On motor sport's front line

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As the Second World War ended, so motor racing could start up again, with RAF pilot Tony Crook among its early pioneers
By Martin Gurdon

Childhood wishes drew Tony Crook to motor racing, and eventually made him decide to leave it. Until recently best known as the man behind Bristol Cars, Crook had a distinguished record in early post-war motor sport. From 1946 to ’55 he competed on equal terms with the likes of Stirling Moss, Roy Salvadori and Tony Rolt in some 400 sprints, hillclimbs and circuit races (including many F2 and F1 drives), winning or being placed in over 370 starts.

Now 88, Crook’s recollections are considered, thoughtful and often very funny. But there is a subject which might be described as ‘the elephant in the room’ – his recent departure from Bristol Cars. It’s been acrimonious, but for legal reasons nobody will say why. So let’s stick with Crook’s racing story, which began in tragic circumstances when he was six.

His father, a Lancastrian colliery proprietor, died during the General Strike in 1926. “They didn’t want to tell me Dad had died, so a housemaid took me to Southport Sands where there was motor racing. I knew then I would be a racing driver.” As a schoolboy at Clifton Collage he acquired an MG PA, which he supercharged and then drove wearing a false moustache – something that didn’t prevent detection and a beating.

He saw war service with the RAF, but maintained his automotive passion: “I bought a 2.9-litre Alfa from a pre-war racing driver called Robert Arbuthnot, who had a place called High Speed Motors in Lancaster Gate. He said, ‘I get paid for racing out of the motor business’. I nearly went into business with him.”

Together with the short-wheelbase supercharged Alfa, Crook also acquired a 1938 Frazer Nash BMW 328. By then he was stationed in Lincolnshire, within striking distance of Raymond Mays. “I wrote and asked, ‘how do I become a racing driver?’ Then I visited him in the 328 and he said, ‘you’ve got enormous potential’, so that was that.” Hence in 1944, while still serving in the RAF, Crook became a partner in Mays’ nascent racing operation.

His first official drive for Mays in the 328 was in an event held at a London building site in 1945, billed as the ‘Cockfosters Rally’ or ‘Cockfosters GP’. “Motor Sport said, ‘Flight Lieutenant Crook did the best run yet, including a marvellous demonstration of how to change from first to second at speed.’ That was left lying around in the squadron officer’s mess. The one person who saw it laughed out loud – that was our intelligence officer, Michael Bentine.”

The field included Lord Brabazon of Tara in his Fiat 1100 Special, Gordon Sutherland in the prototype Aston-Martin Atom, John Bolster in ‘Bloody Mary’, Reg Parnell, John Wyer and H J Aldington in a Frazer Nash.

Crook and his 328 then won Britain’s first post-war circuit race in June 1946 at Gransden Lodge, a redundant bomber base in Bedfordshire, where a near-triangular circuit had been set out. Each race was limited to three laps, but Crook had mapped out the circuit and practiced at the airfield where he was stationed. “There’s only one other person left who drove there – my mate Roy Salvadori. He had a single-seat MG R Type. That’s where we met.”

Motor racing opportunities were scarce in the ’40s. “There wasn’t much until 1948 when Silverstone and Goodwood opened,” recalls Crook. There were some sprints, however. “At Prescott, Mays entered me in the 328. He raced the ERA [R4D] and there were lots of pre-war drivers whom I was a bit frightened of. I was nearly fastest in practice, but at the start I overdid it and bashed in the front corner. It rained and I only came second.

“For Shelsley and Prescott we’d stay in Broadway, Worcestershire in an old hotel with a big yard. We raised the ERA on jacks to warm the transmission and there were complaints about the noise. A local bobby came up and said, ‘why don’t you run it up Fish Hill?’ So we did. It’s a big, twisting hill. I had no licence, no plates, nothing. I was probably the only bloke to drive the ERA on the open road.”

Like many drivers of his generation, Crook took every chance to compete. But by 1946 he had left Mays – “he was far too famous and busy to prepare my cars” – and started his own motor dealing business in Caterham, Surrey close to Kenley aerodrome where the exotic machines which passed through his hands could be tested.

“I entered the first race at Goodwood. At the time I had two lovely pre-war Dunlop racing tyres in their packets. Alfred Moss came along with his 17-year-old son, Stirling. He had a 328 too, and had started racing the year after me. Moss Major said, ‘I hear you have a couple of tyres. Stirling is short of a tyre on his 328.’”

Initially reluctant to sell, Crook asked for £5 but settled for £3. “I put retreads on my 328 thinking ‘that will do for Goodwood’. I was leading until I got a slow puncture and finished second, otherwise I’d have won £5. That was when I learned how to lose money in motor racing – and in the end Stirling didn’t even drive the BMW, he appeared in a Cooper.”

In early ’50s Crook drove for Frazer Nash. “The parties were crazy. At Monaco in 1952 I finished third. On the trackside was a huge model of a Nardi steering wheel. People said, ‘that would look nice in the reception area at Caterham.’” Two of his mechanics appropriated it, and Crook went from party to party with his illicit prize. “One nightclub ‘hat check’ gave me a ticket for it. By then the police had started looking for the wheel. They chased me all over Monaco.”

When he was arrested the following morning at the Hotel de Paris, the wheel was already on a Frazer Nash transporter heading for the UK. Crook had rowed with Colonel Aldington over prize money, so: “I told them Aldington had it, and he was arrested at Dover. He got off as usual, and the wheel appeared at Caterham.”

In 1951 Crook and Salvadori both piloted Frazer Nash Le Mans Replicas. They entered a production sports car race at Silverstone that May, where Salvadori crashed at Stowe corner. “I was behind him when he had this appalling accident, turning over and over. I was so worried I slowed down, then pulled myself together and won.”

Salvadori was taken to hospital with head injuries and given the last rites. “They thought he would die, but in a week he was sitting up in bed saying, ‘have you rebuilt the Frazer Nash?’”

By 1952 the man he cheerfully calls ‘Salvadozi’ was driving for Maserati and Crook was piloting single-seater Cooper-Bristols, but the pair’s rivalry continued: “The racing between me and Salvadori was a highlight of the time.”

A sense of mischief pervades many of Crook’s recollections. When a dignitary such as the Duke of York dropped the chequered flag at Silverstone, Crook noticed that the timekeeper A V Ebblewhite would tap the Royal shoulder fractionally beforehand. “I’d go when I saw ‘the shoulder’, but I came unstuck. People stood outside the pits and I ran over the foot of a Daily Express reporter. I got nothing from the Express for a long time after that.”

Crook also “played a small part” in helping to establish Mike Hawthorn, having persuaded a sponsor, Esso, to back him. “In 1951 he was driving a very fast Riley at Goodwood. We were equal on points, but he had a handicap of 12 seconds on a five-lap race. He won by a single point. Naughtily, he’d run the car on dope. His dad had been a motorcycle racer and got a brew of methanol. Afterwards I said, ‘Well done, Mike. What a funny smell.’ He just looked at me.”

As one of the generation who saw active service, Crook concedes there was a devil-may-care attitude among many of the early post-war drivers, and he witnessed some grisly accidents. “At Blandford Camp (an army camp set up as a road circuit), I drove the 328 and a Veritas for Ecurie Belge. Two people were killed there, one in a 328, and I remember passing the guard house with a Cooper on its roof.”

Crook survived being struck in the face by a shard of tyre in the course of setting a 200-mile, 120mph, 2-litre endurance record with a Frazer Nash Le Mans Replica at Montlhéry in 1951. “I was knocked out by a cabbage in an F1 race at Snetterton,” he says with some pride. “Along with Moss and Peter Whitehead, I was piloting a 180bhp Alta with Cooper chassis. The other two had trouble with the things blowing up. The brake pedal was attached to the bell housing, and the whole thing blew on my car, so I had no brakes. I hit an ice-cream wagon, then I was in this field of cabbages. George Abecassis said I was doing about 140, and the cabbages were slowing me down, but then one of them hit me.”

It was a late-night smash at Goodwood in 1955, though, that led to Crook retiring from racing. Driving a Cooper he was, “roaring down Woodcote. Ken Wharton’s Ferrari had dropped oil on the track. I came out of the chicane, hit the oil, turned round and was hit by Stirling. Up in the air I went, and I was bloody lucky. I could have been crushed.”

Suffering severe concussion, he was taken to Chichester Hospital where he came to 24 hours later. “It was a nasty business because a friend, Mike Keen, was killed in the same race.” Crook recalls this being discussed and hearing someone say, “there’s another bugger down there, he’ll be off in a minute”. It was at this point he realised he was the topic of conversation.

Surrounded by flowers from Moss, Crook was visited by his 10-year-old daughter: “She arrived with a small model coffin and said, ‘this will do for you’. I pressed it and a body came out. I got the message – that was the end of my racing.”

He smiles at the recollection. Fifty-three years on, Crook has no regrets about the childhood ambition which brought him to motor racing, nor the one which persuaded him to leave it.

Bristol passion
Tony Crook will be forever associated with Bristol Cars

As salesmen go, Tony Crook never was a swaggering self-promoter. As the public face of Bristol Cars, he generally kept the media at arm’s length and would be the first to phone and chastise you if you’d had the temerity to criticise his wares in print. But to most sectors of motoring hackery, Crook remains much-loved and admired, not least for his unswerving loyalty to the marque with which he is inextricably linked.

A singularly British breed, Bristol nonetheless has German genes. In 1946 the Bristol Aeroplane Company sought to diversify into car production and in conjunction with AFN – makers of Frazer Nash cars – it obtained the rights to BMW’s proven 328 engine as war reparations. In a remarkably short period of time the firm produced the 400 saloon which married aerodynamic efficiency with high standards of refinement for the day. It even went as far as to instigate a competition programme, the highlight being class honours at Le Mans in 1954-55. All subsequent models would use the Bavarian-sourced straight-six unit until 1961, when Chrysler V8s took precedence. A year earlier, Crook and Sir George White had assumed control and began operating under the Bristol Cars Ltd banner, the latter selling his stake to his partner in 1973.

Already the concessionaire for Abarth and Zagato, Crook ploughed his own singular furrow, all Bristols being impervious to fashion for the simple reason that they’ve never been in fashion. With no dealer network to speak of, customers dealt directly with the factory – and by default Crook – with precise production figures being a mystery. In 2001 Crook sold out to Toby Silverton but stayed on board as frontman as the extraordinary new Fighter model was readied. A recent – and very acrimonious – split saw him leave the firm to which he’d given so much. RH

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