T hough many cars can claim to carry the dreams of their creators, in order to be truly timeless, those ambitions must still be appealing to modern drivers. Unique materials and outsized in-period performance typically set the most exceptional examples apart from the rest. One-of-a-kind models which inspire collectors to scour the globe in hopes of simply seeing them in person. And the luckiest of seekers get to drive their dreams.
Born an aperitif heir, raised as a raconteur, André Dubonnet achieved his ambitions more than almost any man of his era. An Olympic athlete and ace fighter pilot, the adventures undertaken by Dubonnet would seem unrealistic subject matter for a feature film. Most of all, Dubonnet was a serial connoisseur of coachbuilt automobiles, with a penchant for ordering Hispano-Suiza chassis tailored to his demanding specifications. One of Dubonnet’s most significant creations has recently resurfaced, and is bound for RM Sotheby’s premier event of the year, Monterey 2022.
With the weight-saving qualities of this wood-bodied Hispano-Suiza H6C immediately understood even for an amateur observer of automobiles, this unique example is the vision of Dubonnet realized in solid form. Riveted with copper connections joining slats of tulipwood to its chassis, this coachbuilt Torpedo’s body is reported to amount to a mere 150-200 pounds and can be lifted by two men. Dubonnet would have no doubt taken a direct appreciation for the benefits of a lightweight, maneuverable craft from time served in aerial combat during World War I.
Dubonnet’s tour of duty was far from a display of vanity. Having downed a handful of German airplanes at the yoke of his SPAD XIII Biplane, the inheritor of the fortune established by his grandfather, Sir Joseph Dubonnet, in 1846, the young pilot doubtlessly also grew to appreciate the smooth delivery of thrust from his French fighter plane’s single, stationary Hispano-Suiza 8BEa engine. After the war, the first motorcar that Dubonnet chose to race was also, appropriately, powered by a Hispano-Suiza engine. Even more fittingly, at the wheel of his Hispano-Suiza H6, Dubonnet won his first outing, the Coupe Georges Boillot in 1921. He would prove himself loyal to the Spanish-Swiss brand.
Possessing more than simply an interest in mechanics, but also a fortune sufficiently considerable that he could actually see his visions become reality, Dubonnet’s pre-war creations were influential in their period. Many are still considered advanced, including a show-stopping H6B streamliner by Saoutchik named after a former wife, Xenia. Dubonnet even managed to sell an independent suspension system of his own creation to General Motors.
Having such an innate understanding of engineering, there was no question that Dubonnet would have considered Hispano-Suiza’s signature 6.5-litre, six-cylinder powerplant to be an ideal companion for the wood-bodied racer he was commissioning from innovative French airplane outfitter Nieuport. Their skilled craftsmen derived their experience from fashioning wood-bodied airplanes, which can still be found in aviation museums today.
Monterey 2022—1924 Hispano-Suiza H6C "Tulipwood" Torpedo by Nieuport-Astra
With its flowing curves extending back from its lowered radiator grille, Dubonnet’s racer was set up sans fenders for his 1924 running of the Targa Florio. Finishing in an impressive fifth place after an extended fifth lap of the circuit known as the Coppa Florio, Dubonnet’s intuition was proven to be more than simple fantasy. This example faced stiff competition from supercharged Mercedes-Benz racers at one of the world’s most grueling pre-war events and more than held its own.
Still as dynamic on the road today as it was stunning to behold in-period, this ‘Tulipwood’ Torpedo represents the realized dream of a figure who was inarguably ahead of his time. Dubonnet lived until 1980 and did not cease pursuing the future. An obituary in Time notes that Dubonnet’s final project before his death was an early foray into solar power. Having been a cherished part of some of the world’s most significant collections of automobiles, this extraordinary Hispano-Suiza is a headliner from the Masterworks of Design collection, set to cross the stage at RM Sotheby’s signature auction in Monterey, held from 18-20 August. All but certain to draw a crowd even among the always captivating offerings of Monterey Car Week due to its one-of-a-kind wooden body, this pre-war classic is today considered a timeless piece of art. An achievement of an automobile worth dreaming about.
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