Sale of the Week

In a week of American muscle, this 111-year old motorcar is Simplex the best

by Andrew Newton
29 January 2023 4 min read

The literal and figurative dust is settling from Arizona auction week. As usual, it was a festival of Fords, fried food, and the occasional Ferrari. We picked through some surprising results and head-scratchingly big flips, but the biggest sale this week was a 50-horsepower, four-cylinder car with no roof and wooden wheels that first cruised the open road when Franz Ferdinand was still breathing and the Titanic was still floating. Final price for this 1912 Simplex 50HP 5-Passenger Torpedo Tourer was $4.845M at the Bonhams sale, well above Scottsdale 2023’s second-placed car, a $4.075M LaFerrari that has 19 times the power. Why?

Like any great old car, it’s a combination of performance, design, and history. It’s all timeless.

This Torpedo Tourer’s original owner was one Eleonora Randolph Sears. No, not that Sears, but she was born into major money as the daughter of a real estate and shipping tycoon, and the car was an engagement present from her sweetheart Harold Stirling Vanderbilt. Yes, that Vanderbilt.

Sears was, simply put, a badass. A four-time national tennis champion, she was “probably the most versatile performer that sports has ever produced,” according to her 1968 obituary in The Boston Globe. “Not just the most versatile female performer, but the most versatile, period.” She was the first women’s squash champion and the first woman to ride a horse in a major polo match. She competed in yacht racing, rifle shooting, boxing, and football, too, and won a squash title at age 47. She was also among the first women to race a car, fight a speeding ticket, and fly an airplane. Once, she was arrested for smoking in an area where men were allowed to light up but women weren’t, and her tendency to wear pants to the polo field and roll up her sleeves on the tennis court shocked the other New England blue bloods. Remember, this was the early 1900s.

Sadly, Sears’ engagement to Harold Vanderbilt didn’t last—oh, you know how wealthy socialites can be. He did at least know her well enough to buy her the right car, though. She even kept it for another quarter-century after they broke things off. Having already owned several Simplexes—which were popular among well-to-do sportsmen—he ordered another one for her in 1911 with unique coachwork from JM Quinby & Co. in New Jersey. Nifty features include built-in wooden toolboxes on the runners and electric side lamps that also act as cockpit ventilators, while its tall 1.97:1 final drive ratio allowed for 85-mph motoring at a lumpy 1200 rpm.

It was among the finest and most expensive cars your parents’ money could buy in the Brass Era (1896-1915), but if you’ve never heard of Simplex, no worries. There hasn’t been a Simplex automobile for exactly a century, and the history of the company is a little confusing. Smith & Mabley, Simplex Automobile Company, Simplex-Crane and Crane Simplex are all names associated with the New York and then New Jersey carmaker and its various owners, none of which are to be confused with the entirely separate American Simplex automobile from Indiana.

Long story short, a company called Smith & Mabley spent the early 1900s importing high-end motorcars from the best in Europe – Panhard, Renault, and especially Mercedes. In 1908, Smith & Mabley became the Simplex Automobile Company, having developed their own Mercedes-like car to American dimensions, with an enormous 597 cubic inch T-head four with an aluminum crankcase and a midship-mounted transaxle putting power to the rear wheels through dual chains. The chain drive allowed for easy gear ratio changes, and the inboard transaxle-mounted drum brakes reduced unsprung weight. This was all handy stuff in the early days of motorsports, and Simplex quickly made a name for itself there, winning the 24 Hour Race at Brighton Beach three years running from 1908-1910. Ralph DePalma drove a Simplex to sixth in the very first Indy 500 in 1911.

A new Simplex factory in New Brunswick, NJ opened up later in that year, the company relocated from NYC, and some corporate restructuring and ownership changes followed from there. But, back to Ms. Sears’ Simplex. She kept it until around 1939, when she sold it to a VMCCA member, who then sold it to collector and Buick chief engineer Charles Chayne. He had access to talented wrenches at GM and had the Simplex sorted, the engine blue printed and a handy electric starter installed. After Chayne’s stint of ownership, it went to the Brookline Massachusetts Museum of Transportation (now the Larz Anderson Auto Museum) and then to Charles LeMaitre’s collection. It was restored in the mid-2000s with new paint, upholstery and wheel spokes plus refurbished mechanicals. According to Bonhams it is arguably the greatest surviving Simplex, and it’s reasonable to believe them. They sell more good Brass Era metal than anybody.

On the block, it blew past its $2.5M – $3.5M estimate in just a few rounds of bidding. A new bidder arrived at $4.2M and then a back-and-forth volley pushed the 9.8-liter beauty to a price that not even super Saturday at Barrett-Jackson could top. It was some of the most active bidding we saw all week. We hear it’s off to a new home in a private collection in California, along with one of the Chrysler Ghias from the same auction. It’s one of the most expensive prewar (World War I, that is) cars ever sold. It would have been the second most expensive car had it sold at last year’s Arizona auction week and the fourth most expensive had it sold at this event in 2020, another sign of the most expensive stuff shifting away from Scottsdale.

We’ve been talking a lot this week about numbers, trends and fluctuations, but the sale of this supercentenarian Simplex goes to show how timeless it is. It will never go out of style. Its story will never stop be interesting. It’s immune from all the automotive fads and market volatility we spend all day swimming through. It transcends all that. Certain, great cars will always be desirable, collectible and, yes, valuable, no matter what.


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