Fresh paint - and new plans

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An enthusiastic customer aims to build on Crossle’s 55-year history in the racing business

By Gordon Cruickshank

What’s the oldest racing car builder in the UK? Award yourself a holiday in Barbados if you said Crossle, the Northern Irish concern which goes back to 1957 and a Ford special built by racer John Crossle. Still operating from the same County Down premises, it now has a new owner, who liked racing the cars so much he bought the company.

It’s a dramatic contrast for Paul McMorran, who is switching from over 30 years as a global oil industry executive, most recently in Moscow, to running this tiny outfit. “First time I’ve worked in the UK since I was a student,” says the Belfast-born man. His fluent Russian may not help in the Holywell plant, but he recently achieved a Master’s degree in ‘consulting for change’. Does that mean a radical shake-up? Paul says he has considered many options, including electric cars, but he’ll be taking small steps.

“First I want to improve working conditions, starting with a simple workshop repaint! Patina’s all very well, but this is a working factory, not a museum.”

In fact Paul is himself preserving marque history with his own collection, including a lurid V8 sports car, gathered since he began historic racing. “And now my passion is becoming my profession.”

From Ford specials founder John Crossle expanded to Formula Junior and other singleseaters, but it was Formula Ford that made the firm’s name — during the 1970s if you wanted to win in FF1600, you wanted a Crossle. A string of championships boosted production to over 100 cars a year, with many going to racing schools, and names who steered Crossles to success include John Watson, Nigel Mansell and Eddie Irvine. And of course in the Sixties the firm produced the 9S, one of the prettiest sports racers to grace a grid — and they still build them. Today it’s mainly historic racing which sustains Crossle: “We make a small number of new cars,” says McMorran, an engineer by training, “but we also help look after many of the 1000 cars the firm has built so far.”

Along with spares and restoration, McMorran has a careful line to tread with the new ‘late run’ 9S cars, reintroduced by previous owner Arnie Black, another successful Crossle racer who took over the company in 1997.

“The HTP version [Historic Technical Passport, which allows identical replicas to race against originals] is indistinguishable from the original,” says McMorran, “but the chassis plates make it clear it’s a continuation car. There’s growing acceptance of new-build HTP cars in historic classes, but it’s always down to the organising club, and we respect that decision. We don’t want to devalue original cars.”

Meanwhile, for those who just like the looks of the 9S, there’s also a simplified version with Ford Zetec power which runs in its own series.

Paul points out that the 9S may be the only such car still built in the same factory, on the same jigs and by some of the same people, “and with the founder at our shoulder.” Though he retired in 1997, Dr John Crossle lives right alongside and pops in most mornings for coffee.

McMorran also inherits Crossle’s unlikely success story — its trials car. This spindly fourwheeled insect has slithered to copious sporting trials victories through the last 20 years, but “it’s a niche market,” McMorran admits. “I’m not sure about expansion, but maybe we can enhance performance and simplify production.”

Can he see the firm building new Formula Fords? “The motivation isn’t strong to go up against the big manufacturers,” he reckons. “We do get asked to build new ‘historic’ chassis, but I’m reluctant to do it. If we did we’d make it very clear what they were.”

Meantime, if you race a Crossle, look out for the boss alongside you on the grid. McMorran aims to keep racing amongst his customers.

“I don’t underestimate the weight on my shoulders,” the new MD concludes. “There’s a lot of pride in Northern Ireland about this name after 55 years.”