The struggle for Hispano Suiza – What’s next?

After I wrote the article on Hispano Suiza for Autocar, many questions remained unanswered. The brand still has no undisputed owner and at least two parties were competing for it: the Mateu family, which has helped found it with Damià Mateu, and Erwin Himmel, former VW head of design. But there were other names involved, as the article clearly stated. Who are Maria Pou Portús and Gonzalo Ramírez? Who are Ruth Sacramento and Teófilo Patricio? More importantly, who has better chances of getting the Hispano Suiza brand? This article provides many of the missing answers after I managed to interview most of the people involved to get a clear vision of what is really going on. But that would probably bring more doubts if it was not for the assistance of Simon Clark and Jake Palmer, from Bristows LLP, one of the most important law firms in the world regarding trade marks and registrations. They helped me have a better idea of what’s next towards the future of the historic car brand. This article aims to share all that with you.

Erwin Himmel (on the right)

Erwin Himmel

A little after the article was published, Erwin Himmel called me to clarify the doubts I still had regarding Hispano Suiza. Why a well-regarded automotive designer, with such a long career, would get involved in such a dispute for a brand? Why not create a new one from zero? “When I moved to Spain to open the design studio for Volkswagen, back in 1994, I got in touch with all the heritage of the brands in the Volkswagen Group. It would be easier to build something with heritage than something out of the blue.”

According to our sources, Himmel opened the studio in Sitges and was invited to be the head of design at Bentley 5 years late, in 1999. The problem is that he wanted the studio to be in London or Manchester, closer to creative hubs. When he refused the new job, he had to leave Volkswagen and founded his own studio, Fuore Design, in Barcelona. Hispano Suiza was probably a goal he had between that and 2010, when he presented his first concept at the Geneva Motor Show. In September that year, he founded Hispano Suiza Automobilemanufaktur AG.

Himmel claims the Mateu family never had the intention to revive the Hispano Suiza brand. “In 2009, I had a meeting with Mr. Mateu (Miguel Suqué Mateu, from the Grup Peralada). He said he had no clue what his great-grandfather was doing. He was not interested at all. He did not even know the history of the company. The club for Hispano Suiza owners had less and less members. They were getting old and dying”, he told MotorChase. But that is up for some discussion.

Hispano-Suiza K8, picture by Tamorlan

At the 2000 Geneva Motor Show, the company Mazel Ingenieros presented a Hispano-Suiza concept (with the dash between the words) called HS21. According to a Hispano Suiza Cars press release, this car was made through “a brand transfer agreement” between Mazel Ingenieros and Grup Peralada, who recently presented the Carmen concept at the 2019 Geneva Motor Show. It is not clear who wanted to bring Hispano Suiza back to life: if Mazel Ingenieros or Miguel Suqué Mateu, who claims this was a lifelong ambition to do so. Whoever was responsible, it is clear Grup Peralada was involved in bringing the car brand back to life since 2000, either due to a lifelong ambition from Miguel Suqué Mateu or simply to make money from the brand. New concepts were presented, such as the K8, in 2001, and the HS21-GTS, in 2002, also at the Swiss event, not to mention the 2019 Carmen concept. There is also the lawsuit Grup Peralada had filed against Delmar 04 for presenting the Grand Turismo Coupé, or X10V, in 2010, as I have reported at the Autocar article.

Hispano Suiza X10V, the Gran Turismo Coupé
Hispano Suiza X10V, the Gran Turismo Coupé

In that lawsuit presented to the Spanish justice, Delmar 04 was considered not guilty of most of the accusations, but not of unfair competition. That means a new Hispano Suiza could never claim to be a descendant of the original. I have spoken about that with Himmel and he seemed surprised. “When you go for the brand, you go for all of it. It makes no sense to not be able to use its history. Besides, there is a 6 month period in which you can oppose the registration of the brand and they did not do it. This family (Mateu) was not able to do anything with Hispano Suiza in 80 years, yet they do not want it to be alive.”

At this point of the conversation, I also seized the oportunity to clarify who Marta Pou Portús was in the whole story. “We had a relationship. She had her own company, a Renault dealership in Spain. When I told her my ideas towards Hispano Suiza, she wanted to participate. And offered her company, Delmar 04, to book a stand at the Geneva Motor Show. My company was in the process of being created, so I accepted the offer”, Himmel told MotorChase. “A little after the motor show, she did not want to continue with me anymore. And she did not contact me again.” We asked Himmel if she had not contacted him not even when her company was sued and had to pay €35,560 due to unfair competition. He said she didn’t. We also asked who were Ruth Sacramento and Teófilo Patricio, two names that appear in the lawsuit. “I have no idea who these guys are”, he replied.

Hispano Suiza Carmen

Anyway, the Austrian designer knows another character of this story, Gonzalo Ramírez, quite well. “I took him in my company. I gave him the whole knowledge about the project. He followed me to Austria 2,5 years ago. But then he left, angry with me, and I do not know why. Gonzalo is the designer of the new car (the Carmen). He took the concept from me, the idea. He went to Mr. Mateu and offered the project. And they do not have the balls to say who the designer was”, Himmel said.

He also criticised the style of the Carmen, claiming it would never be able to be homologated, due to the rear lights, and also the choice to make it a full electric car. “In half an hour, the battery is empty. That is not suitable for a supercar. I also wanted to make a hybrid, but clients did not want it. You have a very small number of clients that want something exotic. It is a big discussion in the world. Electrics are not the final solution.”

Since the Grup Peralada is a big company, I have also wondered how Himmel intends to defend himself from the lawsuits that will very likely come in the future. “I have investors and backers, but money alone will not ensure anything. The company I have now is developed to prevail. We will get over it. I like to speak about the truth because I have nothing to hide. I am not taking the old brand, I am giving it a new life”, he said.

Considering Himmel says he does not want to be taken as the pirate in this story, it was important to get something straight: would knowing that the Mateu family wished to bring the Hispano Suiza brand back to life change his plans in any way? The designer did not answer, but, when we told him the only official reply we got from Grup Peralada stated his use of Hispano Suiza use was “evident bad faith, as well as a clear case of free-riding”, this was what he had to say: “I will take them to court. This is officially to say something against me. How can a man who is out of the car industry, who has no clue about anything, say something like this about me? I brought Audi into the upper market”.

Marta Pou Portús

We had also contacted Marta Pou Portús and she eventually replied to some of our questions as well. Since Himmel had already told us who she was, we just needed her side of the story, especially regarding the lawsuit against Delmar 04. Or lawsuits, as she corrected us. “Delmar 04 SA was charged with paying € 35,560 for unfair competition due to exposing an old Hispano Suiza at the Geneva Motor Show, to the message ‘The legend is back’ and to images in the folder and at the stand of the old stork, the logo with wings… All Erwin Himmel’s fault. The lawsuit asked me € 1.2 million. Audi Hmbg also sued me for not having the base technology of the X10V properly settled with the company. All of that responsibility of Erwin Himmel. They asked € 1 million. It ended up with me having to pay € 3,000 and the case was closed.”

Hispano Suiza X10V

Ruth Sacramento and Teófilo Patricio, according to Marta Pou Portús, are made-up names used not to harm data protection when judgments are published. In other words, they probably refer to Marta Pou Portús and Erwin Himmel, respectively, even if the Spanish businesswoman did not confirm if this was true. In this is the case, and according to the judgment, Marta Pou Portús and Himmel tried to negotiate with Grup Peralada the use of the Hispano Suiza brand in 2009. As they did not succeed, they decided to register the brand in that same year. Its trade marks were expired, at the time.

Finally, Marta Pou Portús confirmed she also wants to have the Hispano Suiza brand. “Erwin Himmel wants to take over the project. But he is gone. He ran away. He never showed up at the court. He is a highly dangerous character. And yes, I want to put Hispano Suiza cars on the market.” We have sent her some more questions, such as if she knew or had any involvement with Gonzalo Ramírez, but she did not get in touch again.

Gonzalo Ramírez

The last key person in this case we have managed to contact was Gonzalo Ramírez. We discovered he is now the design director at Dongfeng, working in Germany in several new projects for the Chinese carmaker, but he still keeps an eye on the Spanish brand as well. “I cannot comment any further. My lawyers are taking good care of the matter.”

Hispano Suiza logo

Asked about any participation on the Carmen project, as Himmel said he had, Ramírez spared no words. “It is impossible for me to have any involvement with the Hispano Suiza Carmen. It is the ugliest car of recent times. It certainly was not designed by professionals. Himmel’s car, on the other hand, has a good level”.

With that, we have at least four parties fighting for Hispano Suiza: Erwin Himmel, Marta Pou Portús, Gonzalo Ramírez and the Mateu family. But who has better chances of winning this legal battle? That was what
Simon Clark and Jake Palmer, solicitors from Bristows LLP, helped MotorChase to find out.

Bristows LLP

The first thing Clark and Palmer allowed us to see more clearly was who has valid trade marks for Hispano Suiza and where. Mostly because, as they have told us, trade marks are a country by country matter. There is no international registry to make them valid in other places besides the European office, in which you can choose to have a trade mark valid for a single country or for all EU countries.

All trade marks checked were for Class 12, specific for vehicles, since they are what the new Hispano Suiza will inevitably deliver.

Hispano Suiza Dubonnet Xenia

Erwin Himmel has valid trade marks for the logo in the UK and for the both the name and the logo in Germany, France, Austria and Monaco. He also claimed to have the trade marks for the Emirates, China and Hong Kong, but Clark and Palmer did not find these trade marks in their researches.

Marta Pou Portús has managed to register the name in Spain, Monaco, Japan, USA, China, Liechtenstein and San Marino. There is a trade mark for name and logo in Germany as well, but Himmel’s is more recent.

Gonzalo Ramírez has opposed a registration attept from Himmel and so has Pou Portús. Ramírez has tried to register the name in 2017, but has had oppositions from Himmel and Pou Portús and his request was filed, so he has no currently valid trade marks for Hispano Suiza in his name.

Old Hispano Suiza logo
Old Hispano Suiza logo

Safran and La Hispano Suiza Fábrica de Automóviles have valid trade marks for the names and old logos in a lot of markets, but having the trade mark is just the start. “The first to register gets the brand if there is no opposition. In many countries, if I have a reputation, but I did not have a registration, I can still use my reputational rights to oppose”, Clark said. But it gets more complex. “The complication in this case is that you have Safran. It seems to own the Hispano Suiza brand, but it did not use it. You can’t simply register and sit over it. You may have this situation when someone sues another that has a valid trade mark claiming they were not using it.”

In the US, you can only have a trade mark registration if you have a product to confirm the brand is active. This is probably why Himmel and Grup Peralada rushed to present new cars and are trying to sell them. The one that gets the job done before the other will probably have a competitive advantage towards getting the brand, but there is also a side effect. “There is a risk related to selling the cars. Either Himmel rebrands them to avoid complications or takes the chance of losing the rights to use the brand and having to pay a lot of money”, Clark said.

The bottom line for this story is that we will probably have a Hispano Suiza vehicle for sale very soon. Perhaps more than one, if both Himmel and the Grup Peralada are willing to take that chance. This new car can be instrumental for the part that will finally get the chance to revive Hispano Suiza. And there is a big chance that we will end up with more than one, depending on which country we are talking about…

Gustavo Henrique Ruffo

I have been an automotive journalist since 1998 and have worked for many important Brazilian newspapers and magazines, such as the local edition of Car and Driver and Quatro Rodas, Brazilian's biggest car magazine. I have also worked for foreign websites, such as World Car Fans and won a few journalism prizes, among them three SAE Journalism Awards and the 2017 IAM RoadSmart Safety Award. I am the author of "The Traffic Cholesterol", a book about bad drivers that you can buy at Hotmart, Google Play, Amazon and Kobo.