It was while reading a largely-historical spy novel set in World War II occupied France, that I became fascinated by descriptions of an unusual automobile driven by a Nazi officer, and much admired both by his German contemporaries and the French citizens who had to tolerate his unwelcome presence in their community. Built by the famous Hispano Suiza engine works, it sported an extra set of rear axles and a grandly-elegant interior design.
My search for an example of this extraordinary six-wheel piece of automotive history led to the Forney Transportation museum in Denver, Colorado, where – I learned – a 1923 Hispano Suiza Model H6A Victoria Town Car resided at the very center of their world-class display of some of the most honored and rare automobiles, bicycles, motor cycles, stage coaches and trains.
The beautifully-restored behemoth I found waiting for me there is believed to have been built in France for King George II of Greece who didn’t remain “King” long enough to take delivery, the car eventually finding its way to America where Hollywood big wig D.W .Griffith bought it for $35,000, just in time to give it a starring role in “My Lips Betray” in 1934.
End of the search: The 1923 Hispano Suiza H6A “Victoria” Town Car at Denver’s Forny Transportation Museum.
Almost as exciting as meeting up with the target of my year-long quest was to find another historic gem positioned right next to it: this time, the 1923 chrome yellow Kissel Speedster owned , “adored” and driven by aviatrix Amelia Earhart, and still a real head-turner today, with its flashy paint job, wire wheels, cutaway doors and “outrigger” side seats. After her parents’ divorce, and at a low point in her own life, Amelia decided in 1924 to take her mother with her to join her Boston sister. Amelia hated trains, and decided to challenge the continent’s primitive road system, saddling up her bright yellow “Kizzi” for what turned out to be a 7,000-mile journey from Los Angeles up and across Canada’s poorly-charted vastness; a six week adventure for a driver who had learned to fly before ever getting behind the wheel of a car. (Amelia was never an accomplished pilot, and all we know about her road-savvy is that “she drove very fast”, even in Hollywood.)
The Kissel line of automobiles deserves more than a mere mention, and among car aficionados, it remains a standout. Louis Kissel and his four sons built their first car in their Hartford, Wisconsin shop in 1907, entirely from components of their own design and manufacture. For the next 20 years, their home-grown engineering genius produced some of America’s most advanced and sought-after road machines. Among the fast-and-famous who drove Kissels – in addition to Amelia – were actor Douglas Fairbanks, Fatty Arbuckle, fighter Jack Dempsey, and other well-knowns such as Greta Garbo, Mary Pickford, Al Jolson, Rudy Vallee and William S. Hart. There are at least three of these timeless beauties at Forney. Alas, a business deal gone sour led to bankruptcy in 1927, just as the country was sliding into deep depression.
Amelia Earhart’s 1923 Kissel “Goldbug” Speedster was revered by its owner as her “Yellow Peril".
If I could choose one other Forney “beauty” to rhapsodize about, it would be their l934 Pierce Arrow “Fastback” in gleaming red with black trim, the most prized (and expensive) American showpiece of its time, with handcrafted coachwork whose seductive curves claimed to have eliminated every “straight line”. (My own father – otherwise a very cool, almost stoic kind of guy could wax poetic when calling my attention to a passing Pierce Arrow.)
At a time when nearly 75 car manufacturers competed, the Pierce Arrow stood supreme in the eyes of many.
Al Cooper Photos
Needless to say, my stroll among the gleaming automotive legacy at Denver’s Forney Transportation Museum was a journey down memory lane.