When steelworkers were steelworkers and not being bossed around by some junior squirt in some loose meat factory, Sheffield threw out some pretty neat-o motors. These were The Sheffield Simplex range. And this is their story.
Words: Alex Swadling
Leather quilted seats, gleaming grills and bug-eyed headlights: the Sheffield-Simplex was built to be ‘The Most Beautiful Car In The World’. Manufactured from 1907 to 1920, Mr Toad wouldn’t look amiss cruising this luxury motor across Sheffield’s rolling countryside. Woodland clientele aside, the Sheffield-Simplex was manufactured to compete with the equally lavish and quintessentially British Rolls Royce Ltd, which was similar in price, quality and driver.
Typically a four-door with flush side panels, detachable hood, torpedo body and leather upholstered bench seating – the Simplex was initially built by engineer Peter Brotherhood. Percy Richardson, another former of ‘Brotherhood Crocker’ and the notorious independent British ‘Daimler Motor Company, produced and brought the Sheffield-Simplex name onto the roads. However, the Sheffield-Simplex brand eventually found its eponymy after being invested in by Mr Toad’s counterpart, the wealthy Earl Fitzwilliam.
“We make the steel in Sheffield – why are the cars made in London, Birmingham and Coventry?”The reputed profound questioning of coal magnate Earl Fitzwilliam in 1903, now chairman of Sheffield Simplex Motors Ltd, saw him tow up the existing car manufacturer from the soft suburbia of Kingston upon Thames, London to the industrious gritty streets of Britain’s Steel City. Or, to be more precise, Tinsley. Spending under £11,000, the Earl set up a Works in 1905 which had five main bays – housing blacksmiths, engine testing, car testing, running shed and pattern shop. Since, having manufactured razor blades and in 1979 becoming part of Darwins Magnets International, the factory still sits at the junction of Lock Lane and Sheffield Road (near Magna). The magnanimously named ‘Fitzwilliam Works’ has been retained at the site to this day.
Capitalising on Sheffield’s world renowned metallurgical street-rep, the Sheffield-Simplex trade expanded upon this. Unlike similar ‘Simplex’ predecessors—German-built Mercedes Simplex (manufactured from 1902 to 1909) and the defunct American Crane Simplex—Sheffield’s motor proved to have greater commercial stamina, also boasting itself as ‘The Gearless Car’. Designed for simplicity of use, Simplex had an unusual pedal arrangement – with the accelerator pivoting sideways under the right foot and the brake also operating as the clutch. The design and engine size meant that the Simplex could run in top gear. Consequently, Mr W Engall of Autocar magazine successfully drove the Simplex on a top gear run from John O’Groats to Lands End in August 1911. Unlike the 4.2 Jaguar XJ6 which was unsuccessful in completing the same challenge in 1984, as a lower gear was put to use.
Simplicity was obviously very much ‘in’, as the prestigious Simplex found itself back in London, with showrooms just five doors down from those of its rival, Rolls Royce. Unlike the Rolls, Simplex didn’t need a silver-plated slutty Warhammer model on its bonnet to attract wealthy clientele. As recorded in Stephen Myers meticulously research book on the Sheffield-Simplex, previous owners include Lord Mayor of Sheffield, Ald. Geo. Senior who purchased his Simplex in 1912, musical comedy actress Florence Smithson, who bought her in 1913 and the Duchess Anastasia of Russia who hopped on the Simplex wagon in 1914.
Each Simplex was unique and took a week to assemble with the client’s every previously specified desire in mind. The body style, accessories and colours were exactly to the client’s taste, as were the seats, which were made to measure and tested with adjustable mannequins. The finished car then underwent several further weeks of testing to ensure that it ran as quietly as possible. Simple!Like many other industries, when World War I began Simplex altered its focus and instead used its skills to make armoured cars and aircraft engines, rather than moulding seats to fit gluttonous backsides. Only using spare parts, Simplex assembled twelve armoured vehicles to great success – weighing around 5 tons each, they were more heavily armoured than any car previously designed and subsequently sent over to Russia in July 1916.
Alongside playing car soldiers, the Simplex factory also produced 8.2 kg armour piercing shells, magnetic sea mines and aero engines. However, in the post-war years, the demand for luxury cars declined massively. While Simplex production resumed—launching with the Sheffield-Simplex SSK type carrying a very large 7778cc engine—the up-market price of what would cost you around £87 500 today, meant fewer and fewer orders were placed. Rivals Rolls Royce, however, used the deteriorating economy to revolutionise and produced a smaller, cheaper model ‘Twenty’ in 1922 alongside the more costly ‘Silver Ghost’. In contrast, what was probably the company’s last car, the monster SSK, was not seen on the road until 1925.
Unsurprisingly, it was also owned by the company’s chairman Earl Fitzwilliam who, despite pulling out of the company, is said to have lost a quarter of a million pounds in his investment. Out of the 1500 custom-made cars, only 3 are known to have survived the Sheffield-Simplex reign. A 1913 30 horsepower Simplex has been restored to running condition and sits proudly in the Power House Museum in Perth, Australia. Another 1910 model was sold in September 2001 at an H&H Buxton Auction and hammered down at £65 000. And the third car, owned by Earl Fitzwilliam, has remained at home in Kelham Island Museum’s Transport gallery, which showcases “some of the finest Sheffield-made vehicles of the 1920s”.