The original 'Black Bess' was a Hispano-Suiza

When Ivy saw that shiny new Hispano Suiza, a brand totally unknown to her, with a name as evocative as Black Bess, she would do her best to get behind the wheel and imagine the feeling of driving it ...


Black bess it is a well known name in the history of pedigree cars: It was given in 1922 to the Bugatti Type 18 with chassis No. 474 and two-seater sports body, which by then had already passed through several owners. It was equipped with a large 4-cylinder engine with 5 liters of displacement (100 x 160), which was around 100 CV of power.

This Bugatti was bought new in 1913 by Roland Garros, aviator pilot and sportsman, friend of Ettore Bugatti; the popularity of the aviator would make that model from then on known as Bugatti Garros. 

Bugatti Black Bess
Roland Garros in his Bugatti 18. 1913

With the declaration of the First World War Garros sold the car, which would go through two more owners until 1922, when bought by Sydney G. Cummings, a well-known mechanic and regular driver at the Brooklands circuit in England. Cummings then gave it to his daughter Ivy, who baptized it Be Black Bess, name with which this car would go down in history. Ivy cummings She was one of the few female pilots of those years and with her Black Bess she would win several tests in 1923.  

Bugatti Black Bess
Ivy Cummings riding up Kop Hill in her Bugatti Black Bess in 1923

Hispano Alfonso XIII: A car to fall in love with

In the book L'Epopée Bugatti (Editions de La Table Ronde, 1966) written by Ébé Bugatti, daughter of the Molsheim patron, a very interesting piece of information appears: Ivy Cummings had learned to drive when she was only 11 years old, in a cart SCAR in which his father regularly raced at Brooklands in 1912.

Precisely that year Hispano Suiza appointed its first dealer in England, AG Brown & Co. of London. The Spanish brand had achieved a series of important sporting successes in 1910 and 1911 and in 1911 it had opened a branch factory on the outskirts of Paris, with which it was going to respond to the growing demand of the European market for its cars, especially the new one. Alfonso XIII sports car with 4 cylinders and 3,6 liters of displacement, today considered like the first sports car in history.

Hispanic Black Bess
Zuccarelli, winner at Boulogne in 1910, with a Hispano Suiza

The new English representative AG Brown immediately took the Hispanics to the Brooklands track, the only permanent circuit in Europe and where, as of March, a competition event was held practically every month. 

The first enrollment of a Hispanic in Brooklands appears in April 1912, in charge of AG Brown, who would also be its pilot. In June we noticed the inscription of Lord Exmouth, a gentleman driver he had just bought his HS Alfonso XIII. It appears that the preparation and delivery of the car could not be completed in time for the competition and he was unable to participate. His first race - and first victory - would take place in July at the Private Competitors Handicap.

Hispanic Swiss Exmouth
HS ad advertising Lord Exmouth's success at Brooklands. June 1912

In the advertising of that event we can see a car with the bodywork that would become known as the Brooklands type and that according to the chronicle of the time was carried out in just three days in the workshops of TH Gill in London. The photograph appears to have been taken before the race, judging by the absence of a number and by the pennant with the logo of the house on the radiator, a Hispano Suiza tradition for the official photos of the cars that were going to compete.

In the four August races known as Bank Holiday Meeting, Lord Exmouth gets 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th places respectively. It is probable that in some of these races an exceptional spectator was present - King Alfonso XIII - because that month, during an official visit to Great Britain and outside the planned protocol, he was visiting the Hispano Suiza dealership in London. It must be remembered that Alfonso XIII was a good client of the brand and your best promoter.

The original Black Bess

In 1995 we had the opportunity to review in Paris the personal archive of Mrs. Françoise Massuger-Bigant, daughter of Louis Massuger, test engineer for La Hispano Suiza in France since 1914. Among many other things of great interest, we found the curious photograph of a Hispanic Alfonso XIII very similar to that of Lord Exmouth, which did not have any note on the back, but offered two really surprising elements: name Black bess written on the hood and a girl behind the wheel barely tall enough to see over the engine but, yes, wearing a full pilot outfit.

The original Black Bess, an AG Brown HS Alfonso XIII. 1912

The bodywork, undoubtedly from the same TH Gill workshops and practically identical to Lord Exmouth's, would date the photo as from 1912. Who could that young driver be? Looking for some clues in the Brooklands archives and after Ébé Bugatti's important information about Ivy Cummings, We were finally able to find a photograph of Ivy at the age of 19 or 20, when she was already running on her own. It was a photo taken in April 1920 at the wheel of a Vauxhall, accompanied by his mother. 

Thanks to this second photo we were able to confirm that Ivy Cummings was the same person sitting behind the wheel of the Hispano Black Bess in 1912.

Ivy Cummings in Hispano Suiza
Ivy Cummings with her mother at the wheel of a Vauxhall. 1920

Tying up the strings of a thoroughbred

To confirm the identification, it was necessary to find a match of SG Cummings' participation, which justified the presence of his daughter in the circuit, in an event in which a Hispanic was also present. And we find it in 1912, when the participation of SG Cummings with his SCAR and that of AG Brown with a Hispanic Alfonso XIII is recorded. 

It is perfectly imaginable that the official dealer of the brand had made special preparation of the first HS registered in Brooklands, painted black and christened as Black bess (Negra Isabelita), the fast mare of the English bandit Dick Turpin. This Black Bess followed the tradition of the era of naming Brooklands cars; such as the Fiat Mephistopheles, the Vauxhall KN (Cayenne), the Sumbean Nautilus and the various Chitty Bang Bang specials of Count Zborowski.

However Black bess It is a feminine name, Bess comes from Beth, from Elisabeth; it is very likely that with this name AG Brown wanted to insist that it was a car made in France, where the car it is feminine.

Ivy cummings
Ivy Cummings looks at the engine of her Bugatti Black Bess. 1923

Just 11 years old Ivy cummings She was already an expert connoisseur of racing cars and their mechanics, all learned from her father's side in Brooklands. It is then perfectly clear that When Ivy saw that shiny new Hispano Suiza, a brand totally unknown to her, with a name as evocative as Black Bess, she would do her best to get behind the wheel and imagine the feeling of driving it. And for many years he would keep the memory of that racing car then out of reach. Fortunately someone immortalized that magical moment with a photograph, today unique document of great historical value.

What has become of that Hispanic?

Surely the young Ivy dreamed many times of the Hispano Black Bess of 1912, until ten years later, when in 1922 she finally had her own car - the Bugatti Tipo 18 Garros -, without thinking twice she baptized it with that name that during years had caressed in memory. His Bugatti, already fourth-hand, would now be his Black Bess. Nothing else is known about the original Hispano Suiza Black Bess, it was probably sold with another road body to one of the many customers that Alfonso XIII sports cars had in England.

The Bugatti Black Bess was restored to competition status in the 70s by its ninth owner Peter Hampton. In September 1991 he was present in Paris for the brand's first comeback with the Bugatti EB-110 supercar.

In 2005 the Bugatti Black Bess was in England, owned by David Heimann, who showed great interest in our research and to whom we thank the information provided.

What do you think?

Manuel Lage

Written by Manuel Lage

Manuel Lage Marco is a native of Rábade (Lugo), 1949. He is a Doctor of Industrial Engineering from the ETS II of Bilbao and Madrid, and Engineer Engineer from the École Supérieure des Moteurs in Paris. He developed his entire professional career in the automotive sector at Chrysler Spain, Pegaso and Iveco; in Spain, UK and Italy. He is co-founder and general secretary of the Spanish Association of Automotive Professionals (ASEPA) and professor of the Automotive Masters of INSIA and UEM. As a historian of the automobile in Spain, he is the author of several research books.


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