The Constructors - Crossle

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Four things make Crossle Cars interesting. The first is the firm’s survival, the company more or less ties with Mallock as the second longest established production racing car maker in the world, Lola is the oldest by a few months. Exact dates are not easy to establish, for all three began with a special builder, making a car for his own use, who became a constructor when customers asked for replicas. Given the survival rate of most racing outfits, Crossle’s longevity is remarkable enough in itself.

Secondly, though it now concentrates on the Ford Formulae, Crossle has produced cars for a wide range of other categories, up to FA/5000, most production racing car makers are not that ambitious. Thirdly is the fact that it is based in Ireland which, Ulster or the Republic, has never been a place one immediately associates with racing car manufacture. Finally, but related to the preceding point, it operates without the support of an established racing car industry.

Take this latter point. In England it is possible to become a constructor simply by having money and a telephone. You employ some bright young designer, possibly an assistant with an F1 team, to draw a car. You choose your subcontractors, and you make an arrangement with a racing team or preparation specialist to assemble the components into cars and then you negotiate with a team to run “your” cars. If you have the money and the inclination, the most difficult part of the operation is thinking up a name for “your” cars. The English racing car industry is so extensive that the manufacture of a new line of racing cars can be as simple as that- as some have proved.

Across the Irish Sea, Crossle is isolated and so has to be self-reliant. The company employs ten men who make everything except the fibreglass bodies which come from a local subcontractor. Crossle carmot call on racing mechanics from, say, F3 teams, during the winter “building season” but has compensated by concentrating on markets (which latterly have not included England to any great extent) which allow the building to be spread over a long period. Racing begins in January in Florida, for example, and by selecting its markets, Crossle can take up the slack.

This market selection is partly dictated by the fact that there is, in England, a psychological block presented by the Irish Sea. When Crossle’s cars are perceived to be superior, the sea is no obstacle, for a driver worth his salt will cross a mile of broken glass in his bare feet to obtain a better car, but when its products are perceived to be only on a par with the English makers, that strip of ocean becomes an almighty barrier. Worse, many European and Australasian drivers take their cues from English racing, or at least the results and comments which appear in the weekly racing press. The USA is a market in which Crossle can compete on equal terms with English constructors and it is there that the company enjoys its enduring success so, our second, or third, oldest production racing car maker remains largely unknown in most of Britain.

Crossle is based in Ulster and it is impossible to view the company unless it is first seen in the Irish context. With only 1.5 million inhabitants, Ulster has a population roughly that of Hampshire, though its area is about four times as great. Still the roads are so good and underpopulated that few enthusiasts are much more than an hour’s drive from each other. Though the proportion of enthusiasts is high, the actual number is small so you do not find the fragmentation you get in England with the vintage crowd, the saloon boys, the single-seater brigade and so on. The different enthusiasms exist, of course, but so too does cooperation between them. This intimacy extends across the border and is strengthened by the fact that public roads may be used for motoring sport so a stretch of country road may turn out to be a hill climb venue, a Circuit of Ireland Rally special stage, or part of a current, or defunct, race track.

Crossle has grown and developed within this community of enthusiasts, the firm has received nourishment from it and it is clear that Irish enthusiasts have great pride in the firm.

Although born in Scotland, in 1931, John Crossle was raised in Ulster on his grandparents’ farm while his own parents were in the Sudan. On the farm, in the school holidays, he learned about mechanics and farm machinery remains one of his enthusiasms, John has a growing collection of vintage tractors. At school (St Columbia’s in County Dublin) he managed to maintain an illegal stable of three motorcycles on a local farm and, aided and abetted by three like-minded friends, and in heavy disguise, John and the gang would venture out on sorties in the Wicklow Mountains.

Crossle’s ambitions to become a professional motor cycle racer were not greeted with parental enthusiasm and he enrolled in an agricultural college but his father did assist in the purchase of a 350 Matchless trials bike for Christmas 1950. After cutting his teeth in competition, John traded the Matchless for a more powerful JAP-engined special with which he won the Ulster 350 Grass Track Championship in 1953, ’54 & ’55, and the 500 title in 1954.

After a visit to the Wicklow (car) Road Races in 1956, John decided to try car racing and, finding that proprietary machines were too expensive, he set about building his own special. The finished car, built for the Irish Ford 1172 Formula, outwardly resembled a Lotus 6 and had a space frame and split axle front suspension but, at the back, was the first sign that here was a special-builder out of the general run. Crossle took the standard Ford Ten live rear axle and ingeniously converted it to an independent layout.

1957 was spent learning about the new sport and his first win came in March the following year at the last meeting held on the Newtonards airfield. He finished the year with the Coulter Trophy for winning the Ulster 1172 Championship. The Coulter Trophy has been awarded to different classes of racing over the years but every winner since 1958 has driven a Crossle Crossle lS was sold and the improved 2S emerged the following year, this being an offset sports I single seater with a distinctive tail fin.

Again John won the Coulter Trophy and ended the season by finishing second to Arthur Mallock’s U2 in the Ford Championship of Ireland race at Kirkiston. The performance of this car produced no ripples on this side of the water but people at home were begnning to take notice and a replica was built for a customer, Michael Dickson, who still owns it. The special builder became a constructor.

At about the same time, the first Crossle products began to appear in England. The Irish Ford Championship had allowed non­standard camshafts and when these became permitted in England, Crossle supplied them, along with p/x close ratio gears, through the Ashley Smithy Garage in Cheshire.

1960 saw the first Crossle single seater, the 3F, which looked something like a stubby Lotus 16 and was a further refinement of the earlier cars and still Ford powered. A particularly ingenious feature of the 3F was the angling of the engine, from left to right, to take the prop shaft alongsid the driver and thus give a lower seating position. The shaft led to a modified Manx Norton gearbox mounted to the right of the differential and driving to it via a short chain. This arrangement proved trouble­free and another successful season culminated with John winning his third Coulter Trophy and becoming the first Ulsterman to win the Championship of Ireland race. Two replicas were built for customers and the decision was taken to go into the racing car business seriously.

For most of the next decade, Crossle built small numbers of cars each year, for a variety of formulae, finding his customers mainly at home and in the States. So, in 1961, came the 4F, a neat rear-engined FJ car of which four were built, and which enjoyed moderate success, mainly in Ireland. Two years later came the 5S (six built) which was a sports racer on the lines of the Lotus 23. All the Crossle types, the years built, and numbers made, are given at the end of this article but some of the early figures may not be wholly accurate. The company has now set up a Register (c/o Rosemary Crossle, The Crossle Car Co Ltd., Rory’s Wood, Old Holywood Road, Holywood, Co Down, BT18 9QS, N. Ireland) to cater for owners and enthusiasts alike and this may turn up more cars than are currently remembered. John himself continued to race regularly until 1963, winning the 1962 Ford of Ireland Championship in a car which was nominally a Formula Junior model but which was powered by Ford 1172 engine – and there lies a clue to the reason why Crossle cars remained so little known for so long.

Most early Crossles were built to International formulae but most were bought by Irish drivers for use at home so, of the three 1972 22F F2 cars, one went to the States for Formula B and the other two were used mainly in Ireland in hill climbs, sprints, Libre events and just the odd F2 race. Two of the 1964/5 F3 cars had 1172 engines and ran in the Irish Ford Championship and you will not gain serious F3 customers if your latest design is doing its winning with an 1172 engine. The pity is that when good drivers and F2 cars raced in Ireland, Crossle drivers, particularly Brian Nelson, were able to demonstrate that the cars were as good as any.

In 1964/5 Leslie Drysdale joined the company on a temporary basis in the period before taking his engineering finals at Queen’s University, Belfast. He stayed for nearly 20 years. Between them the two men designed the Crossle range of cars, sometimes on an equal basis, sometimes with one taking over most of the work. The 30-series cars were largely Crossle’s work, for example, while the 50-series were largely Drysdale’s. Drysdale left in 1983 to set up his own company, thus doubling Ulster’s number of constructors, and his Mondiales have been performing creditably in FF1600 races this year.

All constructors face a trap. No matter how good a company’s products are, the trick is always to induce a coming hot-shoe into a car, to win the races, to attract the customers who can win more races. Unfortunately, unless you’re already doing that, then you’re not generating enough profit to stitch together the deal to attract the hot-shoe unless you happen to be very lucky. It’s Catch 22.

If what was going on in Ireland was of little interest to the rest of the motor racing fraternity, and if the Irish Sea was a psychological barrier to English competitors, the same stretch of water represented a physical barrier to Crossle. It takes the best part of five days to undertake the round trip from Belfast to a ten lap race at Brands Hatch and that equates to time and money which could be better used elsewhere. Even if the company attempted that, it would be coming into an unfamiliar scene and would be unlikely to show its full potential. It’s no wonder, then, that the company has remained unknown here for so long.

Crossle cars have always enjoyed an enviable reputation for neatness, strength, and attention to detail, John’s forte being the ability to design a harmonious package rather than to break radical new ground which is, anyway, rarely a wise move for a small constructor. In the USA, the Skip Barber Racing Schools, which organise their own race series, have nearly 60 Crossles which are each expected to do 30,000 racing and tuition miles a year. That is not a misprint, Crossle 35Fs (some of them up-dated 30Fs) and 50Fs, are individually clocking up 30,000 miles a year. Many FF chassis frames are well past their best after perhaps a season of 40 races (including testing, that amounts to 2-3,000 miles) and I’ve come across teams .replacing their frames every eight races or so.

Although its sales were small and its reputation largely a local one, the company was ambitious and, as the list of cars shows, covered a wide range of formulae. In 1967, Crossle enjoyed his first big success when Roger Barr won an SCCA Formula B (Atlantic) Championship in a 12F.

What happened next it typical of the dilemma faced by small constructors. Crossle had enjoyed a success and wanted to capitalise on it. Barr, a Crossle agent, wanted to move up a rung on the ladder and Formula A/5000 was just starting in the States. The firm went ahead and built cars for the new formula but Crossle spent time and care on his design, too much time, he now admits. The result was that the opening season was over before the first 15F appeared in October 1968.

This was a sophisticated, handsome, car but Barr was too ambitious for his available budget, the cars were never properly sorted and they raced only occasionally. John calls the effort “pathetic”. It was not long before the cars were bought by David Heptonstall and were brought back to England but so far as I can make out, neither raced again.

By the time the Crossle 15F appeared, the Lola T140 was doing most of the winning in the States. This model was a relatively crude spaceframe design, based around existing T70 components. By securing the services of the right drivers and teams Lola was able to put on a show which perhaps flattered the car but which established Lola in the formula. With the likes of Lotus, McLaren and Surtees quickly in the new and lucrative market it is no wonder that Crossle found it hard to carve out a place. The very successful McLaren M10 was built under the supervision of Alistair Caldwell from a rough sketch provided by Bruce McLaren. The trick was that it was based on the existing, competitive, M7 F1 car.

The third chassis hung around the works for a year and then was bought by diver driver Fred Saunders who had a 5-litre V8 Rover engine fitted. Although the Rover unit gave around 140 bhp less than a decent Chevvie, and although Saunders operated on a shoestring, the combination did not disgrace itself, and could be relied upon to pick up the odd point. Saunders’ performances suggest that the 15F was a good design which was never allowed to show its potential.

In the 10 years since he became a constructor, Crossle had struggled along at a rate of four cars a year but with some subcontracting, for the works became a centre of the Irish motor racing scene. Still, while Barr’s success in Formula B had taken the driver and constructor up the wrong turning of F5000, the success did attract buyers for the 16F, Crossle’s first FF1600 car.

One of those customers was Gerry Birrell who, in 1968, dominated the new British Formula Vee Championship and who went on to win the 1969 European FF Championship in an equally commanding fashion in his Crossle. It was one of those lucky breaks which every constructor needs. Gerry’s elder brother, Graham, had been to see Crossle with a view to buying a sports car. The purchase did not take place but it led to a valuable introduction which brought both Crossle and Gerry Birrell to prominence. That was the turning point, John had found his hot-shoe, the customers formed a line and 39 examples were sold, nearly as many as all previous models combined. Thereafter the future of the firm was more or less decided, though it did continue to build small numbers of car for F3, F2 and so on for a few more years. They were good customer cars but the company was still too poor to stitch together the deals which attract the right teams and drivers, though Brian Henton did win the 1972 British SuperVee Championship in a 24F. Unfortunately, this category never really caught on in England and Henton’s success led to Iittle.

At the same time as Crossle became a volume FF producer, he and his wife Rosemary, who handles the business side of things, were formally joined by their brother-in-law, Colin Scott, who looks after sales and spares. It is the company’s boast that no competitor has ever been unable to start a race due to Crossle’s inability to supply a spare, no matter how old the car.

Throughout the Seventies and to the present day, Crossle’s Formula Ford cars have represented the backbone of the company and have won almost every major Championship on both sides of the Atlantic, with America and Holland being the principal markets. Like all FF makers, it’s had its ups and downs, 28 FF2000 cars were sold in 1977-8, for example, but only one in 1979. The cars had enjoyed a lot of success in Holland but the market there became saturated and, quite simply, hardly any one there bought new car since 1979.

Then again, like all racing car constructors who do not arrange free cars and discounts for selected customers (and you have to sell a lot of customer cars to cover the cost of running a works team) Crossle’s reputation is in the hands of its customers, it’s like watching your children set off on their first dates. Take the 1980 FF2000 car, for example. It was the first of the new breed of narrow track cars for the formula and were quite tricky to set up properly. Neither of Crossle’s Dutch customers were quite up to the job and this reflected on the firm and loosened its hold on its share of the market.

When Sports 2000 came along, Crossle’s American agents urged him to build for the category and the company enjoyed some success in it, but it is a small market, which was being contested by too many firms for it to be profitable for all. Besides, S2000 quickly became highly specialised (few parts are interchangeable with the single-seater Ford Formulae, for instance, thus costs cannot be easily spread over a range of cars) so, in common with most English single-seater constructors, Crossle has quietly withdrawn from the class. The company’s immediate future lies in FF1600 with the possibility of FF2000 for the American agents are urging a return. In the longer term, Crossle is prepared to consider any viable project.

The 1985 car, the 60F, looks set to be one of John’s better designs, though none has yet been seen in England, the early sales having been made in Ireland and the USA. American circuits tend to have longer straights than English tracks, which puts a premium on straight line speed. In this department, the Crossle 60F seems particularly strong with its slim body and tapered frame, its discreet ducting to the radiators mounted in front of the engine, its airbox arrangement which takes air to the engine from behind the driver’s head, and its pull rod front suspension and rocker arm rear which reduce drag. John himself says it’s hard to pinpoint why a particular FF design works better than others but the answer is surely in the harmony of the whole, the simplest thing to say but one of the hardest things to achieve in a racing car.

The Ford Formulae are so tightly regulated that is virtually impossible to make a major advance, though John believes in retrospect that perhaps his 25F was a car which was head and shoulders above its contemporary rivals. Most makers generally produce competent designs, though occasionally they take wrong turns, as many FF2000 people did in 1980 when it seemed a good idea to try ground effects. The rule in motor racing is that it is more usual for companies to make mistakes than quantum leaps, and the latter are anyway virtually unknown in the Ford Formulae. The essential thing, as John says, is to make sure that your new car is not worse than its predecessor. Even if a new car is only as good as the one before it may appear to be better because it will probably be in the hands of the sort of ambitious, well-funded, driver likely to do the winning anyway.

In the list of Crossle types, the intriguing phrase “Project not built” appears quite often, particularly in the latter years. Would the 53F have been an F2 car, for example, or a’ Group. C car, or what? There are no mysteries, only the prosaic explanation that the firm’s American agents have suggested that some numbers have a stronger market appeal than others (many makers miss out the number 13 for this reason) and so, because the 60F is a completely new design and not a development of its predecessor, the SSF, it is signalled by a number which suggests the change, and not by 56F.

The indications on the US race tracks are that the Crossle 60F is living up to the firm’s best traditions. The irony is that its successes will remain largely unknown in mainland Britain, yet Crossle is not only one of our oldest manufacturers but also one of our most successful. – M.L.