Remembering two French automotive pioneers.
In the early years of the twentieth century, the emerging automobile industry in Europe created something of a gold-rush, with a multitude of prospectors throwing their hats into the ring in the hope of achieving fame and fortune. Barriers to entry were low: anyone with a well equipped workshop and decent engineering skills could try their hand at building a car, often with mixed fortunes, occasionally with hilarious mishaps.
Two such would-be automobile moguls were Parisian brothers Maurice and Georges Sizaire, who fancied their own roll of this particular dice. Elder brother Maurice had some design experience, but in buildings, not motorcars. Three years his junior, Georges was an apprentice turner but, like his brother Maurice and their family friend, Louis Naudin, his consuming passion was for cars and driving. Naudin worked for De Dion Bouton, one of the earliest French car manufacturers, so at least he had some relevant experience.
In 1904, following a year or two’s experimentation, the three enthusiastic automobilistes built their first voiturette in a small workshop on the Rue de Loumel in Paris. Nothing particularly out of the ordinary in the story so far: many other engineers and entrepreneurs were doing likewise, but the fledgling Sizaire-Naudin company was already in financial trouble, lacking the funds necessary to further develop and produce the car.
A wealthy duke by the name of Louis de Crussol d’Uzès agreed to finance the venture, asking for nothing more in return than his blue and orange-coloured heraldic flag be displayed on the radiator shell. The flag also carried the initials ‘SN’ for Sizaire-Naudin, inscribed in silver. With the duke’s backing, the partners displayed their car at the 1905 Paris Salon, where it received a positive reception.
Powered by a single-cylinder engine with a very long stroke, it was a light car, with the rear differential and three-speed gearbox in one combined unit, a single-plate clutch, independently sprung front wheels using sliding pillars and a transverse leaf spring at the rear. The car proved to be not only revolutionary, but also a sales success; a heady two cars per day now being produced.
Then, as now, racing was seen as an effective way to promote one’s automotive wares. Sizaire-Naudin entered a car driven by Georges in the inaugural 1906 Coupe des Voiturettes and duly won the race. In 1907 and 1908 the company achieved famous double victories, Naudin taking top honours, with Georges in second place on both occasions.
The pair were not adverse to a little skulduggery in order to achieve victory: in a race where they anticipated that their single-cylinder engines would not last the course and certainly break down, they secreted, suitably hidden from prying eyes in a woodland glade, replacement solid-steel pistons. The mid-race swap took just ten minutes and they went on to win convincingly, the timekeeper raising an eyebrow but otherwise taking no action.
Further advances in automotive engineering were swift, however: single-cylinder engines had reached their zenith and Sizaire-Naudin had to follow the multi-cylinder format favoured by its competitors. The Duke, strangely aggrieved by this development, withdrew funding from the venture. Naudin’s health deteriorated rapidly and he passed away in 1913, by which time the brothers had left the company following disagreements with backers.
Searching for a new patron, the Sizaire brothers were introduced to a Paris-based English motoring journalist named W. F. Bradley. Yorkshireman Bradley was the conduit to Frederick William Berwick, a London-based importer of Corre La Licorne motorcars from France. Berwick was keen to expand his automotive interests by coachbuilding his own bodies onto bought-in chassis. He struck a deal with the Sizaire brothers for such a supply.
From 1913, chassis built in Paris were shipped to Berkeley Street, London for Berwick coachwork to be fitted. The naked chassis were actually driven from Paris to the French coast, and again from the English coast to London, much to the discomfort of the poor drivers(1). The completed cars were sold under the name Sizaire-Berwick.
The new marque garnered welcome notoriety when Berwick made a wager with the expert driver of a high-powered Prince Henry Austro-Daimler: could a Sizaire-Berwick be driven from London to Edinburgh in twelve hours or less? Berwick himself undertook the gruelling drive in a car devoid of windscreen and wings, shaving the journey time to just over eleven hours. No mean feat, and £25 was grudgingly handed over to the victorious Berwick.
Sizaire-Berwick’s newly-found success brought the company to the attention of the already mighty Rolls-Royce Motor Car Company. With sales being relatively strong in Blighty and Sizaire-Berwick often referred to as the ‘French Rolls-Royce’, the British company noticed just how similar the radiator shells of both firms’ cars were: they were all but identical.
Heading to court, Rolls-Royce was confident of victory, only to find out that it had failed to register the distinctive design en France. Sizaire-Berwick duly won the case but was advised to alter its radiator shell to a slight ‘V’ shape (in plan view). The ensuing publicity boosted Sizaire-Berwick sales considerably on both sides of La Manche.
Just before the outbreak of the Great War, other coachwork was offered on the Sizaire-Berwick chassis from renowned coachbuilders such as Mulliner, Webb and Park Ward. One could have the Anglo-French bolide as a Chelsea Landaulette, Eaton Limousine, Chelmsford Cabriolet or, my personal favourite, a Chiltern and Malvern Torpedo.
A favoured magazine of the landed gentry (and those aspiring to be such), The Field stated of the Sizaire-Berwick: “luxurious power where most motorists would believe a six-cylinder under that bonnet. This car suffers not any inspection of detail or class.” The Autocar described a drive in a 1914 20hp model along their favoured ‘Hog’s Back’ road near Guildford, Surrey thus: “two miles of dead straight road free from man, beast or vehicle. The comfort, smooth running and speed was of the highest calibre. A pure delight, we are hard pressed to find better.”
With the outbreak of war, French chassis production ceased. What had been earmarked for personal use was swiftly altered for military purposes; ambulances, mobile searchlights and even rudimentary armoured cars. A site in Park Royal, London, acquired by Berwick for car production after the war, was instead put to use for the manufacture of aero engines, expanding rapidly and employing thousands of workers. Georges Sizaire remained in France and, as an army sergeant, became French President Nicolas Poincaré’s personal driver, in a Sizaire-Berwick saloon, naturally.
With hostilities at an end, one of the exhibits at the 1919 Paris Salon was a 1915 20hp Sizaire-Berwick owned by a Mr Edward White, which had chalked up an impressive 110,000 miles in just four years. Goodness only knows how crucial to the war effort Mr White must have been in order to amass such mileage.
The Sizaire-Berwick was an expensive car: with open bodywork versions starting at around £1,500, it was firmly placed in the same territory as Rolls-Royce and Bentley(2). Although finding some favour with royalty and the wealthy, somehow they carried not the same cachet as their rivals. Change again was afoot. By 1922, both Berwick and the frerès Sizaire had left the company when the receivers were called in. Even the presence of Herbert Austin on the Sizaire-Berwick board could not prevent the inevitable. The Park Royal factory closed in 1922, bringing a premature end to the company.
Berwick became involved with two other now long-dead firms, Windsor and British Salmson. Georges Sizaire died of cancer in 1934. Maurice called time on his car manufacturing endeavours, turning instead to the French branch of car and garage equipment company, Tecalemit, where he stayed (“tinkering” in his words) for some thirty years before retiring at the age of 83. He passed away in 1969 after ten years in retirement, something of un homme de génie oublié, a forgotten genius.
(1) One of those weather-beaten delivery drivers, who was also chief test-driver for Sizaire-Berwick, was Horace John (Jack) Waters. Waters later found fame under his stage-name of Jack Warner, the lead-actor in the long running BBC television police drama, Dixon of Dock Green.
(2) Yet Sizaire-Berwick cars still carried the unfortunate sobriquet ‘Rolls of the poor’.
Data source: Maurice Sizaire, Homme de Génie Oublié, a Collection Histories D’Autos book written in French by Paul Badré.
Author’s note: This book is a superb tome for those with more than a passing interest in early automotive pioneers. It is lavishly illustrated with excellent photography of model derivations and copies of period advertising. Sizaire cars are now extremely rare. Surviving examples are treasured, but also driven as intended, much to my own personal delight and, one would hope, that of the late frères Sizaire.