII shared its basic design with the successful racing car. The biggest change was a further increase of the engine displacement to 3.6L. The engine, in unit with the three-speed gearbox, was mounted again in the middle of the chassis, and added rigidity to the new steel ladder frame. The new Hispano-Suiza's suspension followed convention with semi-elliptic leaf springs all around. Cable-operated drum brakes were fitted to the rear wheels only.
Hispano-Suiza Alfonso XIII Jaquot Torpedo - Credit: PebbleBeach Auto
New gold standard
Considered one of the first ever sports cars, the Alfonso XIII was available with a basic roadster body that featured wooden fenders on the earliest examples. Some were also supplied to specialist coach-builders to be clothed with more lavish bodies. In 1913 various revisions were carried that included the introduction of a four-speed gearbox, a longer wheelbase and rear suspension with triple quarter-elliptic leaf springs on each corner. For obvious reasons, production ceased in 1914. By that time a very impressive 500 examples had been produced. In addition to being a sales success, the Alfonso XIII also established Hispano-Suiza as a serious manufacturer. It is with this reputation that company re-emerged after the war as one of Europe's premier luxury manufacturers. Rarely seen today, the Alfonso XIII ranks among the finest cars produced before the Great War.
Between the two world wars Hispano-Suiza became a benchmark for engineering and luxury throughout Europe. Licences for Hispano-Suiza patents were in serious demand from prestige car manufacturers world-wide. Even the British Rolls Royce used a number of Hispano-Suiza patents - for instance, for many years Rolls Royce installed Hispano-Suiza designed power brakes in their vehicles. After WW2 the company remained more concentrated on military contracts and less so on continuing their standard-setting car success. The company's attention turned increasingly to turbine manufacturing and after a takeover, and various mergers, it disappeared from the automotive industry. The brand saw an attempt at revival with the showing of a concept at the 2010 Geneva Motor Show. However, the planned production never materialised.
The quest for speed
Pegaso was born in 1946 from the former truck division of Hispano-Suiza, initially under the name of Enasa. By the 50s the company had established itself as a reliable manufacturer of various utility vehicles, but the general public was unaware of the racing car that had been developed behind the curtains. Pegaso's chief technical manager was Wifredo Ricart who formerly worked as chief engineer for Alfa Romeo, and designed the Alfa Romeo Tipo 512. The Z-102 started life as a pair of prototypes in 1951 with coupe and drophead body styles. Both prototypes had steel bodies which were determined to be too heavy and Pegaso made the decision to switch to aluminium bodies to save weight. However, the cars were still quite heavy and difficult to drive, so racing success was virtually nonexistent. Three cars entered the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1953, one crashed with more than 200 km/h and the team withdrew the other two. Because the cars were built on a cost-no-object basis the car soon proved too costly to warrant continued manufacturing and the Z-102 was discontinued in 1958 after just 84 cars being produces.
Pegaso Z-102 Coupe - Credit: RSF Motorsport
The fastest pegasus
But even with the lack of racing merits, Pegaso had a winner in their hand. The Z-102 was the fastest production car in the world at the time of production! The car had a steel chassis with an aluminium body. Everything was produced in-house at Barcelona at Pegaso's own factory. The Z-102 was powered by a V8 engine and had a 5-speed non-synchromesh transaxle. The car entered production with a 2.5L engine, the same as in the prototypes, though later variants used a 2.8L and 3.2L DOHC 32-valve V8 engines with multiple carburetors or an optional supercharger. Power ranged from 175 hp to 360 hp and was sent to the rear wheels through a five-speed gearbox. The base model had a top speed of 192 km/h. The supercharged version proved the real worth of the Pegaso. On September 25, 1953, in Jabbeke (Belgium), a Z-102 Touring BS/2.8 driven by Celso Fernández, broke four official R.A.C.B. (Royal Automobile Club de Belgique) world records. Of these records the most prominent was its speed in the flying-start kilometre. The supercharged Z-102 achieved a 243.079 km/h average speed, a record previously held by a Jaguar XK120. This made the Z-102 the fastest production car in the world at that time.
After that endeavour proved to be not as successful as Pegaso were hoping for, they went back to their roots at building utility vehicles, before Iveco took over the company in 1990.
Small Italian Miracle
SEAT was founded in the 50s by a large Spanish consortium with the goal to produce vehicles domestically. Unfortunately, the initial financing meant creating a car from scratch was just not feasible. So a partnership with FIAT was signed and the production, albeit in low volumes at the beginning, of licensed model was the moving force behind the brand. Now people are going to say that SEAT has no place here, since it's been producing licensed models under their brand, but there is an important part of the story, that SEAT was instrumental for.
The SEAT 600 was basically a FIAT 600, but this little car started what's called "The Spanish Miracle" - an economic boom that gave Spanish people a much needed boost of mobility and in terms gave a shove to the whole economy. It was small, cheap to buy and run, but in 1958 it accounted for an enormous growth in personal vehicle ownership. By 1972 SEAT sold nearly 800 000 of their licensed model 600 in Spain alone! Of course, nothing lasts forever - SEAT and FIAT separated after a financial dispute and then VW stepped in. We all know the rest of that story.
1963 SEAT 600D Convertible - Credit: Car Pixel
Track day aquarium
Nowadays a glimpse of Spanish engineering can still be seen mostly from small companies. One such example is Tramontana, which does a track car with 720 hp Mercedes V12 engine. It's certainly fast with a 0-100 km/h time in just 3.6 seconds and a top speed of 325 km/h. It has an open top version, but the closed top is . . hilarious. Probably inspired by Hammerhead Eagle iThrust a.k.a. GEOFF. It's basically a road-legal open wheeler, made of all the exotic material (carbon fibre, magnesium) to be light, fast and agile.
Tramontana - Credit EVO Media
Then there's Aspid (IFR Automotive, S.L.) named after the viper species "Vipera aspis" found in northern Spain, where the company is based. They've started in 2009 with the IFR Aspid, which may look like a Panoz Roadster clone, but in fact is quite innovative. It's powered by a 2.0L Honda S2000 engine that has been tuned to produce 270 hp in naturally aspirated form and can go all the way to 400 hp in the supercharged version. 0-100 km/h is just below 3 seconds with the supercharger and the car's cornering capabilities are impressive with a claims of 1.6G. What separates the Aspid from anything else in the world is that it holds four unique patents for technologies used throughout the car.
The first patent is for a twin brake disc system, consisting of two lightweight stainless steel discs with large turbine shaped slots designed to maximise brake cooling and efficiency as well as being 70% lighter than a conventional brake disc setup. The second patent is for the aluminium extrusion chassis, developed for maximum rigidity and to fit the Aspid's double wishbone suspension system. The chassis then has a lightweight aluminium honeycomb overlaid on top for added strength. With these advancements IFR has been able to reduce the weight of the Aspid's chassis to only 55 kilos. The third patent is for Dual Lip Reinforcement wishbones which used almond shaped spars with strengthening beams going through the centres to improve rigidity and aerodynamics. Lastly, the 4th patent is for a modular wiring loom which cuts the amount of harness needed to 1/3 of what it originally was as well as reduce its weight by 70%. The Aspid also uses a removable F1 style carbon fibre steering wheel complete with data logging and telemetry abilities as well as a slew of other features to control various aspects of the car such as rev limit, ride height, brake balance, valve timing and others, which is a feature almost never used in street cars. Additionally the Aspid is fully compliant with FIA safety regulations, as well as European homologation standards, from stock and as such can be taken to the track and raced with little to no additional modification needed.
IFR Aspid - Credit: Car Images
The Spania GTA Spano was introduced 11 years ago, it is a very limited production sports car, yet it's a very popular name around the world. Now why would that be? Maybe because it was created by a racing team. Yes! Not a road cars manufacturer, but a proper and successful racing team from Valencia, called GTA Motor Competición. The team was founded in 1994 and has been racing continuously in various GT and Junior Formula championships, even recording a win at the Superleague Formula in 2008. So when the team principal decided they are good enough to spread their racing heritage, he immediately received support within the team. And in 2010 the first generation of GTA Spano was presented. It had an enormous 8.4L twin-turbo V10 from a Dodge Viper and a weight of just 1350 kilos. It was pushing 900 hp and 1000 Nm of torque. 0-100 km/h was 3 seconds flat and the top speed was 350 km/h.
GTA Spano First gen - Credit: Zastavki
The Second generation in 2015 saw a power, as well as styling upgrades. The engine lost displacement at 8.0L but it was now pushing 925 hp and a monstrous 1220 Nm of torque! As a result of the changes, the car gained a little weight at 1400 kilos. But the 0-100 km/h time was now just under 3 seconds and the top speed was 370 km/h.
GTA Spano Second gen - Credit: TopSpeed
What happened then?
As it was the case with Portugal, the car industry in Spain never received an adequate government help. Two world wars and a prolonged civil war also took a toll on the young Spanish industry. But the desire for speed is still there and small companies like Spania GTA and Aspid are indicating that the Spanish racing spirit is not dead. Spanish drivers in top level motorsports are also a pretty good indicator about the developed racing culture and their fighting spirit has been an inspiration on future generations.