Tony Crook: 1920-2014

Tony Crook, who has died shortly before his 94th birthday, was an automotive polymath. He was a racing driver of great talent, scoring 370 wins and places between 1946 and 1955. He was also a shrewd businessman, managing a thriving Surrey dealership that specialised in Bristol but also dealt in many other sporting makes, and even aircraft and helicopters. And when Bristol Cars fell on hard times he took it over, keeping it alive as a specialist car maker for some 40 years.

Inheriting wealth from his family’s coal mines, he had a supercharged MG PA as a schoolboy and, during WWII as a young flight-lieutenant, he owned not one but both of the two 8C-2900 short-chassis Alfas that came to the UK. When racing began again he became loyal to the straight-six BMW-derived Bristol engine, campaigning first a BMW 328 – and winning at Britain’s first post-war meeting at Gransden Lodge – and then Frazer Nashes and Cooper-Bristols. His Coopers culminated in a F2 chassis with 1½-seater cockpit and cycle wings. Its light weight combined with Crook’s ferociously determined driving style made it prodigiously successful, running at the front in sports car events and, often at the same meeting having removed its wings and lights, in F2 races.

As a high-profile Bristol dealer he did much to promote the marque, including in 1950 driving a Bristol 401 from Caterham to Montlhéry, using the Silver City air ferry to cross the channel, doing 104 miles in one hour around the banked circuit and then home, having been out of England for less than 12 hours.

His planned retirement in 1955 was hastened when, during the hours of darkness in the Goodwood Nine Hours, Crook spun on oil and was hit amidships by Stirling Moss’ Porsche Spyder. After a spell in hospital he concentrated on his dealership, moving it to bigger premises in Hersham. In 1960, when the Bristol Aeroplane Co had to divest itself of its car-building subsidiary, 60 per cent was sold to its managing director George White, grandson of BAC’s founder, and 40 per cent to Tony Crook. Soon the straight-six was replaced by the Chrysler V8, and Bristols were set on their path as big luxury grand tourers. In 1973 Crook bought the remaining 60 per cent to become Bristol’s sole owner.

From 411 to 603, from Britannia to Beaufighter, from Brigand to Blenheim, the cars continued to be built in Filton, near Bristol, and displayed in showrooms in London’s Kensington High Street. With prodigious energy and single-minded cussedness, Crook continued to run the business his way, logging thousands of hours flying his own plane from White Waltham to Filton and back to keep a relentless eye on how the cars were built. Bristols sold on their reputation: they were rarely lent to motoring journalists for evaluation because Tony doubted their ability to understand his cars’ traditional appeal, and he did not take kindly to any criticism of his products. But he was possessed of a wicked sense of humour. At one motor show he dressed up as a middle eastern potentate, and persuaded an obsequious salesman on the stand of a famous manufacturer to take his order. And at a motor industry event where all delegates were given a name badge, he was amused to find his read: ‘A Crook’.

In 1997 Tony sold half his shares in the company to fresh investors, while remaining managing director, and in 2002 he sold the rest. He did not always see eye-to-eye with the newcomers, and a new Bristol, the Fighter with V10 engine and gullwing doors, did not follow his philosophy. He continued to go to work every day, but in August 2007 he arrived at the Kensington showroom to find the locks had been changed. At 87, it was a sad end to a lifetime of dedication to the Bristol marque.

The concept of a gentleman motor manufacturer is now an outdated one, but it described Tony Crook perfectly. Without his uncompromising determination, Bristol would probably not have survived the 1960s; and certainly it would not have got as far as the 21st century. Simon Taylor