Reborn for the track-day market, Crosslé’s 9S sports-racer still cuts it, says Richard Heseltine
Tapping into a rich nostalgic vein, Crosslé Car Co has high hopes for 9S, the second coming. Constructed in the same former wash-house as the original, situated in the sat-nav-baiting back of Northern Ireland’s beyond, you may be unaware of its existence, but that’s about to change; expect to see one at a track near you soon, that is if the marque’s current guardian Arnie Black has his way.
Having achieved staggering levels of popularity during the 1970s and ’80s with its various Formula Ford offerings and outfitted half the world’s race schools with single-seaters, the last decade-and-a-half has nonetheless been near-silent for this charismatic marque. Instigator John Crosslé, wanting a quieter life, turned to restoring vintage tractors instead, selling the company to Black in ’97. The economies of scale involved in producing contemporary open-wheel racing cars counted against making a comeback in such a cut-throat market, hence the change of attack. Some 16 or so of these new variations on a classic theme have been sold for around £28,500 (before VAT) in recent years and Black is actively targeting the burgeoning track-day market in Britain and Europe.
The original 9S was introduced in 1966 and built to international 2-litre Group 6 regulations. More than any previous model it helped establish Crosslé as a serious player. Derived, if only in part, from earlier closed-wheel racers (see below), the recipe was simple: steel spaceframe, glass fibre bodywork and more often than not BMW ‘four’ power. The good results soon spread beyond Northern Ireland, most notable of these being Peter Gethin and (Chevron founder) Derek Bennett’s eighth place overall and second in class in that year’s Tourist Trophy encounter at Oulton Park.
Built from the original jig — no chalk marks on the floor for Crosslé — the reborn 9S retains the classic double-wishbone suspension set-up at the front, lower wishbone/top transverse link/twin trailing links at the rear, with anti-roll bars and adjustable dampers all round. After experimenting with 2-litre 16-valve Vauxhall power, Black settled on the proven Dunnell-Ford Zetec ‘four’ which produces around 220bhp, transmitted to the rear wheels via a Hewland Mk9 five-speed gearbox. Mercifully, the appealing outline has remained unaltered from 40 years ago when John Crosslé set to with chicken wire and a bucket of resin. It really is very pretty.
Kirkistown: scene of innumerable victories for Crosslé stretching back to 1958. This surprisingly fast 1.5mile circuit is in the throes of construction work, hence the proliferation of diggers and lorries traipsing grass and mud across the asphalt. No matter, you can’t see much of it for all the puddles. As Black returns from his shakedown run, the proclamation of, “Heavens, it’s greasy out there!” does nothing to allay doubts that a track test in December isn’t such a sound idea. As conversation turns to spring rates and suitable tyres, it’s all getting a bit serious. No pressure, then.
None whatsoever as it happens, as the 9S is such an easy car to drive. Black considers his likely customers as being 40-somethings either returning to circuit driving after a long layoff or those looking to upgrade from a track-orientated road car. Benign is the watchword.
It helps that the 9S is so comfortable, by racing car standards at least. The semi-reclined driving position, close-coupled pedal layout ever so slightly angled towards the centre line, and door tops that don’t crowd you are spot on.
And the novelty of a track-day weapon where the underside of the dash doesn’t have a serrated edge or wiring held in place with a bulldog clip is refreshing. This might be a hard-used prototype but the commendable attention to detail here is something many of Crosslé’s rivals could learn from.
Trackside, the first thing that strikes you is how pliant the ride is. It doesn’t get jouncy — no blurred vision or chafing from the crotch strap — over the bumps. Even riding the kerbs through The Chicane it seems entirely unthreatening, chassis predictable and imperturbable. Same too for the rack-and-pinion steering which loads up beautifully with a healthy self-centring action; the wheel doesn’t writhe about in your hands and the high-ratio rack is quick but without the expected kart-like darty turn-in. If anything, the tiller could do with being a fraction higher for complete comfort, but you soon acclimatise.
With so many track-day chargers featuring peaky motorcycle-derived engines and masses of downforce, you could expect the 9S to be a bit tame, but 220bhp in such a light car does tend to focus your attention. Though more than happy to rev, the Zetec motor has genuinely usable low-down urge. Under advisement to ignore all but the upper three cogs except for the imaginatively named second-gear Hairpin, the torque is immediately evident as you accelerate away from an apex: no faltering or panic cog-dropping to get it back on cue. Power is released with a gentle but sustained shove and the Avon ACB10s do a very commendable job of reining-in the performance in less than ideal weather conditions.
The clutch engages near the top of its travel and you do need a few laps to refresh your memory of Hewland gearshifts: the snick-snick action is a delight with familiarity, with little inertia across the gate. Each vertical movement is brief, the horizontals even more so. The brakes have a nicely weighted solidity and are reassuring once warmed up.
Despite the lack of aero add-ons, the 9S feels unstintingly stable. This example is geared for a little over 150mph and somewhere vaguely approaching this figure it feels tied down with decent mechanical grip. Trying that little bit harder, mindful that it’s now raining again and you’d like to return the car without the aid of a broom, it still doesn’t display any real vices, tackling faster corners by moving from faint understeer to neutral to mild oversteer with progression and accuracy. Open the throttle a mite early for a reflexive dose of tail-out action and it will need some swift guidance in ensuring that the angle of attack doesn’t involve rotation, but in the dry you imagine it being a different story.
This is a car that you want to keep on driving. It flatters you. Any reasonably competent driver could happily pilot a 9S at seven-tenths. The real skill is in making up the rest. Truth is, many of the ‘bike-powered track-day cars are simply too fast for the application, their limits beyond the talents of all but proper race aces. Not that this stops wannabe track gods from developing tunnel vision and buying them. A track-day should be about enjoyment after all. Without wishing to denigrate the Crosslé, this is a more entry-level approach. It’s certainly quick enough to tweak the nose of any circuit-orientated supercar, and anyone making the transition from fast road cars to a proper racer could do worse than try one of these first.
You’ll probably like it. A lot.
TechSpec — Crossle 9S
Type: Dunnell-Ford mid-mounted all-ally dohc in-line four. Capacity 1988cc. Power 220bhp. Max revs 7500rpm. Fueling system 2 Weber 45DCOE
Gearbox Hewland Mk9, five-speed
Chassis: Type: tubular steel spaceframe, stressed ally floor panels. Wheelbase 90in Track (f/r) 52/51.5in, Length/width/height 144/66/38in. Dry weight 532kg. Suspension (f) unequal-length wishbones, adjustable dampers and coil springs. Suspension (r) reversed lower wishbone, transverse top link, twin radius arms, adjustable dampers and coil springs
Brakes (f&r) solid discs, cockpit-adjustable bias. Steering rack and pinion
Not always single-minded
John Crosslé’s first sports-racer design, the 5S, was conceived in the winter of 1962, two cars being completed for the following season. The first, to be driven by John Dickson and Crosslé himself, featured a 1.5-litre Ford pushrod ‘four’, the other being fitted with a similar displacement Coventry Climax FPF engine for John L’Amie. Both cars had VW-based transmissions with in-house close-ratio gears and inboard rear disc brakes. The rear suspension used a combination of wishbone and transverse links, the front end suspended by unequal-length wishbones and modified Triumph Herald hub carriers.
Three more cars were completed for 1964, one with a regular Ford engine: Charles Eyre-Maunsell’s example used a Lotus twin-cam unit and Hewland ‘box; Brian Nelson’s car housed a 2.5-Iitre Daimler ‘hemi’ V8 and Citroën-based Jack Knight transmission. Numerous successes at local level included the Harp Trophy at Kirkistown by Crosslé and L’Amie’s Gold Leaf Trophy victory at Phoenix Park.
Five examples of the follow-up 7S were made in 1965, the main deviations being revised suspension geometry and wider Crosslé-made magnesium wheels. Typically, engine choice was wide, ranging from Lotus twin-cam to L’Amie’s 4.7-litre Ford V8-equipped car. One notable 7S pilot was John Watson, whose first major victory was secured with this model at Dunboyne.
Following the 9S there would be no more Crosslé sports-racers until the 37S Sports 2000 cars that met with moderate success in the late 1970s. The subsequent 42S of ’80 mixed it with Lolas and Tigas in the UK when driven by Jubilee Racing’s David Leslie.
Founding father — A successful motorbike racer, tractor restorer and race car constructor, John Crosslé tells all…
Taking a moment’s rest from tending to his fine tractor collection, an almost preternaturally laid back John Crosslé ponders his racing past. “I should’ve stayed a farmer,” he says, unconvincingly, “I would have had an easier life.”
So just how did a Scottish-born, County Tyrone-raised agricultural student wind up being of one of the world’s most prolific racing car builders? “I started out with motorcycles. These days I suppose you would call it motocross; back then we used to call it scrambling. I won the Ulster 350 Grass Track Championship (1953-55), the 500cc series (in ’54) and quite a few other titles as well.
“I moved over to four wheels in 1957. The car to have back then was a Lotus 6 but that was way too dear for what it was. In racing, you either have money or you don’t. I didn’t. And so I built my own car around a 10cwt Ford 10 van — which was the wrong choice as it was way too heavy (even so, he took his first win, at Newtownards Airport, on March 15 and became a front-runner in the series for 1172cc Ford specials). After that I built the MkII and it became my policy to build a new car every winter. I found that I was able to sell my old model quite easily and, more by accident than design, I became a race car constructor.
“Back then, I suppose, I still had ambitions to be a racing driver and I got as far as enrolling for John Cooper’s racing school at Brands. That was quite a trek from Belfast — I can’t remember the journey but it probably involved a boat, a train, maybe even a plane. Anyway, it rained and I never got to go out on the track; I just waited in the clubhouse. I thought, ‘Sod this, I’m in the wrong hemisphere to be a racing driver’ and gradually concentrated on designing and building new models. During the 1960s we were constructing chassis for just about every formula: Junior, F3, F2, Libre, F5000, you name it. At the same time we were repairing anything anyone bought in, and making parts for all manner of machines. And not just cars, either.
“My last proper outing as a driver was in a Formula B-spec single-seater — the 12E. Then I decided that other people were faster than me so I should probably stop.
“I always tried to produce strong cars. I think that’s why we did so well with racing schools. We sold a lot of our Formula Fords to Skip Barber’s school and they were used day in, day out, running up colossal mileages. He also had his own race series for them. America was good to us. We had Roger Barr acting as our distributor on the East Coast for a time and Ken Deeter on the West Coast, who was incredibly successful. He had contacts everywhere and sold loads of cars for us in South America. I can safely say that we cornered the Formula Ford market in Venezuela. At the end of the 1970s we were employing 16 or 17 people and building as many as 100 cars a year.”
But then things started slowing up towards the end of the 1980s: “The market started to change. I always believed that once America learned how to build single-seaters we would be in trouble, and the Swift DB1 pushed the boundaries in Formula Ford. That hurt us. And by then Ken had a dicky heart, and motor racing was changing — not for the better. The company gradually slowed down but that was fine with me, to be perfectly honest.”
So why start messing about with trials cars? “That was (Irish racing legend) Tommy Reid’s doing: he provoked the 80T. The front end is much like any conventional trials car — a beam axle — because I could not think of anything better. At the back, though, it has independent suspension with wishbones top and bottom with as much movement as the CV joints will allow. Unusually, it has a Volkswagen gearbox with Hewland ratios and crown wheel and pinion. It’s been very successful so far— and not just in Ireland.”
No surprise there, then.
Our thanks to John Crosslé and Arnie Black. You can reach Crosslé Car Company on 028 9076 3332 or log on to www.crossle.co.uk