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Sheffield-Simplex: Model LA2

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Note: This is a sub-section of Sheffield-Simplex

Reg: W 1110.
Reg: W 1110.
Reg: W 1110.
Reg: W 1110.
Reg: W 1110.
Reg: W 1110.
Reg: W 1110.

1908 Sheffield Simplex LA2 'Gearbox-less' 45HP. Registration: W-1110

This car was built in 1908 by the Sheffield-Simplex Motor Works Limited at their Fitzwilliam Works, Tinsley, Sheffield to a design by Percy Richardson and first registered as W-1110.

The 1909 Sales Catalogue, published November 1st 1908, gives great detail and photographs of the 5000 mile test made around England and Scotland in this car and ascending all the famous test hills of the day on dirt roads. It records that on the hills steeper than 1 in 7 (including Amulree in Perthshire at 1 in 3.75) they used the low gear and ascended easily at 20mph including a stop and restart. The objective was achieved of proving that a large-engined car with a light-weight body could cope on hills with only two gears, and that their detail design of the LA2 chassis was well tested. It is probable that this car was the prototype gearbox-less car and that, after testing, it was supplied for export to Australia and re-registered in Adelaide in September 1910 to Henry Dutton, grazier, of Medende Station North of Adelaide. It is not known how many other gearbox-less Sheffield-Simplex cars were built, but photographs and testimonials exist of a dozen or so.

There were at least four owners in Australia and the car is reputed to have been driven from Adelaide to Sydney, and back again. For one period the car was used as a taxi in Sydney, and for another it was fitted with a replacement, wickerwork body. In the period 1939-1945, the car was used as a lorry in Adelaide, delivering bricks to building sites. Later, the engine was detached from the chassis and used to drive a water pump on a sheep station, whilst the rolling chassis was used as a trailer. Nearly all minor components were dry-stored and are now refitted.

In 1978 the car was the property of Wally Reeve of Australia, from whom it was bought by Lord Riverdale and shipped to England in pieces in a container. No body had survived, but all major components were present except the back axle, which also contains the low and reverse gears. The total distance covered by this car is estimated at 250,000 miles. The audited accounts of 1983 show that the family partnership established by Lord Riverdale in 1978 spent £4000 to buy and import the car from Australia and a further £81,039 to completely restore the car. As received from Australia, the engine still ran and was fitted with the original, cast iron pistons. The cylinder blocks turned out to be porous, so new blocks were cast and fitted with aluminium pistons; the car comes with a spare, un-machined, cylinder block.

The present coachwork is based upon a design featured in the 1909 catalogue as an American Toy Tonneau. Top speed now is about 70 mph. In 1985, having completed the restoration, Lord Riverdale managed to recover the original registration number for this car, and then repeated the Land’s End to John o’Groats run. Some 30 years of good usage after restoration the car can no longer be described as “Concours”, however it has been very well maintained and is in excellent, reliable condition and beautifully patinated; it will give many more years of pleasurable use to the next owner, I am sure.

The engine is a 6 cylinder, L-head side-valve of 7 litres with both bore and stroke of 4½ in, and produces about 100 BHP at just below the maximum of 2,000 rpm, with massive torque at low rpm. The crankshaft is assembled by bolting together 5 components and runs in 4 ball races with ball bearings of 7/8 in diameter. The engine is water cooled by radiator, pump and fan, and lubricated by splash and low-pressure oil pumped to drip-feed galleries for big ends and timing chain. Sheffield-Simplex claimed to have made their own carburettor “without any moving parts between float and float needle” but none have survived; a vast bronze instrument of unknown make is fitted and uses Zenith jets and floats etc; possibly a commercial or aero type (it has tandem floats in one chamber) from the Zenith factory in Lyon; it is fitted with a manual extra-air valve which weakens off the mixture for high speed cruising giving a surge in power and better economy. In top gear the transmission is direct with a 3:1 differential reduction (as re-engineered when rebuilt; I suspect this was lower originally because the Brooklands test achieved 60.68 mph whereas it is now capable of over 70mph); I normally cruise at 55-60mph if I can see far enough ahead for safe braking; this makes for good, safe usage on our modern motorways. The layshaft is disengaged when top gear is engaged so there is no rotation of the layshaft during normal driving; this gives quieter and more economical running, but means that double declutching down to low gear is not possible, nor is it necessary; as the road wheels turn through their last 10° of rotation when coming to a halt in top gear, the lever can be used to gently engage bottom gear ready for a smooth take off.

Driving requires a steep learning curve, and was almost impossibly difficult until I made some modifications to the design of the re-engineered back-axle gearbox, the clutch release mechanism, and then re-jetted the carburettor (I am a Mechanical Design Engineer). It is now a challenging but very rewarding car to drive once the new skills are mastered. To engage low or reverse gears (only when stationary and one may need to release hand brake first), the single, quadrant movement of the gear lever from the forward neutral slot first engages the layshaft and then the required directional gear. The car is controlled by two pedals; the right hand pedal moves in a transverse arc and operates the throttle, the left hand one in its downward movement firstly opens the multi-plate clutch, then engages the clutch stop, and then engages the foot brake. Once mastered this is all smooth and simple and seems so obvious. The more powerful brake is operated by the outside hand lever, with the expanding shoes of the foot brake and the hand brake operating within inner and outer concentric drums at each end of the back axle; there are no front brakes. The brake drums are huge and the brakes are easily able to stop the rear wheels turning from high speed – as with all beaded edge tyres on Veteran Cars, the limiting factor to the rate of stopping the car is the small footprint of rubber on the road. Lighting is by paraffin and acetylene; the only electricity being that provided and used within the magneto for ignition. (Apart from a leisure battery that drives a pre-engaged starter motor to drive the flywheel by a ring gear; all modern additions). When he completed the restoration around 1980 Lord Riverdale, then in his seventies, repeated the 1911 RAC Land’s End to John O’Groats road trial. Since then I have made the car considerably easier to drive and, having no trailer, have driven it across Ireland from Pontefract to take part in the Gordon Bennett Rally five times, down through Belgium and France to the Ardennes twice, as well as every VCC Rally in the north of England for 15 years or more. As with any Veteran Car, once you learn the technique it becomes very rewarding to drive. I am most willing to include a driving lesson for anyone who buys this wonderful car.

The RAC record of the 1911 Land’s End to John o’Groat’s top-gear trial by a Sheffield-Simplex Gearbox-less car records that on Shatterford Hill they were baulked by “four timber wagons and a coal cart … in a hopeless tangle across a fair gradient beyond a curve” and had to roll back down the hill, wait until the hill was clear and then climb it “without hesitation” in top gear; this was permitted by the RAC Scrutineer. Unlike the later Silver Ghost run by Rolls-Royce, the Sheffield-Simplex did this run without stopping the engine and in a well-used car made in 1909. The trial consisted of a drive of 906 miles from Land’s End to John o’Groat’s under RAC scrutiny at an average speed of 19.8 mph and using 54.771 gallons of fuel. The trial set off from Land’s End on 28th August and took six days to get to John o’Groat’s house. Before setting off for Land’s End, this already well-used test car lapped Brooklands under RAC scrutiny at an average speed of 60.68mph, and then at an average speed of 3.67mph in the same direct top gear without clutch manipulation. Sammy Davis was reputedly The Autocar’s correspondent who witnessed and reported this run.

When driving in hilly country I always climb steep hills in the low gear which is now good for up to 30mph (it was 20mph as described in the test of 1908; another reason for believing the back axle ratio is now higher than original). I wait at the bottom of steep hills until I estimate that the hill is clear of any slow moving vehicles, and then set off and romp up the hill. Only once have I come across a stationary vehicle hidden round a corner on a hill of about 1 in 6 with no opportunity to pass, and then I had to stop, roll back down the hill, wait until the other car had cleared the hill and have another run at it; as always with a clear run we cleared the hill at a good speed. I have rallied this car extensively and I have enjoyed every mile. However, I am now well into my 8th decade, suffer from worsening osteo-arthritis, and am finding the driving of such a large, powerful (but therefore heavy) motor car to be less easy for me than it has been for the last 16 years or so; ideally I would like to swap it with a cash adjustment for a mid-sized Edwardian car of a more conventional layout that will see me through my dotage.

Factory records have not survived but my own belief is that this car may be the last survivor of only a double handful of “Gearbox-less” LA2 models that Sheffield-Simplex built. Apart from the RAC test run and some other publicity, this model disappeared from the sales list in 1911. I believe that most 7 litre chassis made were LA1 models and sold with a normal-layshaft, three-speed gearbox mounted on the back axle and this continued until the outbreak of war in 1914. This allowed heavier, closed bodywork to be fitted. Interestingly, there is a large archive of original drawing office drawings in Indian ink on silk, the property of the Fitzwilliam estate and stored at Kelham Island Museum in Sheffield.

The “model” factory at Tinsley operated from 1906 to 1922, but mostly made munitions, Sheffield-Simplex armoured cars (at least two were shipped to Belgium and Russia in 1915 & 1916), and a considerable number of gun tractors from 1914-1918. Of the 1,800 or so Sheffield-Simplex cars made, only three are known to have survived; the other two being in museums, one in Sheffield (a 50hp car of 1921 made at the Ner-a-car works in Kingston-upon-Thames) in the Kelham Island Museum and one in Australia (a 30hp car made in Sheffield in 1913) in the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney. The artillery tractors look as if they had shortened chassis and must have had gearboxes and low back axle ratios, because they carried a gun crew of four, towing an ammunition trailer and what looks like a 6 pounder gun in the photographs.

In 1913 The Times named the Sheffield-Simplex “one of the best and most remarkable vehicles available, representing the highest point to which motor design has yet attained”; The Autocar described it to be “as near perfection as the latest practice will permit”. When new, the car sold at the same price as a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost and with a standard body cost about £1,000. Interestingly, when the car was restored in 1985 the price of a new Rolls-Royce then (£55,000) was almost exactly equivalent to that £1,000 in 1910. However, the price of a new Rolls-Royce today (some £300,000) is equivalent to about £4,500 in 1910. Quality appears to have inflated much more than bread and butter since 1985! I value this car at about half the value of a comparable (for age, condition and history) Rolls-Royce Ghost; that makes it very good value to someone who wants to use a car of that type in earnest.

You should consider that if you are buying from outside the UK the sterling exchange rates are very much in your favour at the moment.

John Thring - 16/07/2017

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