The Story of Safran Transmission Systems
Safran Transmission Systems is the world leader in mechanical power transmission systems for commercial and military aircraft. A look back at the origins of a company associated with an image of performance and innovation in both automobiles and aviation: Hispano-Suiza.
Recognition and the beginnings in motor racing
Marc Birkigt was born on March 8, 1878 in Geneva, Switzerland. With an engineering degree, he left Switzerland for Barcelona where Emilio de la Cuadra hired him in 1899 to work as an automobile engineer in La Cuadra’s firm. After several bankruptcies, Birkigt joined forces with Damien Mateu (a Catalan industrialist), to create a new company in 1904: Hispano-Suiza Fabrica de Automóviles SA. The company designed luxury cars that began to gain real success with wealthy customers. Marc Birkigt quickly understood that motor racing could have very interesting marketing effects for the brand.
From 1905 to 1907, Hispano-Suiza manufactured internal-combustion engines like the 14 HP, 2,535 cc 4-cylinder chassis and the 20/24 HP chassis. The brand then took off considerably, especially since Birkigt had the young King of Spain Alfonso XIII as a prestigious client. As a car enthusiast, the King assured the company of his full support.
Faced with the influx of orders, Birkigt turned to other manufacturers to build the chassis. A sales license was granted to the Swiss company SAG (Société d'automobiles à Genève) of Lucien Pictet and Paul Piccard. They marketed the Hispano-Suiza models under this name until 1908. Hispano-Suiza presented two new chassis at the 1907 show: a 4-cylinder 40/45 HP and an imposing 6-cylinder 60/75 HP with 11 litres of displacement decorated with the brand's emblem: two wings (symbol of speed), in the center a white cross (Swiss symbol) on the Spanish colors.
In 1908, the Royal Automobile Club of Spain created the first Catalan Cup at the request of the King. At that point Birkigt decided to get into car racing. Thanks to the driver Paolo Zuccarelli, one of the three Hispano-Suiza cars involved in the second Catalan Cup in 1909 finished third, behind two Lion-Peugeot, then unbeatable. In September 1910, Zuccarelli won several races before the brand withdrew from the competition. Marc Birkigt received the title of “Knight of Isabella the Catholic”.
From Barcelona to Bois-Colombes, France
In 1911, Hispano-Suiza moved to France, in Levallois-Perret, near Paris, and started the design of luxury automobiles. The first model, boasting 15 HP, was named Alphonse XIII after its first owner, the King of Spain. The company created in France a brand image based on robustness, quality, simplicity, and lightness.
In 1914, Hispano-Suiza moved again, this time to Bois-Colombes to new premises specially designed for the company.
During the First World War Hispano-Suiza supported the war effort by producing aircraft engines. The aluminium V-cylinder engine designed by Marc Birkigt, combining power and lightness, greatly contributed to the reputation and development of the company. Between 1916 and 1918 about twenty firms in France and abroad manufactured almost 50 000 of these engines. It powered for instance the SPAD VII plane flown by French ace Georges Guynemer. A stork drawn on his plane by an unknown artist during the liberation of Alsace became the symbol of his squadron – and soon the symbol of Hispano-Suiza in honor of the valiant pilots and their planes powered by the company’s engines.
After the war and until 1936, Hispano-Suiza resumed its business as an automobile engines manufacturer. During this time, the company kept building aircraft engines that allowed several records such as the first non-stop postal crossing of the South Atlantic by Jean Mermoz in 1930 and the first non-stop flight from Paris to New York in 1931. In 1933 Hispano-Suiza held 14 world records.
When automobile manufacture came to an end for the firm, Hispano-Suiza concentrated on the production of aircraft engines and built a wind tunnel in Bois-Colombes for engine testing.
Until the armistice of June 1940, the company operated at full speed to supply engines, propellers and guns to the French army. Under the Occupation, despite the departure of Marc Birkigt for the Barcelona site and the transfer of a large part of the factory to Tarbes in the free zone, the Bois-Colombes site continued to operate. Requisitioned by the Occupation, the factory produces BMW engine parts that equip German planes. However guns and engines derived from Hispano-Suiza licenses equipped many Allied aircraft. After the Allied bombings of September and December 1943 destroyed part of the Bois-Colombes factory, the company came out of the war in a difficult situation.
A gradual diversification of activities
After the war, Hispano-Suiza was determined to resume its business as an aircraft engine manufacturer. It then relaunched in the manufacture of aircraft reactors and aviation accessories (thrust reversers, gas turbines, landing gear, diesel engines...). It acquired a license from Rolls-Royce to manufacture the Nene jet engine with centrifugal compressor (which powered the Mistral and Ouragan planes), followed by the Tay.
Based on the Tay, Hispano-Suiza developed a more powerful engine known as the Verdon. This engine powered the legendary Dassault Mystère IVA. Through 1970, Hispano-Suiza continued to develop a series of innovative solutions for the aviation, rail, naval and nuclear markets.
In November 1965 Hispano-Suiza was involved for the first time in a French space program with the first launch of the Diamant rocket, which sent the first French satellite Asterix into space. Hispano-Suiza supplied the hydraulics, valves and pneumatic distributors as well as the stage separation rockets.
In 1968 Hispano-Suiza joined Snecma, and its Bois-Colombes plant became a division of the company. From then on Hispano-Suiza is no longer an engine manufacturer, and stakes out a position as top-tier equipment supplier.
On December 22, 1970, the group decided to combine the “landing gear” activities of its Hispano-Suiza division with the “landing gear, wheels and brakes, aerospace hydraulics and related activities” activities of Messier. This merger gave rise to the creation of a new company which took the name of Messier-Hispano.
From 1979 Hispano-Suiza is the prime contractor for production of transmission systems in the group. The Le Havre plant entered the thrust reverser business, making its first model in May 1979. The three major world manufacturers Airbus, Boeing, and Douglas chose Hispano-Suiza to equip most of their aircrafts.
In 1984 Hispano-Suiza was selected as supplier of the thrust reverser for the A320, as well as accessory gearboxes and flex-shafts for the M88 engine powering the Rafale fighter.
Already in the 1970s, the managers of Hispano-Suiza deemed the Bois-Colombes site unsuitable for the company's new activities. The public authorities, for their part, recommended the factory moved away in order to develop housing in the district. The plan to close the site raised strong protests from employees and trade unions. However, from the mid-1990s, production gradually transferred to Colombes, until the final closure of the factory in 1999. The old site, after the destruction of the buildings (with the exception of the wind tunnel), integrated the redevelopment project of the ZAC des Bruyères, led by the City in the early 2000s. Today, in place of the factory, there is the Bruyères park, the La Cigogne school, buildings and offices taken over by companies like Aviva or Colgate-Palmolive.
Aircelle selected Hispano-Suiza in 2001 to develop the electrical actuation system, the first in the world, for the thrust reversers on the Trent 900 and GP7200 engines for the A380. The next year, all engine control and power transmission system design, production and integration operations were consolidated within Hispano-Suiza. Hispano-Suiza transfered turbocharger business to Turbomeca and became prime contractor for the M88 control system.
Joining Safran Group
In 2005 Hispano-Suiza became a subsidiary of Safran, the international high-tech corporation created by the merger of Snecma and Sagem. In July, Snecma Polska became a subsidiary of Hispano-Suiza and was renamed Hispano-Suiza Polska. This production plant produces gears for the company’s power transmissions.
Eventually, when all of the companies included in the Group changed their names, Hispano-Suiza became Safran Transmission Systems.
- Maps are available under the Open Database Licence.
- © OpenStreetMap contributors.
- © Safran
- © Espace patrimoine Safran
- © Espace Patrimoine Safran