Belfast Telegraph

John Crossle: Ulster racing car designer who created legendary marque out of sheer necessity dies at 82

By Sammy Hamill

Back in 1957 the racing car of choice for aspiring young drivers was a Colin Chapman-designed Lotus MkVI, but for John Crossle the price was too high.

Instead he bought an old Ford 10 van and started to turn it into a racing car, a Ford Special.

That work in a turkey shed began a career which would see Crossle cars race all over the world. They played a significant role in the early careers of Formula 1 drivers like Nigel Mansell, Eddie Irvine and John Watson.

They are also associated with celebrities such as Tom Cruise and Al Pacino.

Mr Crossle died on Sunday aged 82, but his name will live on through his company.

Crossle was born in Scotland but came to Northern Ireland when he was just a few months old and stayed to found the longest surviving custom racing car company in the world.

He stepped down from running it in 1997, handing over to one of its most devoted customers, Arnie Black.

It was subsequently bought 18 months ago by another enthusiast, oil company executive Paul McMorran.

Production and maintenance of Crossle cars continues from its original base at Rory's Wood on the outskirts of Holywood which has also been the home of John and his family since 1960.

From there more than 1000 cars were designed, constructed and sold, mainly Formula Fords but also the S group of sports racing cars.

They have been among the most successful custom cars ever built, winning championships worldwide including the European Formula Ford series in 1969 with Scot Gerry Birrell at the wheel of an F16.

It all stemmed from a motorcycle grasstrack champion's desire to go racing on four wheels rather than two.

"I wasn't sure that I was talented enough or stupid enough to race a motorcycle between trees and stone walls, so I went with cars," he once explained.

He couldn't afford the cost of a Chapman Lotus, so he built his own, a Mk1 Ford Special, winning his first race at Ards airfield in 1958.

It was soon replaced with a Mk2 version and when he was asked to build one for an English RAF officer based at Aldergrove he inadvertently became "a manufacturer".

Crossle was a talented driver, winning three championships in a row with his self-built cars, but gradually the demand to build cars for customers took over and with the introduction of a new Formula Ford class in the late '60s the business took off.

Soon a string of cars was emerging from scenic Rory's Wood to be driven by local champions like Tommy Reid and Brian Nelson but many were bound for Europe or the United States, even Australia.

Birrell's European success provided a springboard, prompting orders for 40 cars in the immediate aftermath.

Crossle would point to a driver called Roger Barr winning the SCCA Formula B title in America in 1968 with a 12F as a defining moment.

"That opened things up in the US, which became a hugely important market for us," he would later say.

Built by a small, dedicated workforce, which included Crossle's fellow engineer Leslie Drysdale, they were strong, robust and fast and became the choice of many racing schools, helping to launch the careers of a host of drivers from Mansell and Watson to Eddie Jordan, Martin Donnelly and Irvine. Even in his supposed retirement John Crossle's fertile mind continued to wrestle with engineering problems and instead of racing cars he started to design and build specialist sporting trial cars. They, too, have been highly successful.

His story is told in a new book, Hidden Glory, which is due to be launched next week.

Author Plum Tyndall says Crossle had the opportunity to read the book and gave it his approval.

"It was written with the full co-operation of John and his wife Rosemary and I'm glad to say they were happy with it," says motorsport television producer Tyndall.

"It really is a remarkable story – the young Co Down farmer who built his first car in a turkey shed and went on to become one of the most respected racing car designers in the world.

"His cars were driven by at least 15 grand prix drivers in their early days, not to mention the likes of Tom Cruise and Al Pacino."

A quiet, private person, something of an eccentric genius, he remained the epitome of a country gentleman, albeit one who didn't mind getting his hands dirty.

To his devoted wife Rosemary, who played such a huge part in the success of the company, son Henry and daughter Caroline, still a director of the company, John Crossle was a man apart.

Belfast Telegraph

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