Old school new tech

by Web Editor on 22nd July 2019

Hidden away in the darkest Sussex, a competition car engineering company mixes the latest high technology with traditional principles and attitudes

The Bugatti Type 51 in all its glory. The cockpit features leather holders for spare spark plugs for the double overheads camshaft straight-eight engine.

Ollie Crosthwaite is pondering his pears. He’s worried that the heavy, late frost will have damaged the pear trees and the harvest will be much smaller than the bumper crop last year. And should they grub up the pear orchard, which sits next to the ramshackle collection of buildings that comprises Crosthwaite & Gardiner? If they did, then the company could have brand new premises to take them into the future. A future which is based firmly on the past. Because Crosthwaite & Gardiner is one of those British engineering companies that powers the historic racing and classic car markets. It’s not that well known generally because you don’t see its badge on highly polished bodywork. But the chances are that, under that long, gleaming bonnet, there is at least some contribution from C&G.

If you walk around their premises in East Sussex you’ll see all manner of parts being worked on for a variety of customers. A sump for a Bugatti Type 35, a differential case for an AC Cobra, main bearing end caps for an E-Type Jaguar, and a steering worm for a 1960s Ferrari. Ollie Crosthwaite picks up one of the steering worms and nods.

“These are variable pitch, very clever, very difficult to manufacture. We’re one of only two companies in the world that make them.”

The current premises, clearly bursting at the seams, hides behind ivy-covered walls and appears to be a farmhouse and outbuildings, giving the impression that you’ll find all manner of venerable machinery and archaic methods to make these old parts. Instead the latest toy is a 3D scanner, a vastly high-tech bit of kit that they use to analyse parts for reverse-engineering or to check on quality.

There are three CAD machines, car-sized milling machines and lathes amid the modern equipment and everywhere you go there are people earnestly looking at screens and discussing graphs, software and, occasionally, lumps of metal. But this is also a company true to its roots, where the engineers can create a new part from just an old, photocopied and out of scale drawing or even a sketch. It’s like intuitive engineering, and Crosthwaite & Gardiner is very good at it indeed.

A combination of old-school approach and new high tech tools and gadgets

The company was started in 1963 when Dick Crosthwaite – Ollie’s father – and John Gardiner got together to start a small engineering company to repair Bugattis. It was just the two of them but now the company has 33 staff, turns over several million pounds a year and has about 260 jobs going through at any one time.

Founder John Gardiner died in 2007 but co-founder Dick Crosthwaite is still very much involved while his son Ollie runs the company. Dick Crosthwaite was a big fan of Bugattis, and in fact bought his first Bugatti when he was 16, before he even had a driving licence. Which model was it, I ask?

He looks at me as if I’ve just asked how many wheels it had. “A Type 35,” he explains politely. He nods behind him, where a Type 35 is being restored. It’s his. It’s one of several on the premises, the others belonging to customers. The Type 35 was the most successful racing car that Bugatti ever made, with over 1,000 victories chalked up in its career, which began in the 1920s.

In fact Crosthwaite & Gardiner has the largest supply of Bugatti spare parts in the entire world. And it also has an even more special car than a Type 35, that sits under wraps in the assembly shop. It’s a Type 51.

“Lots of people buy a car and ask what it will be worth next year, which is the wrong thing. It should be you buy a car because you like it"

This was based on the Type 35 but the 2.3-litre supercharged straight-eight engine was fitted with double rather than single overhead camshafts. There were only about 30 ever made, so this is the rarest of the rare. This particular car’s history is just redolent of the period: it was owned by Count Stanislaus Czaykowski, and in his hands it won the Grand Prix of Casablanca in 1931.

It raced all over the world under various owners over the decades and was last seen on the track at the 75th Goodwood Members’ Meeting in 2017. It’s incredibly original, still with the engine, bodywork, gearbox and more that it left the factory with. The owner, who lives in California, has based the car here, being restored and then occasionally raced, since the 1960s. He has now called it home.

With a value of maybe £3.5m (€4m), this Type 51 is living proof of how the market for classic and historic racing cars has heated up enormously since the financial crash of 2008. Right beside the Bugatti are two Coventry Climax engines ready to go to customers literally the other side of the world, both to slot into classic racers, one of them a 1958 Lotus 15.

Ancient and modern. The workshops are a mix of high-tech equipment, classic knowledge and skills drawn from decades of experience.

Ollie Crosthwaite diplomatically describes the historic racing scene these days as “a lot more professional than it was. Twenty years ago owners would tow their cars to the circuit. Now the car lives with a team that transports the car around the world, it’s prepared, the owner flies in, races and flies out again.”

This vast increase in budget isn’t always welcome, as he continues. “I’ve just done a load of spare engines for someone and they get put in crates and I suspect they’ll never come out of the crates. If that was all we were doing I’d be very dispirited.

“But most of the time everything we do gets used. We take on a lot of students and they’ll reverse- engineer a part – that is, work out how it was made originally – then they’ll design something, and will see it through to production. Often there will then be a race meeting and they’ll go and see that in action.”

That positive outcome isn’t always the case for classic road cars. Dick Crosthwaite grunts. “The markets have changed. The cars are going to the wrong people for the wrong reasons.”

His son Ollie nods agreement. “Lots of people buy a car and ask what it will be worth next year, which is the wrong thing. It should be you buy a car because you like it and it would be nice if you didn’t lose any money on it.”

But, whatever their views, Crosthwaite & Gardiner continues to make everything to the highest standards possible, whether the part or the vehicle will be raced to its limits or stored in an air-conditioned and humidity- controlled secure location for the next decade.

Ollie Crosthwaite is quite clear about what the company does. “Our customers come to us for our attention to detail and it has to be right, perfect, that’s what you have to do. For a one-off that’s really hard and really expensive but it’s all about doing the right thing. We’ve always done it properly.

“We always try to remove errors in original designs, making parts stronger, longer-lasting, but we’re very careful. When we had the tail section of the T51 repainted we got it back and it was perfect. Too perfect. You couldn’t see the rivets and the odd dimple in the metal, it was just totally smooth. So we had it redone, even though the restorer doing it hated having to paint a job that looked less than flawless. We paid half the bill with the client to have it done again because we felt it had to be true to the original.

“If something was originally made as a casting, we’ll make a casting. Some people will look at that part then hew it out of solid billet and bead-blast it to make it look older. That’s really easy to do but for us it’s all about integrity and originality and that’s the route you have to go down.”

Ollie and Dick Crosthwaite in their works dining room, designed as a homage to a French bistro- possibly at Le Mans

Which is why major manufacturers come to Crosthwaite & Gardiner. Right now Jaguar and Audi are two of the biggest customers. The market for older cars has become so valuable that even manufacturers are making limited-edition runs of older cars, like Jaguar’s ‘continuation’ E-Type and XKSS models. Ollie Crosthwaite is tight-lipped about the tie-up between the two but it’s common knowledge that the engines are made at Crosthwaite & Gardiner.

Another client is Audi, with its heritage collection of pre-WW2 Auto Union racing cars. Again, the English company is heavily involved. Crosthwaite & Gardiner was tasked with building working replicas of these complex and magnificent racers, but Audi’s engineers insisted on building the complicated V16 crankshafts themselves. When the Audi crankshafts were delivered to Crosthwaite & Gardiner they were rejected as not being good enough.

Every engine is hand-assembled by one man. He ‘owns’ that engine for its entire assembly. We watch as Hugh checks the nuts on the cylinder head of a customer’s Jaguar E-Type. To assemble this engine will take him three weeks.

That’s the standard that Crosthwaite & Gardiner rises to every time and it’s why the small English company has an order book continuously filled by customers from all over the globe. The future, based on remanufacturing the past, looks assured, and the only decision is whether to tear up the pear orchard and build again or whether to stay where they are. Well, there’s one more decision.

Succession planning is in its early stages, but Ollie’s daughter is showing signs of interest in the cars and the company. “She definitely likes cars,” claims Ollie. How old is she?

“She’s one. But,” he adds hastily, “at the nursery she’s at, there is a toy car you can get in and steer, and nursery staff tell me she’s the only one who can get in it and steer it and who understands all that. She does like cars, it is a possibility.”

Maybe there will be a third generation of Crosthwaites at the helm of Crosthwaite & Gardiner. Although we don’t know if she likes pears or not.

This article first appeared in Watermark, Issue 21


December 2019
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