Researching the cars here at ACM often reminds me of genealogy research, where you look at people’s ancestry, birth date, marital status, immigration, residence, military, professional, fame/infamy, and, finally, death records. Similarly, vehicles have very comparable records, a birth date, place they were created, licensing history and, perhaps, histories of being moved from state to state (or country!). There are records showing ownership changes and whether the car has been restored. The titles are just like our own birth records and can tell us volumes concerning past owners and, hopefully, the vehicle’s “family” pedigree.
While researching the records for ACM’s 1917 Crane Simplex Chassis No. 2358, I found a small reference that the car had possibly been owned by the J.D. Rockefeller Family. John D. Rockefeller founded and built the Standard Oil Company empire in the late 19th century, eventually becoming one of the most prominent and wealthiest men in the country, so it was likely this fine luxury automobile built in New York might have been in his stable.
I went looking for concrete evidence to make sure this claim was true.
Through the assistance of Mr. William Bell, a member of the Society of Automotive Historians, we were able to assuredly link our 1917 Simplex Crane to one of the most prominent American families in history. Mr. Bell meticulously researched and cataloged all of the vehicles that were manufactured by the Simplex (later known as Crane Simplex) Automobile Company headquartered in New York City. By sharing information regarding our Crane Simplex’s engine number and comparing with his records, Mr. Bell discovered that our car was once owned by either John D. Rockefeller, Jr., or Rockefeller, Sr.
Mr. Bell put me in touch with historian Rev. Frank Wismer, who is cataloging cars that were bodied by the American coach builder Brewster & Co., of Brewster, New York. Rev. Wismer kindly went to work searching his records and uncovered the following from the Brewster Orders Book, Volume 5, page 200, currently held at the New York Public
[Brewster] Body #1974 [this body number is found stamped underneath the passenger seat floor-board] was ordered on May 14, 1917 by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.
This information corroborated Mr. Bell’s records with certainty, revealing John D. Rockefeller Jr. had ordered the car as a birthday present for his father, John D. Rockefeller, Sr. The Brewster body order record, dated May 5, 1917, notes:
"John D. Rockefeller...One 7 passenger Touring body for Crane Simplex Chassis 2358 to be duplicate of the one we have on his crane Simplex 1280. Mr. R Jr. is making birthday gift of car to his father and requests us to endeavour to have it completed for delivery July 8th. Do our best."
Following the receipt of this information, I contacted the Rockefeller Archives in New York, hoping to find some small mention of the car listed with the Rockefeller household records. Erwin Levold, senior research archivist for the Rockefeller Archive Center, confirmed that our car, referenced through its chassis number, was indeed within the household archives and in letters of correspondence between John D. Rockefeller, Sr. and Jr. These records further confirmed the car was presented to John D. Rockefeller, Sr. for his 78th birthday, July 8, 1917.
While researching the documents regarding the car, I found myself being transported back almost 100 years to when people communicated formally through typed letters, handwritten orders and detailed production specifications. In one very formally-typed letter, Rockefeller, Sr. very elegantly thanked his son for the gift, simply signing his letter “Father”.
The Rockefellers owned five Crane Simplex’s over the years and, in 1937, the Rockefeller Family gave car 2358 to the Boston Museum of Automotive Conveyance. The museum was the collection of two significant car collectors, George H. Waterman, Jr. (owner of the Simplex) and Kirkland H. Gibson, both founders of the Veteran Motor Car Club of America (VMCCA).
A Rockefeller owned 1918 Crane Simplex Model 5 (Serial No. 2489) is still housed at the Rockefeller family estate (and National Trust Historic Site) in Pocantico Hills NY
. This 1918 was outfitted with two bodies, one for summer (open touring) and one for winter (closed touring) motoring.
Mr. Levold mentioned that he was also a member of the Society of Automotive Historians, and was very pleased to know the car still existed and was being cared for by our museum. The 1918 and ACM's 1917 are the only known surviving Crane Simplex automobiles previously owned by John D. Rockefeller.
~Renée Crist, Collections Manager, LeMay- America’s Car Museum
Read more about 1917 Simplex Crane Model 5