LONG BEFORE THE NAME OF CROSSLEY of Manchester appeared on a motor car, the company was famous for its gas engines. Little known today is the fact that it was the Crossley brothers that were the first engineers in Britain to build four-stroke internal combustion units, under licence from Otto & Langen of Deutz in the early 1860s.
The Crossley brothers engineering reputation was so high that, when the motor agents Charles Jarrott
and William Letts were looking for a company to produce a quality British car that they could sell alongside imported Oldsmobiles and De Dietrichs, Crossley was their natural choice.
Not that there was much British about the original Crossley car, designed by J. S. Critchley (formerly with Daimler), as it was largely assembled from imported components; chassis frames came from Belgium, the carburettor was a French-built Xenia automatic, and there were even suggestions that the four-cylinder, 24 hp power unit was an imported Mutel, also used in the Feltham-built Meteor, which used a gearbox-with a bevel pinion at the end of both gear shafts - similar to that of the Crossley.
By coincidence both cars made their debut at the February 1904 Crystal Palace Motor Show but, while the Meteor only lasted a year on the market, the Crossley, assembled car or not, had soon attracted the attention of connoisseurs. That most discerning of early motoring journalists, Filson Young, wrote in 1904 that the 22/28 hp Crossley was 'a real modern road carriage, complete and compact, with every small detail carefully thought out, with every possible trouble apparently provided for, the convenience of the driver studied and the comfort of the passengers secured'.
Though the car enjoyed such critical acclaim from the start, its makers kept this side of the business quite separate from the gas engines; and in 1909 car manufacture was transferred to a new company, Crossley Motors Limited, based at Gorton, Manchester. Crossley cars soon gained a reputation for quiet running - 'can hardly be distinguished from an electric in point of silence', commented Filson Young - and for 1906 the company announced a new 40 hp model, with a 121 x 152 mm four-cylinder-engine, designed by Critchley's successor G. Waiter Iden, another ex-Daimler man.
Jarrott quickly put this model on the map with a record drive from London to Monte Carlo in April 1906, taking 37½ hours. A month later, C. S. Rolls beat this figure with a 20 hp Tourist Trophy type Rolls-Royce. Sixty years later, Jarrott's mechanic on the run, H. P. Small, recalled why Rolls had succeeded: 'Mr Jarrott observed all the speed limits in Britain - but Rolls didn't!'. In March 1907, Jarrott cut the time down to 35 hours 20 minutes, only to lose the record again - this time to a 60 hp Napier - within a fortnight.
All the early Crossleys had chain drive, the whir of which must have detracted from the marque's much-vaunted silence. So, at the March 1906 Agricultural Hall Motor Show, a new chainless 20/25 hp model was announced, with a shaft-driven rear axle. Like the other 1906 models, it had an improved metal-to-metal clutch and a new, distinctive radiator. Chain drive was quietly dropped from the range over the next couple of years. In November 1906, the first 'All-British' Crossley, the 30/40 hp, made its debut; but it was just a re-working of the old 40 hp, which soldiered on in two guises, the 40 and the 40/45, which topped the range, a double landaulette selling for a thousand guineas.
In fact, variants on the 40 hp theme were the company's sole output during 1907-8. That the marque was aiming at the same clientele as Rolls-Royce and Napier was demonstrated by their advertising: 'Luxuriousness, combined with a magnificent finish and the finest workmanship in the world are Crossley characteristics.' Among their customers was the Duke of Sutherland, K.G., President of the Royal Automobile Club, who bought an elegant 30/40 hp coupe in 1907.
At the end of 1908, a new 20 hp appeared, the work of A. W. Reeves. It was the progenitor of Crossley's most famous model, and would remain in production until 1925. The price was £495 and, in 1909, this car - and the all-new 12/14hp (£385) - were sold fully equipped with one of the most comprehensive specifications of the day: side-entrance body with lamps, tools and spares, dual ignition, detachable wire wheels and four-wheel brakes, making Crossley, with Arrol-Johnston, the first company in Britain to standardise brakes
But it was a mixed blessing, as the footbrake only acted on the front wheels, the handbrake on the rear, so that, in the hands of an unskilled driver, the cars were prone to skidding, and to broken front springs and axles. So the front brakes
had become an option by 1911 and were quietly dropped in 1912. Another link with the past was severed in 1910, when the last of the old 40 hp models left Gorton, though not before a prototype
with pneumatic suspension had been tried-and found wanting.
1912 Crossley 15. The efficiency of its engine, a side-valve four, made the car a lively performer and encouraged the makers to produce a special sporting variant - the Shelsley.
The side-valve four cylinder engine fitted to the Crossley 20/25hp model.
1914 Crossley 20/25 hp tourer. During World War 1, the model achieved fame as a staff car in the Royal Flying Corps and was also used in ambulance and light truck versions.
1928 Crossley 15.7hp - this model was to remain in production until 1934. A sporting alternative, reviving the Shelsley name, was added in 1929.
The Sporting Shelsley
Both the 12/14 (soon upgraded in title to 15 hp, which it had been for taxation purposes all the time) and the 20/25 hp were lively performers, this being particularly true of the 15 hp, which proved so successful in hill-climbing events that a special sporting variant - the Shelsley - was introduced in 1913. It subsequently gained a handsome bullnosed radiator
that would serve as the model for postwar coolers for the larger Crossleys.
One of the earliest Shelsleys so fitted was entered for the 1914 Swedish Winter trials, but was withdrawn after it became bogged down axle deep in mud. Equally as abortive was the entry of a mildly-modified Shelsley for the 1914 Tourist Trophy. The car, fitted with hydraulic shock absorbers and an oil cooler between the dumb-irons, failed to finish the race. However, minor setbacks like these did not inhibit enthusiasts from buying the Shelsley: and in mid-1914 the company received the considerable accolade of an order from S. F. Edge (who had parted from Napier two years earlier) for a two-seater Shelsley cabriolet.
Even more important in the light of the company's subsequent history was the purchase of a batch of six 20 hp tourers by the War Office in March 1913, for the Royal Flying Corps: a total of 89 were in service with the RFC by January 1914, and when war broke out, the Crossley was adopted as their standard staff car. With twin rear wheels it also served as a light truck, a tender or an ambulance. When peace was restored, it was the RFC Model 25/30 hp' which formed the mainstay of production, differing from its wartime counterpart only in the adoption of the bullnose radiator
and aluminium pistons.
After the Armistice
Though there was a tremendous demand for cars after the Armistice, the weekly output of some 45 cars a week by 1920 (at prices ranging from £1375 for a tourer to £1725 for a saloon) was quite remarkable in view of the tremendous number of 'de-mobbed' Crossleys flooding on to the market. Fitted with a new body, and with the wartime flat radiator
replaced by a postwar bullnose, these cars could pass for new: typical were the 'shop-soiled' 25/30s marketed at £400-£600 off list price by Dootson of Bolton, Lancashire, who also offered 16-seat bus and "charabanc" conversions at £375, which proved to be a boon to ambitious ex-Servicemen wanting to set up In business.
The 25/30 was also attracting more distinguished custom: the Prince of Wales used Crossleys as official cars on his tours of the British Empire in 1921-1922, and subsequently bought three Crossleys for his personal use. Both his father, George V, and his brother, the Duke of York (who was to be George VI) later became Crossley owners; King Alfonso of Spain, Crown Prince Hirohito of Japan and the King of Siam were among the foreign Royals who used Crossleys. The old 25/30 survived in production until 1925; its engine lasted still longer, and was offered in Crossley commercial vehicles until the end of the decade.
A new, lower-priced Crossley appeared in 1920: described as 'the most notable 1921 model manufactured by any leading British firm', the new 19.6hp was designed - like all subsequent Crossleys - by T. Wishart. The Motor declared that this 3.8-litre model was 'as nearly mechanically perfect as the mind of man can conceive ... driving this new Crossley is pleasure motoring at its best, combining a soupcon of the zest of piloting a high-powered aeroplane.'
In 1923 a completely standard 19.6 underwent a 20,000-mile reliability trial, the longest ever undertaken by the RAC. The car, a tourer registered XK 7159, averaged a remarkable 26.12 mpg of fuel and 6154 mpg of oil, and ran the entire distance on the same four Rapson tyres
without so much as a puncture. By then the 19.6 was also marketed in sporting guise as the 20/70, sold with a guaranteed speed of 70 mph on Brooklands. From 1924 both models were available with servo-assisted four-wheel brakes.
An attempt at manufacturing Bugattis at Gorton in 1921-22 was abandoned after only a couple of dozen anglicised Type 22s had been built. Such diversions apart, Crossley were anxious to break into the lower-priced car market, to which end they began assembly in 1920 of the American Overland : in a subsidiary factory at Heaton Chapel; prices ranged from £220 to £475 in 1923. The venture lasted until 1933, though it seems never to have been profitable; its last fling was an attempt to revive the AJS light car, itself an offshoot of Clyno's bankruptcy.
More in the Crossley tradition was the flat-radiatored I2/14 hp model announced in 1923; not a light car masquerading as a medium-powered car, but a sound upstanding production, able to go anywhere a car could go, and without fuss or labour. Even in 1923, its top speed of 50 mph was hardly remarkable for a 2.3-litre car, but it sold well. Production ceased in 1927, a year after the 19.6 and two years after the 25/30.
Cape Town to Cairo
The old RFC model had gone out in style, with two examples of this car being chosen by Major and Mrs Court Treatt for their 13,000-mile drive from Cape Town to Cairo, which started on 24 September 1924. The specially-built bodies of the Crossleys had removable aluminium tops which could be bolted together to form a raft to carry a car and six men across rivers; but the idea proved a failure, and the tops - and other impedimenta - were abandoned in northern Rhodesia. 'Our route from Cape Town,' said the Major, 'might almost be traced by the things we were forced to discard. By the time we reached Central Africa, we were sleeping on the ground and had no clothes save those we stood in.'
However, the cars survived, despite the muddiest rainy season on record, which aggravated the almost total lack of roads, and they reached Cairo on 24 January, 1926: the only replacement had been of an axle broken in a bridge collapse, and the cars were still capable of 50 mph after their 18-month ordeal. The Court Treatts would probably have appreciated a variant of the 25/30,. fitted with a Kegresse half-track, which was shown at the 1925 Commercial Motor Show: bearing a chassis price of £1350, it boasted eight forward speeds and reverse.
The Crossley 18/50
The 18/50, the car which replaced the 25/30 late in 1925, was a completely new departure for Crossley, for it had an overhead-valve six-cylinder engine. Though its manufacturers claimed acceleration and performance unequalled by any other car of its capacity, the 18/50 proved to be underpowered and, for 1928, the bore was increased by 6 mm to 75 mm, raising the swept volume from 2.2 to 3.2 litres, and the car became known as the 20.9 hp. It was joined a few months later by a similar, smaller model, the 2-Iitre 15.7 hp, which was also built in sporting form. In 1930, the 2-litre underwent a total redesign, emerging as the Silver Crossley, with twin- top gearbox, self-energising brakes, chromium plating, and safety glass throughout.
Crossley still championed the cause of quality versus mass-production, as hand fitting still played a major part at Gortonri where car production in 1930 was still running at much the same level as it had been ten years previously. Other 1931 models included the 20.9 Super-Six, the 2-litre Sports (which had won its class in the 1930 Mont des Mules hill-climb run in conjunction with the Monte Carlo Rally) and a 23 hp, 3.4-litre, six-wheeled saloon with an eight-speed gearbox. The model was intended for colonial and off-road work; in 1929 George V had bought a six-wheeled 19.6 hp Crossley tourer as a shooting brake for Sandringham. The six-wheeler really bridged the gap between cars and commercials, which were beginning to dominate at Gorton.
The Crossley Ten
But it was then that Crossley made the unwise decision to try and fight the mass-producers with a low-priced light car. The Crossley Ten, introduced for the 1932 season, was a depressing vehicle powered by the 1122 cc F -head Coventry Climax engine. Although C. ]. Joyce's 'Torquay' saloon won the coachwork competition in the 1932 RAC Rally, and two other Crossley Tens won their class in the road section, the model was a flop.
Vernon Balls Fails at Brooklands
A team of racers designed by the magazine Automobile Engineer for driver Vernon Balls failed to make the grade at Brooklands, and in 1934 the Ten was completely revamped by the stylist C. F. Beauvais, emerging as the 'Regis.' A six-cylinder, 1476 cc, Regis Six, also powered by Coventry Climax, was announced as well. Both models had Wilson pre-selector gear-boxes and automatic centrifugal clutches, and were built in standard or sports versions; they pioneered the use of quarter lights for draughtless ventilation and had low, double-dropped chassis.
Alongside the Regis, the old 2-litre and 20.9 soldiered on, little changed save for the fitting of pre-selector gearboxes: the former survived until 1935, the latter until 1937. The 2-litre engine also appeared in the odd rear-engined Crossley-Burney of 1934, built to the designs of Sir Dennistoun Burney, who was also responsible for the airship R 100, and it was used by Lagonda in their 16/80 Sports model of 1933-5, which was by no means such a bad car as many have claimed.
By the end of 1935, the Crossley range had contracted to Regis saloons and coupes and the 3-litre saloon, restyled by Beauvais. Though these models were still listed a year later, car production was virtually finished. The end came sometime in 1937. The Gorton factory switched over to the manufacture of commercial vehicles, production was transferred to Stockport in 1947 and, in 1956, the Associated Commercial Vehicles Group, which took over in 1951, quietly killed off Crossley as an uneconomic venture.