Historic scene with Gordon Cruickshank

Innovation and escape

Roger Nathan built and raced novel ply-framed cars in the ’60s – then gave up racing for the air 

“I shouldn’t have been running a business, I should just have been racing.” The words of a man who, from the age of 19, found himself tuning and racing his own and customer cars, developing tuning conversions, running a team car for another driver and then manufacturing an innovative and unique racer under his own name – while successfully racing the ‘works’ car. Today we’d call it a wide skill-set; back in the Sixties Roger Nathan merely saw it as a way to support his racing. 

Nowadays Nathan knows plenty about business, having run his own airline and mined for diamonds and gold in West Africa, but recently returning to the UK has reawakened the racing interest that ebbed in the Seventies, and he came to our new offices to talk about those days.

“I really wanted a works drive,” he reflects, “but I wasn’t good at networking.” It wasn’t for lack of results: at 20 he won the National Autosport Championship in a Lotus Elite and went on to a run of success in Imps, Brabham BT8, Costin-Nathan and Astra sports cars. But the effort of developing the latter two concepts while running the business eventually sapped his drive; aircraft took over, leading to a whole new world.

At 17, though, racing seemed the future – after someone had explained that sticking tight to the inside line wasn’t the fastest just because it was a the shortest… In his Elite he began to win and also prepare cars for others: “Max Mosley and Peter Revson were customers, visiting our premises in a seedy part of Brixton – with a brothel alongside!” When the Hillman Imp came out he developed tuning kits, getting up to 105bhp from its eager alloy motor and proving a rival to the agile Minis, while Nathan’s pace in his Elite brought backing from BP. “So in 1963 my dad, Bernie [Mr E was a family friend] and I went to Brabham where Ron Tauranac showed us the BT8. World champion Jack was in the workshop in a grey coat like anyone else. We bought the BT8 for £4300, and it was horrible to drive. Graham Hill tried it and said ‘Take it back!’ Jack agreed to come to Brands and sort it, and I learned more from him in half a day than a whole year of racing. But he agreed it was hard to drive.” 

Eventually, new springs transformed the car and through 1964 Roger amassed a string of wins and lap records. 

“Then Wynn Mitchell from Chrysler contacted me as we were doing so well with the Imps, and when I said I needed more power in the Brabham he offered me an alloy-block Oldsmobile V8 race-prepared from the States. Frank Costin, who I’d met as he was interested in Imp engines, installed it for us and the acceleration was stunning – I had a job to catch my breath in second.” The big V8 with its stackpipe exhausts proved a big disappointment, though. “It was so unreliable, an amateur prep job. After yet another rebuild I had to run it in up the M1 at 150!” That trip resulted in a lap record and a Gold Cup at RAF Ouston (not Oulton Park), which Roger reckons proved the concept, but by then he was immersed in the novel Costin-Nathan.

“Frank wanted to use the Imp engine in this light resin-bonded ply monococque. His thing was wood, coming from de Havilland.” 

Enthused by Costin, Roger agreed to build a series. “It was very rigid, but very difficult to manufacture. Frank produced these card templates with notes like ‘extra half-inch here’ and I had to get drawings done. I finally found a boat-builder on Eel Pie Island to make them, but they had to be carried back over a narrow footbridge.” Once at Nathan’s new Highgate premises the steel subframes for radiator, engine and double-wishbone suspension were attached, the mid-mounted motor with upside-down gearbox installed, and then the smooth glassfibre body.  

After its April 1966 debut the sleek timber tearaway proved rather successful in the 1-litre class and orders kept coming in, which should have been good news… “But each monococque took a carpenter six weeks to make and cost us £500, when it only sold for £1900. It was fundamentally wrong for a business, but I was only 19…” 

Always excited by something new (as he still is), Nathan presented a Group 6 coupé version for 1967, with Costin’s signature curves, roof-scoop doors and a bonded-in screen, and agreed to enter Le Mans that year. “Of course it was a panic to prepare, but it did 70 faultless testing laps of Snetterton, and with its special 1020cc block we felt we had a good chance of the Index of Efficiency prize.” But at La Sarthe a spread of electrical and mechanical problems led them to retire after four struggling hours rocking in the wake of the big Ford MkIIs, blasting past 70mph faster than the Costin-Nathan’s 150. “It was stable enough,” says Roger, “though I don’t think Frank tested it aerodynamically.
It was just by eye and experience.”

In 1967 Costin had begun working on his Protos F2 concept for Brian Hart and Nathan, feeling neglected, decided they should part company. Henceforth the cars were Nathan GTs, and Roger, with ex-Lotus man Cedric Selzer, worked on a 2-litre Alpina BMW version which would bring victory in the ’68 Motoring News and Tootal GT series. Radically revised for 1969 the cars became Astras, gaining Cosworth FVA power, while Roger also planned a Len Terry-designed Formula 5000 car.

“Class wins just didn’t bring customers,” says Roger, “and we thought F5000 could give us a higher profile.” But there was too much going on; wisely he later ceded it back to Terry.

By 1970 Nathan was driving a FVC-powered Astra RNR2 in 2-litre international events, but quick as it was, class successes and outright wins in smaller events (not forgetting the International Martini Trophy at Silverstone) didn’t make either riches or a race career. This is the point where Roger announces he shouldn’t have been running a business. With Imp conversions, tuning, preparation and 33 of the wooden wonders built the firm was making money, “but it all went into racing. Racing is an all-consuming sport. I wanted to be paid to race someone else’s car, but it never happened.” Dispirited, he signed off with a victory at Silverstone and turned to the air.  

Nathan’s tales of how he ended up flying in the war-torn Middle East, buying Soviet Antonovs and running his airline in Sierra Leone are entertaining stuff, but this isn’t the place. Motor racing has gripped him again, so you may well see him in a paddock near you, maybe even driving. Because he reckons, “Nothing tastes better than champagne from a silver cup after winning a race…” 

Déjeuner à la ferme

An invitation to lunch at Crosthwaite & Gardiner was a ‘don’t miss’ date as the respected manufacturer, restorer and race car prep firm always has something to see, so I set the sat-nav for Hogge Farm. Pouring rain meant there was no fun to be had over the Sussex back roads, but as ever the crowded buildings around the one-time farmyard were full of treasure. 

I always connect C&G with old-fashioned hands-on skills (and they have plenty of those), but Oliver Crosthwaite’s demonstration of their 3D design facility was a revelation. There’s a full-time design team who can create components from scratch or reverse-engineer parts using a highly accurate co-ordinate measuring machine and then reshape for strength; the 3D model can be digitally stress-tested before anyone fits one to a car. On screen we ‘virtually’ sliced through a cylinder head, the only way of visualising all those internal portings you otherwise can’t see. Once finalised the digital version can be machined on four- or five-axis CNC machines that churn away behind Perspex screens, repeating complex jobs all by themselves with hairs-breadth accuracy. They might be supplying parts for 1930s cars, but it’s 21st century techniques which produce the parts that bring us such good historic racing.

In the machining shop Oliver showed us a Lotus wobbly web wheel sliced in half for checking, and how they had beefed up these clever, light rims which modern tyres now stress beyond safety. I was particularly impressed with the wire eroder – a bit like a high-voltage cheese-cutter that carves intricate two-dimensional shapes out of tough steel in seconds. Oliver reckons he spends as much time at machinery shows as car events to keep the shop at maximum productivity (though he’s no mean pedaller on the track).

There are cycles in this business like most others, and currently C&G can hardly supply enough D- and E-type Jaguar XK engines, with or without wide-angle heads and the complex slide-throttle injection. “We thought it would tail off after the E-type anniversary, but it just keeps going,” Oliver says.

With a 1000bhp dynamometer on hand, C&G not only manufactures but also builds ready-to-race engines and complete cars too, as we know from the Auto Unions that adorn many historic meets. On cue, as we move to the fabrication shop, here’s one of the silver V16s. “It’s here for a service and overhaul,” says Dick Crosthwaite. Just like any road car… 

Like me, Dick (Oliver’s dad, who founded the firm along with engineer John Gardiner) has a thing for bicycles and there’s a row of machines from all eras hanging on the wall: discussing wooden rims and inch-pitch gearwheels with him distracted me from the other thing I didn’t expect to see here – a French café bar they’ve constructed to entertain guests. It entertained me – the zinc counter, elaborate panelling and mirrored shelves carried me off to Paris. And the steak pie was pretty good, too. 

Pillars of wisdom

Elevated roadways are no longer seen as progress – but they can sometimes cheer a weary traveller 

Returning to London from a race prep shop recently I came in under the A4 flyover heading for Chiswick roundabout. As I sat at the lights overshadowed by the same concrete pylons that went knock-kneed a year or two back, closing the flyover for a couple of traffic-throttling weeks, I recalled something my erstwhile colleague Mike Cotton told me back in the Eighties when he arrived at the office after his daily commuter grind from deepest Berkshire. 

Inching past the same columns in a bleary morning queue he was cheered to see the words of a message painted up in large letters on successive pylons by a happy graffiti artist. The first said “Good!” The second said “Morning!” The third said “Lemmings!”