HistoryJournal.org

Driving at the speed of flight

Posted in Blogs, European, Just for Fun, Technology by Alex L. on November 4, 2011

Instrument panel for Jay Leno's 1915 Hispano-Suiza Aero Engine CarI can’t say I enjoy Jay Leno’s jokes as much as I do the work of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and David Letterman. But man does the guy have an awesome car collection.

I know next to nothing about vintage car restoration, but I can appreciate a sleek-looking and rumble-producing automobile. When I came across Jay Leno’s video of his 1915 Hispano-Suiza Aero Engine Car restoration (see part 1, part 2 and part 3), though, I almost started drooling. The reason is because the restored car combines in an engaging package some things that, well, just make me salivate like a dog sensing dinner: aviation, World War I history, craftsmanship, and speed.

The 1915 machine is no ordinary automobile. It’s fitted with an engine taken from a World War I fighter airplane. As Wikipedia informed me, after the First World War ended, surplus airplane engines were relatively cheap and vastly more powerful than what cars were then using. Some auto engineers decided not to let this opportunity pass and created cars with automobile chassis and airplane engines. Such aero-engined cars were a brief trend in auto racing during the inter-war period.

The Hispano-Suiza engine is the motor that was used to power the S.E.5, a British fighter plane during World War I. This was the primary aircraft of No. 56 Squadron RFC (Royal Flying Corps), the famous unit of expert flyers and warriors—such as James McCudden, Albert Ball, and Cecil Lewis (the last of whom wrote a now-rare but fascinating and honest memoir of his war years, titled Sagittarius Rising)—who helped defeat the imperial German air force.

Although I wrote earlier about my admiration for a company in New Zealand that restores historic biplane aircraft such as the S.E.5, aero-engined cars are something else. The engine blazes loudly with life like those historic airplanes once did. To operate the car requires more hands-on work and engine mechanics comprehension than today’s automobiles. As you can hear in Leno’s video, starting the car requires magneto firings, oil pressure regulation, mixture monitoring, and other concepts about which I know nothing.

Leno’s start-up procedure reminded me of a story in Sagittarius Rising when Cecil Lewis’s aircraft was chased over the front by a German scout plane down to just above the trenches. Lewis then realized that his oil pressure level had dropped critically low. As he ducked and weaved to avoid both the ground and the German flyer’s bullets, Lewis also had to pump more pressure into the engine by hand. Harassed by both his enemy and his motor, Lewis somehow managed to fly back to safety.

I can hardly think of a better way to really get a visceral connection to those events in the past than to be blasting down the highway in that metal tube car with a monstrous V8. And so Leno may not tickle my funny bone, but he’s one lucky guy to have in his garage for his driving pleasure a car with such a sweet and storied engine.

Jay Leno driving in his vintage car (image courtesy of Alan Light on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:JayLenoCar.jpg)

Leno driving in his vintage car with an Hispano-Suiza aircraft engine. Notice how the exhaust pipe looks identical to that on the S.E.5 (bottom image)

S.E.5 (WWI aircraft) wooden frame and engine components

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