Fragments on forgotten makes

No. 48: The Sheffield-Simplex

The Sheffield-Simplex evolved from the Brotherhood car, which I dealt with five years ago in No. 37 of this series. Earl Fitzwilliam, the Yorkshire landowner whose country seat, Wentworth Wood House, was reputed to possess 365 windows, one for each day of the year, was on the Board of Directors of The Brotherhood-Crocker Company and when this concern abandoned its car-making activities in 1908 he was persuaded, presumably by Percy Richardson who had gone to Brotherhood as designer in about 1905 from the Daimler Company, to finance the building of a new luxury car, also designed by Richardson, in the fine new factory at Tinsley, Sheffield, which Brotherhood had moved into shortly beforehand.

The new car was obviously aimed at the Rolls-Royce market, being a 45-h.p. six-cylinder of 114 x 114-mm. bore and stroke (the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost had exactly the same engine dimensions). Rolls-Royce at this time had had to rethink in terms of gearboxes, introducing an overdrive-top or “sprinting gear”, which they afterwards abandoned. Percy Richardson played it the other way, his first true Sheffield-Simplex being virtually a gearless car, although an emergency low ratio was incorporated in the back axle. The idea that gears did not have to he changed was emphasised by using one pedal for both clutch and footbrake, and a wide lateral-moving accelerator with side flanges, an early form of two-pedal control. It was one of three new models for 1910, although two years earlier the 20-h.p., 3.9-litre four-cylinder Brotherhood bad been known as a Sheffield-Simplex—it was a Mercedes-like car, so this Mercedes-Simplex likeness probably caused Richardson to use the latter name.

As well as the new 45-h.p. Sheffield-Simplex there were Renault-like 14/20-h.p. and 20/30-h.p. offerings, but it was the big car with its round radiator, usually fitted with imposing bodywork, which was the classic model. Earl Fitzwilliam apparently had a picture of an actress in a fine yellow limousine with black mudguards hanging in the entrance hall of his Palace. Presumably to emphasise that gears were unnecessary, in an age when the owner-driver was usually unhappy about shifting them and, even when changed by a chauffeur, they could be unpleasantly noisy, a Sheffield-Simplex made an officially observed top-gear run, not from London to Edinburgh, which was the usual gambit, but from Land’s End to John o’Groats. But this one-speed idea probably resulted in a too-high axle ratio; for when someone had a 45-h.p. model timed over the 1/2-mile at Brooklands it achieved only 55 1/2 m.p.h. By 1911, the designer had bowed to convention and put a three-speed gearbox in the back axle. The following year he standardised electric starting, using a USL flywheel dynamotor.

A year before the war the big six was supplemented by the 30-h.p. 89 x 127-mm. six-cylinder with a four-speed gearbox between engine and back axle, and a 25-h.p. model which was a smaller edition of this. When Henry Garner Ltd., the Midlands agents, took delivery of a 30-h.p. Sheffield-Simplex with test body it is reported to have caused such a stir that the police had to intervene before traffic could flow through New Street, Birmingham. Col. Ord., C.B., of Redland Hall, Bristol, who had owned ten Daimlers, acquired a 25-h.p. Sheffield-Simplex with oversize Palmer tyres, and an experimental body with a deep-vee windscreen and scuttle was put on a 30-h.p. chassis by Grimshaw of Sutherland.

There were those who regarded the Sheffield-Simplex as the equal in quality of the Rolls-Royce. It was made of high-class materials, in a very well-equipped factory, which carried out its own heat-treatment but did not possess a foundry. Sheffield-Simplex, like De Dion Bouton, made their own sparking plugs. Experiments were conducted for the War Office of 30-h.p. chassis towing field guns. The factory was taken over by the Air Ministry when war broke out, and transmissions for the R31 and R32 airships were made there, after a close look at those in the German Zeppelin, L31, brought down at Potters Bar. Later ABC Wasp and Dragonfly aero-engines were produced, some 400 of the latter being completed by the Armistice.

After the war car production was resumed, the 30-h.p. model being shown at Olympia in 1919. It was freely made known, however, that new model would soon be ready, so apparently there was little desire to sell the pre-war design. A special team was got together to hurriedly produce the new post-war 50-h.p. Sheffield-Simplex, a six-cylinder of 114 x 127 mm. (7,778 c.c.), these dimensions again being close to those of the later Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, which merely had a stroke shorter by 6 mm. Whereas the old engines had had the cylinders in pairs, the new car caused a surprise by having six separate “pots”, when monobloc castings were becoming popular even on big engines. This was excused as enabling more accurate control of casting and machining but the fact is that the new engine was based on Ricardo’s war-time tank engine. The new chassis was at the 1920 Motor Show but a scurrilous rumour has it that it was only just ready in time, a cast instead of a forged front axle being fitted, which bent under the weight of the engine!

Dual magneto and coil ignition, a quickly removable fuel tank, and an engine governor were used and the chassis was priced at an astronomical £2,250, or £400 more than a Rolls-Royce chassis. At Olympia in 1920 a solitary Sheffield-Simplex chassis was exhibited, with four-wheel-brakes, their actuating rods passing upwards through hollow king-pins, presumably an adaptation of the f.w.b. which had figured on the smaller pre-war Sheffield-Simplex cars.

That was the swan-song of the Sheffield-Simplex, which wasn’t at Olympia in 1922 and had faded away altogether a year later, although a service depot was maintained for some time after that, at Canbury Park Road, Kingston-on-Thames. The factory could not go into liquidation, as it was part of an entailed estate, owned by Earl Fitzwilliam, who lost some £250,000 on the venture. His Lordship had declared his intention of making “the best car in the World”, but discovered, to his cost, that Rolls-Royce was a nut too tough to crack! The factory went over to production of the Ner-a-Car, a motorcycle with cased-in mechanicals to make it clean to ride, styled to appeal to ladies, and with friction transmission, designed by a Mr. Neracher. But about 1,000 frames had been made before a defect which caused fractures at the front end was discovered, which had to be rectified, by which time the demand for motorcycles as competitors of the small car had passed. The factory was taken over by a steel works, and is thought to be still standing.

W. B.