Les Frères Sizaire

Remembering two French automotive pioneers.

1909 Sizaire-Naudin 12hp Type G Two-Seater with Dickey. Image: bonhams.com

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.

1908 Sizaire-Naudin Type F1 8HP Sport. Image: classiccarweekly.net

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.

Not a Silver Ghost: 1913 Sizaire-Berwick 20hp. Image: classicdriver.com

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.

Last of the line: 1923 Sizaire-Berwick 25/50 Two-Seater and Dickey. Image: bonhams.com

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.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

9 thoughts on “Les Frères Sizaire”

  1. Good morning, Andrew. What a delightful uncovering the history of these automotive pioneers. One of those brands I have hardly heard of, other than that there is a Sizaire-Naudin Voiturette in the Louwman Museum which is kind of in my back yard.

  2. Good morning Andrew. The exploits of the Sizaire brothers were completely unknown to me, so thank you for unearthing this interesting history and telling their story so nicely.

    I cannot imagine how one makes a single-cylinder engine smooth enough for automotive application (A really heavy flywheel, possibly?) but perhaps Dave or Bob might enlighten me?

    1. I know that this doesn’t answer your question….
      Sizaire-Naudin used a DeDion-Bouton engine made in the astonishing number of up to 120,000 per year which made it the most produced engine of its time. It was available in capacities from ~170 to ~1,500 cc, the SN had a 980 cc version. It was the first fast-running engine with up to 1,200 rpm (three times the rev level of a Benz engine) and later 2,000 rpm – limited by the ignition systems of the time. The engine also was the first one to use aluminium parts, in this case for the crankcase.

      How do you make such an engine suitable for car use?
      A low compression ration helps (8 PS from 980 cc are an indication) and two heavy crank discs also.
      A single cylinder engine with an upright cylinder as the DeDion can be balanced to hop up and down with little rocking effect back and forth or to be smooth up and down but badly rock back and forth – or anything in between. In motorcycles the engines usually hop up and down because this interferes least with the natural motion of the vehicle and most probably in a car of the SN era with long travel suspension moving at low speed on rough roads a hopping engine would not have been too unpleasant, particularly at bop-bop-bop engine speeds and soft power pulses.

  3. I am surprised the author stops the story with Sizaire-Berwick. The following Sizaire Frères Company, that produced the Sizaire 4RI, with highly innovative 4 wheel independent suspension, and powerful 2 liter motor, should be worth a page by itself. And as this story is deeply analysed in the quoted book “Maurice Sizaire, homme de génie oublié” maybe the author of the article could give us a follow-up.

  4. Ah, an automotive tale from a time no-one here has personal experience with… Fascinating stuff and a complete unknown to me. I’ve been in the Louwman Museum but hadn’t noticed the SN. Probably too distracted by the Spykers and the several iterations of Alfa 33 (the sports car). The question that comes to my mind is how it is that some brands/marques acquire ‘cachet’ and others – seemingly, like SN, on equal footing with cachet-rich marques like Rolls Royce – just don’t.

  5. Good evening Andrew and well done indeed for revealing, to me at least, a completely unknown story. It seems that skulduggery, as you describe it, was evident all those years ago along with patenting too. Nothing much changes as far as I can see.

  6. The remark that anybody with a proper workshop and some talent could build a car reminded me of a story my father told a couple of times.
    In our family’s home town the local blacksmith and his friend had set up a car factory which built a handful of cars under the name of Sanelli.
    No technical details are known except that it was an open two seater with bodywork from plywood and canvas. It must have been chain driven because my father told me he once watched one proud owner of such a car working on the jumped off chain on is way home as a small schoolboy shortly after the end of WW I.

  7. Very interesting – I had no knowledge of the marque(s). Thank you, Andrew.

    Tom asked why it was that some brands acquire a name for themselves while others struggle. I’m sure luck has a lot to do with it, but I think single-mindedness of purpose – building the best car in the world – and good marketing must be major factors. Rolls-Royce certainly had these two elements and the cars were genuinely of high quality; ‘The quality will remain long after the price is forgotten’, as Henry Royce famously said.

    Sizaire had a patchier history and a change of brand, which won’t have helped.

    I wanted to know what a Sizaire sounds like, so I found this clip, which includes gear changes. It seems that the single cylinder operated at low RPMs; another film I’ve seen shows a Sizaire cruising at 1,400 RPM. To me, it sounds more like a steam engine than, say, a lawn mower and has a ‘proper’ vintage car sound.

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