ONE OF TWO CHASSIS PURCHASED NEW IN SAN FRANCISCO BY THE BAXTER BROTHERS. BELIEVED TO HAVE BEEN DESIGNED BY HARLEY EARL.
COACHWORK ATTRIBUTED TO EARL AUTOMOTIVE WORKS. LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA.
The acquisition of Crane by Simplex in 1915 forged a union between two of the greatest names in fine car manufacturing in America. Both offered high priced cars, built to order, for the scions of American society and the captains of industry. Had it lasted, Crane-Simplex might have become an American Daimler-Benz.
The Simplex name, in fact, first appeared on a
Mercedes engine designed by Wilhelm Maybach. While the engine had nothing to do
with the Simplex automobile, some of the technology, and likely the name, was
borrowed from the best European thinking.
Built by the firm of Smith and Mabley of New York,
the first Simplex automobiles were most impressive, offering a 35hp
four–cylinder T–head engine in a double chain drive chassis —
in 1904. While sales prospered, the company fell victim to the recession of
The assets were purchased by Simplex customer and
wealthy textile manufacturer Herman Broessel, who oversaw the introduction of
several new models, including the "50" and the "90."
Simplexes were big and fast, though a little rough around the edges.
Nonetheless, the company prospered until 1912, when Broessel died and his sons
assumed the reins. Within a year, sales were in decline, and the brothers sold
to the New York based investment firm of Goodrich, Lockhart and Smith. The new
owners moved the company to New Brunswick, New Jersey, and, within a year,
acquired the assets of Crane.
Crane's cars were as sophisticated as
Simplex's were brawny. Founded by Henry Middleton Crane, the Crane Motor
Car Company was building one of the most expensive cars in America, selling a
bare chassis for a staggering $8,000. Powered by a six-cylinder engine cast in
triples, it was a sophisticated design, built without regard for cost, and
indeed, shared more than that philosophy with Rolls-Royce's Silver
For Goodrich, Lockhart, and Smith the acquisition
of Crane would give Simplex cars not only a new, silent, and powerful engine
— but also carry with it the aura of exclusivity earned by Crane as
makers of automobiles for the wealthiest motorists — Frederic W.
Vanderbilt had one, and the Rockefeller family had
not one, but two identical Crane-Simplexes.
With the advent of the First World War, the company
switched over to production of Hispano-Suiza aircraft engines under the
license; after the war it became part of the Wright-Martin and later,
International Motor Truck. The automobile business became part of Mercer, and
finally concluded with the collapse of Hare's Motors, an ill-advised
attempt to revitalize several grand names from the first generation of American
A few final chassis were delivered as late as 1920,
but no new designs were created, and the curtain came down on one of the most
interesting marques in American motoring history. In total, just 121 Crane-
Simplexes were built.
Two of these were purchased new in 1916 by brothers
J.H. and H.X. Baxter, industrialists and self-made men.
The Baxter brothers had made their fortune in the
lumber and wood preservatives businesses, and operated a fleet of lumber
schooners that traveled the west coast of the U.S. The business was founded by
J.J., but was owned and operated by him and his brother, H.X. Baxter.
Interestingly enough, the J.H. Baxter Co. is still in business today timber
management, preservatives, and wood products — and still managed by the
descendents of the original Baxter family.
One of the most notable Model 5 Crane-Simplexes is
a sister car to the example offered here. Bodied by Holbrook, it is one-off
nautical themed car that was featured in Automobile Quarterly (Vol. 11, No.
4) and currently belongs to Tonight Show host Jay Leno. The first
owner, J.H. Baxter, bought the car off the stand at the Palace Hotel Auto Salon
in San Francisco in 1916 — for the princely sum of $10,000.
While J.H. Baxter's Crane-Simplex is well
known because of its auto show history, little is known of the circumstances of
H.X. Baxter's purchase of the beautiful boattail speedster offered here.
It is interesting to speculate that both cars' nautical influences were a
result of the brother's shared passion for the sea — and the
company's fleet of schooners.
As is often the case, there are no identifying
marks to confirm the coachbuilder responsible for H.X.'s lovely speedster.
For many years, the car has been thought to be the work of Don Lee Custom
Strictly speaking, that would mean the body was
actually built by Earl Automobile Works, at the 1320 S. Main Street, Los
Angeles, California. Earl Automobile Works was founded by J.W. Earl, father of
legendary GM head of design, Harley Earl, as Earl Carriage Works in 1889; the
name was changed in 1910 to reflect the company's growing business
catering to the automobiles owned by the stars of the new Hollywood movie
industry. In 1919, J.W. Earl sold the business to entrepreneur and Cadillac
dealer, Don Lee, changing the name to Don Lee Custom Coachwork.
Harley Earl was 23 years old and working for his
father's company in 1916. While we have no way to know who was involved in
designing H.X. Baxter's lovely speedster, it seems almost certain that a
young man with Harley Earl's talents would have been drawn to the project.
And three years later, when Don Lee bought his father's company, it was
the young Harley Earl's talents that caught his eye.
There is certainly no denying the beauty of the
coachwork. The lines of the body are remarkable, and there is no evidence it
was ever modified — the wood and metalwork all appear original, as is
most of the paint. Inside, the seats have been reupholstered, but the door
panels and trim remain original. Baxter's original sterling silver
monogram is still in place on the side of the car. The vendor reports that
while the windshield the car carries utilizes the original stanchions, the rake
has been increased for an even more sporting look. He notes that the original
parts will accompany the car, should the purchaser prefer the car's
The engine has been recently rebuilt, including new
pistons and rings. The Crankshaft was ground and new rod and main bearings
installed, and a host of other details attended to. A correct original rear
spare carrier was located and installed, to replace the original that had been
removed at some point. Also included with the sale is a history file prepared
by the vendor, as is the original leather bound operator's manual, with
"H.X. Baxter" engraved in gold on the cover.
We are fortunate to know the complete chain of
ownership since new. In 1916, H.X. Baxter bought the Crane-Simplex from Arnold
and Sterling Simplex of San Francisco, California. He kept the car until 1936,
when the car was purchased by Douglas Gardner of La Puenta, California —
Mr. Baxter's chauffeur.
Sometime in the late 1940s or early 1950s, Gardner
sold the car to Mr. G. C. Coffee of Los Angeles, California. In 1966, Coffee
sold the car to Mr. Clyde Hopkins of Brentwood, California. Finally, in 2001
collector/dealer Mr. Dale Johnson of Morrow Bay, California bought the car from
Hopkins, reselling it to the vendor.
In many ways, the Crane-Simplex represents the end
of an era. No longer would it be possible for companies to hand build cars in
tiny volumes for the very wealthy. Very few cars survive to remind us of this
time- and fewer still offer the quality and sophistication of the Crane-
H.X. Baxter's Crane-Simplex may well be the
most important car of the era to surface in recent memory. It offers an
exceptional chassis, a stunningly beautiful speedster body, outstanding
original condition, a continuous chain of ownership, and wonderful provenance.
What more could you ask?