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Marc Birkigt: The journey of a Group pioneer


At the most recent Paris Air Show, Safran Transmission Systems unveiled its new mechanical power transmission system architecture, designed for the 2025-2030 generation of aircraft engines. An opportunity to take a look back at the company's origins and the journey of its founder, Marc Birkigt.

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Born in Geneva, Switzerland in 1878, Marc Birkigt gained an early interest in mechanics, enrolling at The Geneva School of Mechanics at the age of 17.

He was persuaded by a fellow student to join him in Barcelona in 1899, after completing his studies.

At the age of 26, he partnered with Catalan Industrialist Damián Mateu to found Hispano-Suiza Fábrica de Automóviles, which developed and manufactured combustion engines for small cars. Paying tribute both to his adoptive country, "Hispano", and to his home country, "Suiza", the fledgeling entrepreneur then set about filing his first patents!

The company was established in France in 1911, in Levallois-Perret, and immediately went into the design of luxury cars. It wasn't until the First World War in 1914 that the inventor ventured into the world of aeronautics, at a time when aviation was taking giant leaps forward. Marc Birkigt designed the 150 horsepower Hispano-Suiza V-8 for French aircraft, 40,000 of which were eventually produced.

It was this engine that powered the SPAD VII piloted by Georges Guynemer, one of the great aces of French aviation. Some years later, the Hispano-Suiza V12 engine would propel Jean Mermoz, dubbed the "Count of the Vaulx" in his 1930 crossing of the South Atlantic.

During the inter-war period, Marc Birkigt once again devoted himself to luxury cars, including the iconic Hispano-Suiza H6. His customers included a number of famous figures, including Pablo Picasso, banker Anthony de Rothschild, Jacques Joseph Bollinger (founder of the eponymous champagne house), and perfumer François Coty. In the 1930s, Marc Birkigt also partnered with Michelin to create a diesel train: the famous Micheline.

At the end of the  Second World War, the prodigy of mechanics threw himself back into the manufacture of aircraft engines and accessories (thrust reversers, gas turbines, landing gear, diesel engines, etc.).

Some fifteen years after the death of Marc Birkigt in 1953, Hispano-Suiza became part of Snecma (National Society of Research and Construction of Aviation Engines). Fast forward to 1968, and the company had shifted its focus to the design and manufacture of power transmissions for civil and military aircraft. Since that time, it has been involved in major aeronautical programs and equipped commercial aircraft such as the Boeing 737 or the Airbus A330.

In 2005, the Snecma Group, subsequently renamed Safran Aircraft Engines, merged with Sagem, now known as Safran Electronics & Defense (General Electrical and Mechanical Appliances Company), and the resulting group was named Safran. In 2016, with a view to strengthening its position as a global industrial leader and accelerate its growth both in France and internationally, Safran decided to bring its companies under the same banner and a single brand. So it was that Hispano-Suiza became Safran Transmission Systems, as it is known today.

* The CFM56 and LEAP engines are produced by CFM International, a 50/50 joint venture between Safran Aircraft Engines and GE.

Did you know? At the end of the First World War, Hispano-Suiza adopted the emblem and mascot of Captain Guynemer's squadron, the stork, in tribute to this ace of French aviation.