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Simplex Cars in Action on the Street and in Competition in New York City

The Simplex car was built in New York City in a seven-story factory on the East River at 614 East 83 rd Street and sold in the City in a showroom located at 1860 Broadway. Simplex also set up a multi-story garage in a different location on Manhattan to care for, service, and store as many as one hundred of its customer’s cars.

Today’s lead photo and the enlargeable version of it above, courtesy of the Library of Congress show a Simplex touring car in traffic on Fifth Avenue in the City. It may have been equipped with electric lamps by the Factory, which would date it as a 1913 model. Directly behind it is another car, possibly a Cadillac that was the first American production car to be equipped with electric headlamps starting in 1912.

This pair of Spooner and Wells photographs courtesy of the Detroit Public Library show racing driver George Robertson speeding by with a Simplex toy tonneau at the 1909 Fort George Hill Climb held in New York City. Below is Carl Brossell at the 1909 Bridgeport Hill Climb held on Sport Hill in Bridgeport, Connecticut, located sixty miles east of New York City on the Boston Post Road.

Learn more about the Simplex in earlier posts here on The Old Motor.


17 responses to “Simplex Cars in Action on the Street and in Competition in New York City

  1. In the Fort George Hill Climb photo, the front end of the car actually seems to be leaning forward over its front wheels. You also see the same effect in period drawings showing racing cars moving at speed. Did the photographer just happen to catch the car from an odd perspective, or was that something that really happened? Did your Simplex lean out over its front wheels when you hit the gas?

      • You are correct about the camera shutter. I am not a camera expert but I recall recall another person asking the same question: why do race cars in the early 1900s look like they leaned forward. The answer was that the shutter speeds were so slow that by the time the shutter opened and closed the car had moved. I believe the shutter moved from bottom to top of the lens and the image registered on the film in split second increments causing the appearance of forward motion. The period drawing were probably meant to imply speed.

        • Absolutely correct, the “rolling shutter” effect. It can bedevil experts trying to do clever things with digital cameras even today when the speed of the motion outruns the speed of the electronic shutter.

    • Early Graflex and Speed Graphic cameras, which were favorites of photojournalists of the day, used focal plane shutters, which had two curtains with an open slit between them, located just in front of the film ( focal plane ), traveling vertically to make the exposure. The width of the slit between the curtains determined the shutter speed–the narrower the slit, the faster the shutter speed. As the slit swept across the film, the exposure was made. The upshot was that different parts of the film were exposed at very slightly different instants of time, creating the ‘leaning forward’ look. If the camera had been turned upside down to make the shot, the image would have been leaning backward. The same effect could make a moving object appear longer or shorter, as well, by turning the camera on its side.

  2. I grew up on 85th st.The site of the Simplex factory is now a girl’s school.
    Who would ever have guessed there had once been a car factory there!
    Talk about gentrification!

  3. These early photos with the “forward leaning” racing cars were almost certainly photographed with a Graflex single-lens-reflex press camera.

    The Graflex SLR and “Speed” Graphic press cameras had a focal-plane shutter that had a long curtain, like a window-shade, with “slits” of varying widths. To achieve the various shutter speeds one had to select a combination of proper shutter-slit AND tension on the shutter spring. There was a graph-chart on the side of the camera that gave the proper combos.

    So with a “slit” or “slot” travelling across the surface of the film (from top of the camera to the bottom), the film at the bottom of the camera was exposed a fraction of a second later than the film at the top of the camera.

    Also remember that the image on the film is upside-down, being “flipped” by the lens. So, the top of the image got exposed slightly later than the bottom. Thus, the “forward lean” of speeding objects.

    It is interesting that painters and sketch artists have copied this purely photographic effect in their representations of early racing scenes (Thinking of Peter Helck). Also done in comic strips and early cartoons. It does add a sense of excitement to an otherwise static image.

    35 mm cameras with focal plane shutters will not exhibit the same type of distortion, because the film-plane is much smaller, and many FP shutters travelled horizontally, instead of vertically as with the Graflex/Graphic cameras. Any distortion would have been manifested as a stretching of the image parallel to the shutter travel; imperceptible to our eyes.

  4. Hard to recall, in today’s world of “Classic” muscle cars, Mustangs, retro rods, even stock-engined ’30s and ’40s cars becoming rare as Apperson Jack Rabbits at car & coffee and other buff meets, shows, that throughout the 1960s, Simplexes, with Chadwicks, Loziers, Locomobiles, were the holy grail of car collecting, Duesenbergs and Packard Twelves, impressive as they were, still second-tier.

    Wealthy “automobilists” circa 1904 bought Mercedes and Panhards. Simplex began convinced they could produce domestic cars just as good –and did — while saving playboys the 40% import duty on the German original, using Mercedes, partly, as their model, even as early Packards concurrently took many of their cues from the French Mors.

    Just as Rolls-Royce later assembled cars in Springfield, Massachusetts, 1919-31,
    for several years before WW I, Steinway (pianos) also built Mercedes automobiles in Queens, just across the East River from rival Simplex’s factory on 83rd Street. Imagine building automobiles in Manhattan today.
    All the more impressive as Simplex built nearly every part they needed other than wheels, magnetos.

    Those of living in greater NYC half a century ago could visit Ed Jurist’s “Vintage Car Store” in Nyack, a little further up the lazy river from Manhattan, and see gleaming examples of such well-wrought, rip-snorting barouches as those pictured above. Thanks for this post.

  5. Anyone notice in the lower left corner of the NYC photo it says “COPR Detroit Public (something) CO”. Wonder what that is?

  6. This West Coast boy has been to NYC a few times and was shocked at the absence of gas stations. I also am aware that New York State had the highest number of autos in 1910. Where would a Simplex owner go for maintenance?
    It would seem the factory would be lucky to have enough room for production and not enough for service. Many of
    the mega-rich had a maintenance mechanic and 30 cars to keep him busy in their “garage”. However, many owners
    were not in this league.

  7. It is curious that we associate speed with the upper side of the car moving faster than the bottom side. In fact, if you think about it, it would have to be otherwise: the top would have to come later. As the wheels exert the power on the road, they pull the car forward. If the car would have been made of less rigid material, everything above the wheels would have leaned backwards, not only because of the mass inertia, but also because of the wind drag,
    As some plane shutters worked the other way, some images in the early days of racing showed indeed the reverse effect. Which was in fact a more realistic, though very much exaggerated representation of speed!

  8. What is seen here — is the limitations of an earlier shutter type that creates distortions. A more modern focal plane type of shutter prevents or reduces this “optical phenomena” . “Artsy “Artists of yore jumped on this ! Edwin W.

  9. Posted for Warren Kraft, who believes that the Fort George Hill Climb car was driven by Joe Tracy. In addition to racing and testing cars for Locomobile, he also drove for Simplex.

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