History/driving impressions originally published in AutoWeek July 20, 1987
Rolling down the highway at 50 mph, the only sounds come from the wind as it whistles around the windshield and the gentle shushing of the drive chains, that and good conversation. Ahead, under the doghouse -shaped hood, four 5 ¼ inch pistons glide through a five ¾ inch stroke, displacing 597 cubic inches of atmosphere with every completion of the powers cycle. Wood spoked artillery wheels, 35 inches in diameter, flash in the sun, and from high in the barrel-backed driver’s seat, the big wooden steering wheel firmly in my hands, I feel master of all I survey.
That, I imagine, is how the car’s first owner felt some 75 years ago when this Simplex 50 HP Tourabout, now owned by Ken Pearson of Crystal Lake, Illinois, was new. The model was introduced that year – 1912 – and at about $5600 for the car, the owner must have been something of a pillar of the community just to afford it. To give this price perspective, the most expensive Ford sold that year, the Model T Town Car, cost $900.
Simplex was begun in 1904 by New York auto dealers Smith and Mabley. As importers of Panhard, Renault and Mercedes, they saw an opportunity for a domestic alternative to the expensive imports, whose prices include a 40 percent contribution to the U.S. Bureau of Customs. Smith and Mabley originally had sporting ambitions for the cars they constructed in New Brunswick, New Jersey, Frank Croker (son of corrupt Tammany Hall’s “Boss” Croker) entered a Simplex in the Vanderbilt Cup but later killed himself spectacularly at the Ormond Beach speed trials in January, 1905. That ended Smith and Mabley’s racing interests, and the automotive recession of 1907 put them out of business altogether, despite their efforts at cost-cutting.
Enter new owner Herman Broesel. Hiring designer Edward Franquist, Broesel sought to save the Simplex marque by offering quality construction and the best of luxury. Cylinder castings and pistons were made of the “finest gun iron,” and the frame of Krupp chrome nickel steel from the renowned German foundry. Bodies came from only the best of coachbuilders such as Quimby, Demarest, Holbrook and Brewster. Seeking publicity, Simplex went racing again. In 1908 and 1909, George Robertson drove a Simplex to victory in the 24-hour race on the Brighton Beach mile dirt track at Coney Island, the second year finishing 50 miles ahead of its closest competitor.
Bouyed by this success, Simplex brought out in 1911 a 7.8-liter shaft-drive touring car which produced 38hp. In 1912 the factory followed with a huge 10-liter engine in versions of 50 or 75hp. This behemoth was fitted with a “sporting chassis,” but propulsion configuration reverted to chain-drive. I was in the 50 horse model, which weighed 4300lbs even with the scant Tourabout bodywork (of indeterminate but quality origin) on the 130 inch wheelbase.
From my perch high in the driver’s seat, the Motometer is clavicle-high, but the hood top is barely more than knee-high (though compared to contemporary cars, the Simplex was almost low, with seating only 15 inches above the frame, whereas a typical modern sedan’s frame-to-seat elevation would be about 20 inches). The driver sits on the right, imitative of the European fashion. The controls are basically modern with clutch, brake and foot throttle in the usual locations. An additional pedal, though, splits the trio. This one, a standard feature in Simplexes, activates the muffler cutout. Even then it was common knowledge that a loud car made more power.
Hand throttle and spark advance are on the steering column, and a handbrake and railroad-weight shift lever are to the right. The lever is gated in the familiar H-pattern by a massive casting with slots for the four forward gears. The shift lever moves as it looks: massively, effecting changes in an appropriately massive gearbox located centrally under the chassis, separate from the engine. The transmission also contains the differential, with jackshafts protruding from either side of the gearbox for the drive chains sporckets. (This, other than cycle cars, was the last chain drive car in production). The jackshafts also carry the marginally-effective external-contracting service brakes. This was more for simplicity’s sake than for a saving of unsprung weight on the forged steel I-beam rear axle. The multi-plate wet clutch is mounted at the rear of the engine and requires a deft touch and no throttle when engaging. Suspension is by semi-elliptic springs front and rear.
The real masterpiece of engineering is under that patrician hood, however. The Brass Age was famous for huge power plants, and this certainly ranks as one of the most grand. The giant four is split into two great cylinder blocks attached to a single crankcase. Top the cylinders are T-head marvels with intake valves on the right and exhaust on the left. The dimensions are stupendous, the combustion chamber measuring some 14 inches across. Dual ignition – battery and magneto – not only provides for reliability-enhancing redundancy, but with the size of the explosion chamber, also aids in assuring complete combustion. Running, the engine looks like a small turn-of-the-century factory, with spinning shafts and valve stems popping in regular fashion. It’s completely splash lubricated, now modified by Pearson so auxiliary hand-pump lubrication isn’t required. Exhaust pressures the fuel system, and a simple, though large, carburetor does all the mixing. The engine room itself is sealed by a belly pan. The flywheel has fan -shaped spokes, and it is this that draws air through the square honeycomb radiator (original, by the way). Pearson, a regular in the modern Glidden Tour, restores cars to drive, and his mileage, even in this extremely rare vehicle, is measured in thousands.
The 10-liter chassis ended production in 1914 with a change of ownership. The new model, designated by Henry M. Crane and known as the Crane-Simplex, was of high quality but not as sporting as its predecessors. Plagued by declining sales and competition from larger automakers, Simplex flickered from the automotive scene, dying out forever in 1924. Left behind, however, are reminders like Pearson’s 50hp Simplex, tangible ghosts of an era of greatness.
Driving this car on an open road in traffic with ordinary cars makes a lasting impression. Up there with heavy-duty pickup trucks and looking down on mere ordinary automobiles is an experience. It’s impressive because of its size, but it must have been even more so in 1912 when the common man didn’t own or may never have driven, even ridden in, a motorcar. That had begun to change with the arrival of the Ford Model T in 1908, but the Simplex 50hp in 1912 was still a force to be reckoned with.