Crosthwaite & Gardiner

The classic restorers

In a new series, Gordon Cruickshank visits some of Britain’s finest specialist restoration preparation and manufacturing companies to find out why British craftsmen continue to lead the world in the most exacting industry. This month: How to build an auto union

It’s called Hogge’s Farm, but there’s nothing agricultural about this place. It would not be an exaggeration to describe this modest, anonymous establishment, unobtrusively sited in a Sussex hamlet, as an international centre of excellence. Behind a tall flint wall softened by ivy is the firm of Crosthwaite & Gardiner, restorers and makers of historic racing cars.

They’ve been in business together for 40 years, the two principals: Dick Crosthwaite, dapper in his blue coat, and John Gardiner, always sporting a flower in his shirt pocket. Both are skilled engineers, though Dick tends to deal with customers and commercejohn with solving impossible technical questions. They teamed up in 1963, sharing an interest in repairing Bugattis, and they haven’t changed course since. They still do Bugattis, but their record is rather more extensive now: they can rebuild a twin-crank H16 (Bugatti or Maserati), a flat-12 Ferrari, a Vanwall, a V12 Delahaye or a Mercedes W163. And more than that, they can make from scratch any part for any racing car; from which it follows that they can build a whole new vehicle. If you saw the quartet of Auto Unions at Goodwood, you’ve seen what they can do, for three of those were brand-new. C&G made everything bar the spark plugs and the tyres. What’s more, they had very few working drawings: these chaps are intuitive engineers. With a broken part, or even a photograph as a guide, they can think their way to the same solution as the man who first made it.

The small tidy yard disguises its business well: to the left a row of garage doors conceals painting bays; beyond, invisible until entered, a smart office with black slate floor, desks covered with drawings, shelves carrying car models, a Manx Norton motorbike in the lobby. The offices connect to Dick’s striking modern house behind; John lives in a nearby village. Ahead, the corners of two pitched roof buildings are so close you can hardly see their extent. “This is the machine shop,” says John Gardiner unexpectedly, leading the way into the larger one. Inside, rural Sussex evaporates in the face of factory-scale machinery: small, recognisable devices — grinding wheels and drills — are dwarfed by units the size of Transit vans. Computercontrolled milling machines and enormous lathes enclosed in safety casings are turning huge steel blanks into glinting crankshafts and supercharger rotors; vast borers poke holes through cylinder blocks like hunks of cheese. The half-finished results, which seem so priceless in the paddock, cluster in corners — two Maserati Birdcage blocks, dog-toothed type 59 wheel rims, Auto Union supercharger casings you could drop a football into.

It becomes clear that this is more of a manufactury than a restoration shop. As if stage-managed to make the point, we stand back to allow a delivery of steel stock to pass. Gardiner nods to the bars with satisfaction. “That’s us. We take in raw material, we send out finished parts.” Best-seller lines include Maserati 250F brake drums (Gardiner doubts whether there is one racing which is not fitted with their units), alloy XK engine blocks, wide-angle D-type heads, 58mm Weber carbs and entire Coventry Climax FPF engines. “Can’t make them fast enough,” says Gardiner. Both men are entirely unabashed over this prolific copying. “Climax don’t make them any more, so it’s not ‘passing off’. If we stopped, so would much of the racing.” Do they identify their stuff, like Cameron Millar’s 250Fs? “No, we just leave the number space blank.”

“And this is our gear-cutting section.” Straight-cut or helical, they’ll tadde anything, in any quantity. The proof is three crates of gears for Bentley D ‘boxes — with minor tweaks which apparently ease the action — not made to order, but on spec. “Someone will buy them eventually. We used to try pre-booking, but it always fell apart. Our fast pattern was for Bugatti alloy wheels: we sold one set. So now we just make anything we fancy. We did a mag-alloy duff casing for someone’s E-type, then we made ten more on a whim. They’re nearly all sold already. Of course, we’ve done a few stupid ones too, which nobody wants.”

Isn’t this the expensive way to do things?

“Oh, yes,” John replies with unconcern. “Reckon the Climax engine patterns have cost us… £30,000?” He turns to Dick. “And the rest,” says his partner, grinning. Sometimes the team has only a 50-year-old cutaway drawing to show them what they’re building. It doesn’t frighten them. While clearly proud of the work, John is impatient if you’re too reverential. There is no sense of awe in this place about recreating these ancient mysteries. It’s just about bits of metal, and if a man worked out how to make it in 1936, a man can do it again in 2000. In this case, that man is usually John Gardiner, and as long as he has some indication of how the outside of any park should look and what is happening inside, he’ll create it. And he won’t use a clever modern alternative; it has to be done in the same way, mindful of the tools available then. Perhaps a minor strengthening here and there to a known weak point, but that’s it.

Another shelf is covered in circular platesized blanks, which a machinist is steadily shaping into webs for a V16 Auto Union’s built-up roller-bearing crankshaft. The final unit contains some 700 components, and makes Bugatti’s famous roller crank look simple. And they had to work out the assembly order as they went along. Yet the later V12 crank actually features even more parts — 1111, according to Gardiner’s personal count. It was C&G’s work on Neil Corner’s V12 which led to Paul and Barbara Karassik bringing the remains they had rescued from the USSR to Sussex for reassembly. The resulting two V12s made such an impact that Audi wanted to buy one, but couldn’t agree on a price. So C&G simply offered to build some. Four were built, all V16s, and now they are working on a 1934-specification A-type. They’d rather make than mend, so nowadays they leave race preparation to others. It’s certainly not for any lack of confidence. The Sussex firm got the Napier-Railton racing again in the 1960s, assembled Main de Cadenet’s 1970s Le Mans efforts, and ran Amschel Rothschild’s very successful BRM P25 in the 1980s.

“It’s no loss to us. That stuff is just so expensive and disruptive. You can’t charge enough to cover the long hours, lost weekends and the absence of good men from the shop. When we used to do Pat Lindsay’s ERA, there were four or five races a season. Now it’s off the clock, and we leave it alone… though we have sent someone to the Monaco histories this weekend.”

We pass under half a racing car nailed to a wall — the firm’s three-dimensional logo — and through an ivy-clad brick archway. The upper floor, clad in rustic timber boarding, contains the engine shop; the lower, the assembly shop and a 1000bhp dyno. In the distance, a Birdcage Maserati on stands, alongside two Bugattis.

Are there any original parts in those T35s? Gardiner shrugs. “We were given a collection of bits.” I tell him of the letterlenks sent me when I joined this magazine, which said “All Bugattis are fakes unless DSJ says otherwise.” He laughs. “Jenks used to come here a lot,” he recalls, “but the visits tailed off when we began to make new things.”

A Lancia Lambda in pieces is an increasingly rare straightforward restoration job; next to it, the carcass of yet another Lightweight E-type, and a D monocoque. And there’s another Bugatti here, a Type 52; that’s the miniature electric child’s car. Is this another restoration? “No, we make those. We’ve probably turned out 40 or 50 so far.” It’s not their only model; for a while they produced a lovely large-scale Alfetta 158, and a 14in petrol-powered 250F. But when Dick adds that they stopped “because it takes up a skilled man’s time” you realise that this firm is simply unable to do anything by halves. There’s even a C&G bicycle in the office. It’s a slender track bike carrying Maserati tridents cast into the fork crowns. “We had half-adozen made.” Why? “It just seemed a nice idea.” Like the transporter which Dick’s son Oliver is building to carry his Coopers to the races. Outside, a mild-mannered Thirties Citroen truck; within, a 3.8-litre Jaguar engine. But like all internal projects, it’s not top of the priority list. Dick points ruefully to a 3-litre Bentley in the corner. “I’ve had that since 1960 and! only finished it this year.”

Near the entrance to the assembly shop are the twin tubes of a pre-war chassis design. Soon it will become another Auto Union, this one for static exhibition in the museum. This explains the 16-cylinder block I saw mounted on a huge horizontal borer. But it’s not just machining: the ancilliary skills available in this place are endless. I’m shown a beautifully turned wooden pattern for forming a leather cone into an Auto-Union u/j cover; and how they machine and mould rubber cush-drives for a Ferrari; if you bring them a rare and ruined distributor, they can cast up another in resin with all its brass inserts. They evolve and grind their own camshafts; they even make their own fasteners. The 26 people who work here surely possess all the skills the automotive industry has accumulated in a century; and as we pass, they all smile. Either my hair is sticking up absurdly, or they like working here.

I ask about new materials. “There aren’t any,” says Gardiner firmly. “Not in the things we do. The only real improvements are in quality control and heat-treatment. In fact we buy some material for Bugattis from the same supplier they used in the 1920s.”

What has changed is the sophistication of the tools. Once setup, a computer multi-axis milling machine can shape, spin and shape again as often as wanted. Making raw castings, on the other hand, hasn’t changed in years.

“We have two local pattern makers, and we keep them flat out. They don’t use many drawings, just their eyes. Then we have three casting foundries, depending on the material, who know how to do it the old way, not with modem resin sand. In fact we do a lot of things ourselves simply because outside firms won’t believe how we want it done.” With no records of how it was cast, the AU’s one-piece crankcase and cylinder block produced the intellectual challenge of visualising how to interlock all the cores to produce the final pattern. In the end it took 35 separate handmade cores to leave the requisite complex hole in the casting sand. “But,” Gardiner says, “if it goes well, seeing even those being cast is an anti-climax. We needed eight people to tip the crucibles of molten alloy, a quarter of a ton of it, into this six-foot long mould, yet it was all over in 15 seconds.”

Only bodywork is entrusted to outsiders. Rod Jolley’s skills are nearby, and lately Keith Roach has excelled with the stunning panels of the streamlined Auto-Union. But everything comes back to Hogge’s Farm for assembly and painting, to a standard which brings Ralph Lauren as a client for the awesomely perfect cars he sends to Pebble Beach.

They are, they claim, never quiet, even though they restrict themselves to cars. Surely they could take on all sorts of specialist manufacture? “Oh,” says John dismissively, “we’ve done a bit of precision surgical stuff,” but you can tell that Wit doesn’t burn petrol, he’s not interested. Between the big jobs they turn out the “just in case” stuff which will save someone’s bacon in a year or two, like the pile of AC Aceca brakes propped against a crate of Climax cam-covers. But it is clearly anything new and difficult they relish most, and they don’t just sit back and wait for suggestions. It was C&G who went to Audi about the Auto Unions, not the other way round, and Dick claims he quoted an unrealistically low price because they were dying to build the cars. Having heard the figure and seen the publicity generated, I think Audi got a bargain. Currently Ingolstadt is under seige again: Crosthwaite is desperate to build the three-seater V16 coupe which was rumoured before the war.

He muses: “I’m amazed some firm hasn’t seen the Auto Unions and asked us to build something for them. There must be someone out there who wants something daft that we could build them.” In fact he has himself spotted a forthcoming centenary for a major car company, and he knows that some of its heritage is missing. He wants to plug that gap. Are there any drawings? “Hardly any, I believe,” says Dick with satisfaction.

I’d love to be in that firm’s boardroom when Mr Crosthwaite comes to call.