Fast Crossleys

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Military vehicles brought this Manchester marque to the fore – but it possessed a sporting side too

The Society of Automotive Historians, in its elegant Aspects of Motoring History, has a very interesting and detailed article by John Warburton about the 20/25 Crossleys, with many excellent pictures of them serving in WWI, and the Crossley Register’s newsletter provides much about this make. 

Sturdy, well-made Crossleys served with distinction during World War One, particularly with the Royal Flying Corps. But the marque’s catalogue of 1913 had included a ‘Shelsley’ model of its popular 20/25 car, named after the famous speed hillclimb where they had performed well. And after the war it introduced the four-cylinder side-valve 3817cc (80x150mm) 20/70, which in sports form had a 10ft 4in wheelbase, 120×880 tyres and a 3.3:1 axle ratio. It was priced at £875, reduced later to £860. A 3-litre Bentley cost £265 more, albeit with a more complicated overhead-camshaft engine, which might have turned customers towards the Crossley. 

Leon Cushman, whose successes with a Brescia Bugatti included a notable victory at Boulogne, switched to a Crossley after one race in 1924 and obtained very satisfactory results, presumably as a works driver, with the 20/70 in four-seater form. It was said that he used two identical cars, but as I do not possess the relevant entry forms with the engine and chassis numbers, it is impossible to tell which was which. They were painted light blue with black wheels and completely stripped of road equipment.

Cushman was ready for the Whitsun Brooklands meeting, at which the cautious Mr Ebblewhite handicapped him to start just 7sec ahead of the scratch 4½-litre racing Sunbeam. The Crossley lapped at 72.39mph but was unplaced in the 75mph Short Handicap (5¾ miles) and Cushman withdrew from the next race.

He was out again at the BARC’s July meeting, where he increased his lap speed to 86.46mph but was once again unplaced. He won the 90 Short, however, the Crossley setting its fastest lap to date: 91.38mph.

Cushman raced the Crossley, now fitted with a 3750cc (89.5x149mm) engine, in 1925, too. He scored a third in the 90 Short at the Easter Monday Meeting, but his big breakthrough came at the Whitsun Meeting: he won the 75 Short at 81.81mph, with a best lap of 89.09mph, and finished second in both the 90 Short – unable to beat Felix Scriven’s special 3.1-litre Austin 20 despite lapping at 91.05mph – and the 75 Long handicap.

More success followed at the Midsummer Meeting: a victory in the 75 Short at 86.88mph, with a fastest lap of 92.93mph, and a third behind a 30/98 Vauxhall and racing Austro-Daimler in the 90 Short, lapping at 98.43mph.

Improved water circulation in its cylinder head helped push the Crossley beyond the 100mph mark at the August Bank Holiday Meeting, where the four-seater from Gorton circulated at 100.01mph – faster than Woolf Barnato’s eight-cylinder Bugatti – to win the 100 Short at 92.5mph. In the President’s Gold Cup race, however, the Crossley was not only on scratch but was docked 15sec from its original handicap. It failed to achieve a place but produced laps of 100.61mph and 100.64mph.

It went faster still at the Autumn Meeting, recording a career-best 102.69mph in finishing second in the 100 Long. All this success put Cushman an impressive, albeit distant, second on points to Parry Thomas in the Hartford Cup.

The irrepressible Leon ended the year in style by recording new Class C records for the standing- and flying-start kilometre and mile and FS five and 10km, the 22cwt four-seater clocking 103.42mph for the two-way flying kilometre.

Motor Sport managed a 500-mile road test of a Sports 20/70 (NE 820) in 1925, the driver being Richard Twelvetrees, the then-Editor. Although a picture was captioned “snapped at the beginning of the speed tests”, the actual speed and acceleration figures were not quoted, but Twelvetrees did refer to a 75mph guarantee at Brooklands. He was full of praise for the docility and smoothness of the engine, which used aluminium pistons designed to eliminate slap at all speeds, tulip valves, enlarged ports, lightened reciprocating components and slightly altered valve timing – but still with a single carburettor. Apart from these items there seems to be nothing that accounts for the remarkable performance. The car was still found to be user-friendly in London’s rush hour. The right-hand gearlever of the four-speed gearbox was somewhat difficult at first, but the gears were of generous proportions. It had a heavy clutch action too, unless the stop was adjusted, after which an easy change was available to suit individual requirements. The Perrot front-wheel brakes were efficient on a 1-in-3½ hill, upon which the Crossley made an efficient restart. Petrol and oil consumption were simply quoted as “economical”. 

“It is one of the most attractive vehicles I have handled,” wrote Twelvetrees. “It looks as if the designers had set out to produce a specially satisfactory touring model which was capable of an incredible speed.”

Fine cars, those Crossleys.