Marc Birkigt was the Swiss genius behind the Hispano and the Suiza bit of the name. He was a gunsmith with a precocious interest in engines who, at the age of 23, had his first car in production. He designed everything that bore the name Hispano-Suiza, never allowing cost to compromise his concept or engineering integrity.
He moved to Spain where he set up the first Hispano-Suiza workshop. He prepared all the racing Hispano-Suiza cars at the Levallois-Perret factory between 1911 and 1914.
In August, 1914 he set aside his work of producing high-quality Hispano-Suiza motor vehicles to design an engine suitable for use in aircraft. Birkigt set out to produce an engine which would improve the aircraft's performance, reliability and economy. As the basic layout he chose the inline rather than the rotary or the radial types. He discarded the idea of adapting the motor car engine with its heavy cast iron components for aviation purposes and designed a new 150 h.p. V-type, specifically for use in aircraft. He slashed pounds off the weight of the engine and stepped up the horse power output by increasing the compression rate of the engine. Using his Mono Bloc system to cast the then relatively little-used metal, aluminium, he produced cylinders, cylinder heads and water jackets which were lighter yet stronger than steel. Where necessary, steel liners were screwed in. An added advantage of using aluminium was the metal's high heat conductivity. This made the engine easier to cool than its steel or cast iron counterparts. This engine ultimately ended up powering the Sopwith SE5A. It was made under licence by a number of companies one being Wolseley who, after introduced several modifications, called the new engine the Viper.
Following the end World War I, the aero-engine factory that was established at Bois-Colombes, near Paris, became the home of the most exotic Hispano-Suiza cars. By this time Birkigt had spent much time in and around the French capital, and he had gained an insight into what wealthy Parisians expected in a motor car. The Hispano-Suiza became the supreme French car and Birkigt, in designing engines and guns for aeroplanes and exploiting patents, became extremely rich, rich enough to make very few cars but make them perfectly.
Between 1931 and 1938 only 114 J12s came off the line; just 44 are known to survive. The Spanish Civil War wiped out their factories there and we wiped out the French factories in the Second World War, when Hispano was taken over by the Nazis and BMW, but the cars had already drifted into desuetude in 1938 through the French government's semi-nationalisation of what was deemed primarily an armaments factory.
Marc Birkigt finally retired from aero-engine design in 1950 to design rifles, and the French end of his firm then combined with Bugatti. Birkigt died in 1953.