John Crosslé – obituary

The founder of the world’s longest-established racing car-building firm died on August 31. He was 83. The Scotland-born, County Tyrone-raised farmer turned car builder initially found fame on two wheels.

He won the 1953-55 Ulster 350cc grass track Championship and 1954 500cc series before fashioning his first ‘special’ in 1957. Crosslé claimed his first win at the Newtownards Airport circuit in March of the following year.

By his own admission, Crosslé became a car manufacturer as much by happenstance as planning. The MkI led to the MkII, which made its first on-track appearance in late ’58, with Englishman Bob Allen requesting a replica.

The Crosslé Car Company still operates out of a former laundry building next door to the family home, Rory’s Wood in Holywood, County Down. When Crosslé moved there in late 1960, there was no water or electricity.

By the end of the decade, the marque was an international player.

A raft of designs emerged during this period, and Crosslé products really were engineered. There were no chalk marks on the floor, here. The firm produced cars that competed in categories as diverse as Formula Junior and F5000. The Stateside market became particularly important, Roger Barr’s 1968 SCCA Formula B title boosting the marque’s profile in North America. Of perhaps greater importance long-term, however, was Gerry Birrell’s ’69 European Formula Ford title with the 16F: it was the first of countless successes in the category, with the likes of Nigel Mansell, Derek Daly and Jan Lammers savouring glory in Crosslé FF1600 cars on their way to the big time. The 1970s was unquestionably the firm’s most profitable decade, Crosslé also supplying cars to many of the world’s racing schools.

The 1980s, however, weren’t so kind. Leslie Drysdale, who had joined the firm in 1965 and over time had greater influence on car design, left to form rival constructor Mondiale in late 1983. Crosslé regrouped but, by the dawn of the ’90s, the single-seater adventure was over. The firm changed tack, Crosslé returning to his off-road roots and conceiving a revolutionary trials car, the 80T. The firm that bore his name was sold to Arnie Black in 1997. The former FF2000 champion did much to foster the reborn 9S sports-racer in Europe and beyond before passing the baton to Paul McMorran in 2012.

Crosslé was awarded an MBE in 2013. Unfailingly modest, his contribution to the careers of many well-known drivers cannot be overestimated. Richard Heseltine