A Rare Vintage Sports Car
The 20/70 h.p. Crossley is less well-known than many vintage sports cars that were scarcely as distinguished. Crossley Motors Ltd. of Gorton, Manchester, “of gas-engine fame”, had a deservedly high reputation long before the First World War and during the conflict this was enhanced by the good service the Royal Flying Corps, and later the RAF, had from its Crossley tenders and bull-nosed Staff-cars. Moreover, Crossley’s had a good sporting car before the war, namely, the 15.9 h.p. Shelsley model, which had a side-valve 2 1/2-litre four-cylinder engine in unit with a four-speed gearbox, was capable of some 60 m.p.h., and was endowed with anractive, lightweight sporting bodywork. It was used by Cecil Bianchi in the speed trials of pre-1914 and presumably its name derived from its appearances at the Shelsley Walsh hill-climbs. Bianchi drove one in the 1914 1.o,M. TT. almost unmodified save for an oil radiator between its front dumb-irons, but he retired on the second day of the race with clutch trouble. Cecil Clutton remembers the Shelsley Crossley as a car which “. . with its sharply pointed radiator, elegant touring coachwork, and wire wheels, was undoubtedly one of the prettiest cars on the road . . . and deservedly ranked high by the sporting motorist of the time.”
However, this fast Crossley was only an off-shoot, the production mainstay being the fine 41/2-litre 20/30 h.p. model, dating back to 1908, which was adopted by the War Office and, as I have said, served the RFC so very well, not only as a rugged tender but in ambulance, mobile-workshop and, 1 am sure, fluck’s-starter form. When car production restarted after the Armistice, Crossley’s at first rehashed this model, as the 4.9-litre 25,30 h.p.„ while preparing to introduce their new 3.8-litre 19.6 h.p. car in 1920, the Shelsley model not being resumed, although the type-name was reintroduced in 1929 for the 15.7 h.p. six-cylinder car. The 19.6 Crossley was a massively-built confection with low indirect gear ratios, but a high top gear. It wasn’t long before they were toying with a sports version of it, up at Gorton.
There have been other good sports cars which have used side-valve, L-head engines. Apart from the smaller ones, among which must be numbered AC, Aston-Martin, Hillman Speed-Model, Riley Redwing, the various sports Austin 7s, the Amilcar, the Anzani Frazer Nash, and the 10.4 h.p. Calthorpe, etc., there have been larger sports cars which have gone well enough although eschewing overhead valves — the OM, the HE, the Coupe de L’Auto Sunbeam replicas, the 24/60 h.p. Sunbeam, and, of course, the E-Type 30/98 Vawthall. But the side-valve 20/70 h.p. Crossley is less well remembered than most of these. I hope to show that it is very deserving of its niche in history…
Rumours began to circulate late in 1922 about this faster Crossley. The 90 x 150 mm. engine dimensions of the 19.6 h.p. model, a single carburetter, and the same 10′ 4″ wheelbase were retained but by judicious use of a different camshaft and crankshaft, tulip valves, cleaner ports, well-drilled slipper pistons, stronger valve springs, and a raised compression-ratio, power output was improved from approximately 55 b.h.p. to 76 b.h.p. The revised gear ratios were 12.54. 7.93. 5.17 and 3.33 to 1, the direct speed thus being notably high. although I believe Ettore Bugatti ventured the same ratio for his far-smaller Brescia Bugatti. The drive was through an aluminium cone clutch. enlarged for the sports model. At that stage braking was by pedal-operated cast-iron shoes in the back-wheel drums, the hand brake applying the contracting transmission brake, which has been described as “of locomotive type”, and Crossley’s were meticulous in providing accessible adjusters, that for the transmission-brake not requiring the floor boards to be lifted. There were other little niceties, too, among them brackets on the rear dumb-irons for mounting a luggage grid.
That was the famous Manchester manufacturer’s idea of a return to the sports-car market. The 76 b.h.p. at 3.200 r.p.m. of the 20/70 Crossley does not compare with the E-type 30/98 Vauxhall’s 90 b.h.p. at 3,000 r.p.m. but it should be said that. whereas the Vauxhall’s engine had a fixed head, it was claimed that the Crossley’s detachable one could be removed in 20 minutes, a viable advantage in the days when enthusiastic owner drivers decarbonised their own engines. It must also be remembered that the 20/70 h.p. Crossley was 708 c.c. smaller in engine size than the 95 mm.-bore E-type and that it was offered in 1923 for £320 less than the 30/98 whether as a chassis or as a complete “fast-touring” car. Moreover, if the top speed of the larger Vauxhall was in the region of 83 to 85 m.p.h., Crossley’s guaranteed a speed of 75 m.p.h. on Brooklands from their 20/70 h.p. four-seater (and it may be added that the o.h.v. OE 30/98 Vauxhall did 83 m.p.h. when timed there by The Autocar — the Lutonian guarantee of 100 m.p.h. applied only in stripped form). Anyway, the Crossley engineers could hardly have foreseen that Charles King would bring out the o.h.v. 30/98 (wrongly described as having an overhead-camshaft engine in one Show report) for 1923, when planning their sports version of the stolid 19.6 h.p. Crossley . . .
The roomy 5-seater body of the 19.6 h.p. Crossley was changed for a narrower 4-seater for the 20/70 h.p. car. As on the 19.6 h.p. car the gearbox was mounted on a sub-frame; the r.h. lever worked in a gate attached to the gearbox casing, which is presumably why, when attempting a sporting appearance by placing the hand-brake lever outside the body. the gear lever invariably remained inside. Dunlop detachable wire wheels shod with 880 v 120 tyres helped the sporting look, as did the later flared front and back mudguards. The early 20/70s had a body in which the seats were too high, as the more privileged journalists who were permitted to try it discovered, and one tester said the windscreen cut off side vision so seriously that only prompt use of the brakes (by then on all four wheels) enabled him to avoid cross-roads accidents!
The 20/70 had at first a high-sided, rather ugly 4-seater body, slightly cut-away for the dnver’s right arm to reach the external brake lever, a flat divided windscreen, and flat mudguards merging into the running boards. The new model made its debut on Stand No. 272 at Olympia that November (1922), but it is doubtful whether many enthusiasts were attracted there by the 19.6 h.p. Crossley saloon-limousine for ‘H.R.H. The Prince of Wales. More so, one imagines, by the 20/70’s low prices, £675 for the chassis, £845 for the 2-seater and £875 for the 4-seater, the £20 annual-tax, and that guaranteed speed of 75 m.p.h., when an E-type 30/98 4-seater was priced at £1,195.
For the 1923 Olympia Show a slightly-decked body with three small doors and a Yee-windscreen was used for the new 20/70 h.p. model, but a hood cost extra. Perrot four-wheel-brakes had been adopted by now as an extra at a cost of £35. the original plan to use servo braking having been abandoned, and the Show car had neater hub caps than the “external-dish” type of the earlier 20/70s.
It was soon evident that inspire of its high top gear the 20/70 h.p. Crossley was usually flexible in that ratio, accelerating smoothly from five m.p.h. to 60 m.p.h. and it seems that on test 80 m.p.h. had been exceeded, making the guarantee quite valid.
Before the end of 1923 The Autocar got its hands on an early specimen and tested it by driving it to Canterbury and back to London mostly in thick fog — perhaps Sammy Davis went there to visit his friend Lou Zborowski? The price of the 4-seater was now quoted as £900, with the new four-wheel-brakes, a feature pioneered by Crossley’s in 1910, incidentally. The docility in traffic tube emphasised later by other testers was noted, as was the top gear acceleration, providing the ignition lever was used intelligently. The gear change of the 20/70 was never easy and on this car was made more difficult when changing up as the gear lever was too close to the scuttle, but downward changes were described as “simplicity itself”. The car weighed 27 cwt. 3 qr. 14 lb. without occupants. It ran easily, “50 m.p.h. is as nothing”, but there was a certain harshness between that pace and 60 m.p.h. Although it was without shock-absorbers, the Crossley cornered well and gave 22 m.p.g. at cruising speeds of 20 to 25 m.p.h., the range being 319 miles. Apparently a later can (Reg. No. ND 3178) was also driven, with the new body that was available for 1923.
Early in 1924 the 2-seater was announced, with flowing flat wings instead of the flared ones, the long sloping “deck” behind the seats a distinguishing feature. The Earl of Essex took delivery of a 4-seater 20/70 with the outside hand-brake but eschewing the flared mudguards, and a boat-decked 2-seater made its appearance, finished in hard, glossy “Vitcote”, also used on Cushman’s racing 20/70s. A. M. Robertson, Crossley’s sales-manager, drove about in a disc-wheeled 2-seater 20/70 finished in mottled aluminium, which could be made into a 4-seater by removing the rear decking. This became the “Speedforte” model, displayed at Olympia in 1924, and priced at £910, a windscreen and scuttle opening-up when the double back seat was in use. By 1925 The Autocar had done a test of a later model (Reg. No. ND 7772), which proved able to d0 20,40 and 57 m.p.h. in the indirect gears and “would undoubtedly obtain a maximum on top of 75 m.p.h.”, but by now Frazer-Nash was guaranteeing that speed from his far smaller sports car. The 4-seater Crossley accelerated from 10 to 30 m.p.h. in 5.2 sec. in second gear, in 7.8 third gear and in 12.4 sec. in top gear and although the rough crankshaft period was still evident, the engine would pull away from six m.p.h. in top. The new body, with its separate front seats each 18″ wide with 8 1/2″ of adjustment and 39-wide back seat with a tool compartment behind it, was appreciated and up the public Dashwood Hill on the London-Oxford road this 28 cwt. 2 qr. (unladen) car climbed in top gear at 24 m.p.h., after a 43 m.p.h. run-in, and at 33 m.p.h. in third gear. It returned 23 m.p.g. but the steering was heavier than on the earlier cars and the brakes presumably required adjusting, as it took 88 feet in which to stop from 30 m.p.h. The docility of the side-valve engine was again praised and the price was down to £860, when a 3-litre Bentley cost £1,225, a 3-litre Sunbeam £1,125 and an OE 30/98 Vauxhall £1,150.
The Times also had a go in an early rear-braked 20/70 Crossley, describing it as having “Good manners, a light heart, and speed and power for hard work”. It climbed 1 in 9 High Wycombe hill at 32 m.p.h. and up Dashwood’s 1 in 11, three up and the hood erect in the wet, the Crossley ascended at over 30 m.p.h. in top gear and at 47 m.p.h. in third gear, which suggests that the earlier models were the faster ones. Motor Sport had to wait until late in 1925 for their road-test, of a 4-seater (Reg. No. NE 802) — I may be ageing, but I hasten to add that this was some years before my editorship, although I did pay my shilling for the issue, being in fact a regular reader at the time. Indeed, it was Editor Richard Twelvetrees who collected the car from the Westminster premises of Jarrett & Letts Ltd., from where he had picked up a road-test Brescia Bugatti some time earlier. He expressed great enthusiasm for the 20/70’s docility and unexpectedly good acceleration for a side-valve car in the 500 miles and more that he drove, but had an adventure when trying the tour-wheelbrakes down a chalk-covered gradient, for although the anchorage functioned well, it proved impossible to reverse up the hill afterwards. As there was no outlet at the bottom the position was embarrassing but by going further down than he had ever ventured before. Twelvetrees fortunately found that the car was able to climb the badly chewed-up 1 in 3 1/2 gradient.
So much, then, for the 20/70 Crossley on the road. The gentleman from The Times called the sports Crossley a well-planned car which was a real pleasure to handle and one owner. Raynor Roberts, who had an early model with rear brakes and equipped with touring, instead of the sports, bodywork, said that after owning a dozen English and Continental cars he had no greater love than for his 20/70 Crossley, but John Stanford, a 30/98 Vauxhall owner, has remarked that “One has only to drive the average large Crossley or Sunbeam of the period, or even the more touring Vauxhall, to realise at once the lead that Vauxhall Motors had achieved and why owners (of E-type 30/98s) gave pride of place to no one else on the road”.
The 20/70 h.p. Crossley, which was in many ways an Edwardian design, never made its mark in speed-trials as the Shelsley model had done. However, J. H. Clay did run a 20/70 Crossley at Shelsley Walsh in 1924 but his time of 71 sec. was no match for the 30/98s and 3-litre Bentleys, and a stripped 20/70 achieved third place in the Prussian Hamberg speed hill-climb, driven by a Mrs. Lilianc Rashes on her very first competition appearance.
It was at those popular Bank Holiday Brooklands Meetings that the Crossley ran so well, driven by Leon Cushman. In a letter to me in 1947 Mr. L. H. Jervis of the Crossley Publicity Department, then at Errwood Park. Stockport, told we that Cushman raced two 2070s,1 differing only in respect of the magnetos. sparking-plugs and springs used, and I believe that the vertical steering pivots of the standard car were given some camber, to improve road-holding. As both these cars ran as stripped egg-shell blue 4-seaters with dark blue wheels and chassis, it is impossible to distinguish between them. But taking their performances collectively, they were extremely impressive. I remember being told by someone of the exciting rides he had when Cushman was driving Crossleys between Manchester and Weybridge. To start with at any rate, they were presumably fairly close to catalogue specification.
On its first showing, at the 1924 Whitsun Booklands Meeting, there were no results, Cushman lapping at only 72.39 m.p.h. and retiring early from his next race. However, at the Summer BARC races Cushman got round at no less than 91.38 m.p.h., to win the 90 m.p.h. Short Handicap at 78.25 m.p.h., from Purdy’s Horstman and Duller’s scratch Bugatti, following a “cagey” fastest-lap at 86.46 m.p.h. in an earlier race. Absent from the August Meeting. Cushman was out again in the Autumn. Unplaced in his first engagement, although lapping at better than 87 m.p.h., he retired ignominiously from the “90 Short”, and non-started in the 90 m.p.h. Lung Handicap, the Crossley’s timing chain having broken. A flying lap at 85.87 m.p.h. at the wet 1925 Easter Meeting brought Cushman home third in the “90 Short” behind Kidston’s scratch Bugatti and Wilson-Jones’ Salmson. At Whitsun, after a lap at just over 89 m.p.h., the Crossley won the “75 Short” at 81.81 m.p.h. in a bunched finish from Dunfee’s Salmson and Lanfranchi’s scratch Alfa Romeo, and, in spite of a re-handicap, Cushman was a close second in the “90 Short” behind Scriven’s Austin Twenty. Re-handicapped again, to behind the scratch mark, Cushman then came in a good third in the “75 Long.”
This good showing was continued at the 1925 Summer Meeting, when the Crossley, now on scratch itself, easily cleaned up the 75 m.p.h. Short Handicap, averaging 86.88 m.p.h. and lapping at 92.23 m.p.h. and, despite the inevitable re-handicap, was third in the “90 Short”, the lap-speed up to 98.43 m.p.h. Two laps at over 98 m.p.h. were of no avail in the “90 Long”, the Crossley having only ten seconds start from Parry Thomas in the big Lanchester, who was also unplaced. But Cushman and the Crossley were on winning form again on August Bank Holiday. By improving the water flow to the cylinder head, Cushman found more reliability and in conjunction with the Crossley’s speed, this worked wonders. In the “100 Short” it won from the old Lorraine-Dietrich and Barnato’s Bugatti, at 92.5 m.p.h., the car from Manchester doing its final lap at a whisker better than 100 m.p.h. It went even faster in the .75 Long”, lapping at over 101.6 m. ph., but from “owes 15 seconds” behind the scratch placing, it could do nothing. At the Autumn races the Crossley did its fastest-lap ever, at 102.69 m.p.h., but was unplaced in all its three appearances.
At the end of 1925 Cushman, using a 3,704 c.c. Crossley 4-seater weighing 12 cwt., broke a number of International Class-C records, from the standing-start kilometre to the ten kilometres, the two-way f.s. kilometre coming out at 103.42 m.p.h. — a fairly adequate answer, I think, to that guaranteed .ton” from the side-valve and o.h.v. 30/98s in stripped racing form, and a her s”…..13, for the 20/70 wasn’t shown at the 1925 Olympia Show. — W.B.
Veteran Edwardian Vintage, December 1964
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