Simplex - The American Mercedes

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 1904 - 1924

Smith & Mabley of 7th Avenue

If you wanted to buy an elegant, expensive imported car in New York at the turn of the 20th century, the place to go was Smith & Mabley, Incorporated, of 513-519 7th Avenue, who were agents for Mercedes, Panhard and Renault. For $12,750 they would sell you a 28/32 hp Mercedes with 'Vedrine King of the Belgians' bodywork complete with canopy, windscreen, wicker luncheon baskets and umbrella holder and paint it any color you chose.

S & M Simplex

But out of that $12,750, a staggering 40 per cent was import duty: and, reckoned Messrs Smith and Mabley, anything Europe's finest makers could do, they could manage to equal - at a lower price. So, in 1904, they began building an 18 hp luxury car which they called the S & M Simplex; with a four-cylinder engine, angle steel chassis and coachwork in the latest Roi-des-Belges style, including exaggerated ploughshare front mudwings.

The S & M Simplex followed contemporary European practice in design of car and coachwork (an individual touch was the provision of an elegant little chest of drawers built in under the front seat). During 1904 the engine size was increased to 30 hp (5.2 liters); fully equipped the S & M Simplex cost $6750, which showed that Smith & Mabley had got their sums right.

Frank Croker and Tammany Hall

There was also a 'special 75hp' racing car of 14.7 liters: Smith & Mabley, perhaps wanting to keep the plate glass windows in their showroom unbroken, supplied one of these to young Frank Croker, whose father ran the city's corrupt Tammany Hall political organisation. Liberally drilled to bring it inside the weight limit for the 1904 Vanderbilt Cup Eliminating Trials, the Simplex folded in the middle during the race, and finished with its gearbox dragging in the road.

Croker took the car - with a new chassis - to the Ormond Beach speed trials in January 1905, where he wrote off the car (and himself) in spectacular fashion. Photographs of the wreck show that the axles were still hollowed out to a ridiculous extent, the whole assembly apparently consisting of more air than metal. There was no racer in the 1905 catalogue, just a wide range of bodies on the 30 hp chassis: side-entrance coachwork in the latest style was now available, at prices ranging from $750 to $2000 (the latter sum being approximately the price of a fully-equipped Franklin touring car).

Edward Franquist and the new Simplex

There was nothing to quibble about in terms of quality in the Simplex though admittedly the design of its radiator was somewhat clumsy; but nevertheless, Smith & Mabley went out of business in 1907, the victims of a general recession. A man named Herman Broesel obviously thought the Simplex name worth saving. He acquired the moribund company and began manufacture of a new Simplex, this time a Mercedes-inspired car designed by Edward Franquist. Cylinders and pistons of the new model were of the finest 'gun iron', while frames were pressed from Krupp's chrome nickel steel: just about everything was made in the Simplex factory, save for tires, electrical components and of course coachwork, which was supplied by the finest and most fashionable bodybuilders of the day.

Best known of the new Simplexes was the 50 hp model, with a 10-liter T-headed engine: its speed potential was apparent from the fact that the company frequently entered stripped chassis in endurance races. One of the first they entered was the 24-hour Morris Park event in 1907. In 1908, Joe Seymour's Simplex was the highest-placed American car in the Savannah Grand Prize Race (though its eleventh place was hardly earth-shattering).

George Robertson

In October 1908, George Robertson's Simplex won the 24-hour race at the Brighton Beach one-mile dirt-track on Coney Island, New York, setting a new record distance of 1177 miles, at an average of 49 mph, despite collecting a track policeman in the process. The marque's best racing year was 1909, in which George Robertson was again triumphant at Brighton Beach, though this time his average was down to 45.9 mph over a distance of 1091 miles: however, the winning car was fifty miles ahead of any other competitor.

On 8th September that year, a 50 hp Simplex, again with George Robertson at the wheel, won the National Stock Chassis race over the twisting Merrimac Valley course at Lowell, Massachussets, covering 318 miles in 352 minutes, an average of 54.20 mph, while Robertson, this time at the wheel of a 90 hp Simplex, took first place in the Founder's Day Race in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, covering 200 miles in 218 minutes (55.05 mph). These achievements were certainly very significant factors in earning George Robertson the American Automobile Association National Championship that year.

The Vanderbilt Cup

In 1910, Mitchell's 10,492cc Simplex was the biggest car in the Vanderbilt Cup race, but could only finish seventh, but at Brighton Beach Al Poole (who had been Robertson's co-driver in the 1909 race) and Charles Basle won the 24-hour race, averaging 47.7 mph but missing the 1908 record by a mere 32 miles. Also at Brighton Beach, George Robertson, driving the 90 hp Simplex Zip (which had left-hand-drive for dirt-track racing) beat Ralph de Palma's Fiat in a five-mile match race: the car was subsequently acquired by Louis Disbrow, and was still in good racing form five years later.

Franquist then introduced two new touring models 7.8-liter, a 38 hp shaft-drive touring car in 1911 and a massive 10-liter, chain-drive 75 hp sporting chassis in 1912, almost certainly the last new chain-driven car to be introduced in America - and it was probably the last chain-drive automobile to remain in production anywhere, which it did until 1914. In the interim, Simplex had undergone another change of ownership, passing into the hands of a triumvirate called Goodrich, Lockhardt and Smith, who also took over the Crane Motor Company of Bayonne, New Jersey, and appointed Henry M. Crane in place of Franquist.

The Crane Motor Company

The Crane Motor Company had been building a high-quality six- cylinder 9.2-liter car which cost $8000 in chassis form, and at the end of 1914 this became the Crane-Simplex-costing $10,000 as a chassis! The Crane-Simplex was one of America's outstanding luxury cars, but lacked the thunderous glamour of the earlier Simplex models. It was built until 1917, when the factory turned to making V8 Hispano-Suiza aeroengines for the war effort, and a few chassis were assembled from existing components after the Armistice.

Emlen S. Hare

Then the company was acquired by ex-Packard Salesman Emlen S. Hare, who was attempting to form a motor manufacturing empire, which also included Mercer and Locomobile, and a few Crane-Simplex chassis were manufactured in 1923-1924. The company failed to survive the collapse of Hare's Motors in 1924; however, it enjoyed a renaissence in attenuated form many years later when automobile collector Henry Austin Clark, owner of the Long Island Automotive Museum, acquired the name and whatever goodwill remained of the old Simplex company.

But the proud Simplex badge recalled the long history of the famous company only as decoration emblazoned on humble Zippo cigarette lighters presented by Clark to his business and social visitors at the museum.


1909 Simplex Landaulet
1909 Simplex Landaulet, powered by a 1340cc four-cylinder engine.
Ralph de Palma at the Indianapolis Speedway in a Simplex
Ralph de Palma at the Indianapolis Speedway in a Simplex.
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