In this article we will describe one of the true pioneers of the motor industry: Crossley. The company was founded in 1867 when Francis Crossley bought an engineering business in the UK that made pumps and other mechanical devices including small steam engines. Francis had undertaken an apprenticeship at the Robert Stephenson Company and soon after the company started, Francis was joined by his brother, William, and the company became the Crossley Brothers.
In 1869 they bought the British and world rights to a German engine design by Otto and Langdon and later – in 1875 – they bought the rights to the German company’s 4-stroke engine – the Otto Cycle. Business was brisk as they sold these engines for pumps and to drive the industrial machinery in factories.
They took the design and started to develop it further by adding improved valves, ignitions systems and a new device called the “carburettor” designed by another German, Karl Benz. By 1896 they had also acquired the rights to a diesel engine and built their own version. I say diesel because that is what it is known as today, back then it was known as a “heavy oil” engine. As Rudolph Diesel didn’t develop his prototype until 1897, it is possible that Crossley bought the rights to a design by a British engineer, Herbert Ackroyd-Stuart, who ultimately had a legal battle with the German over patents – the British patent was registered two years earlier than the German one.
Crossley’s petrol engines were finding their way into road vehicles by the turn of the century and with help from a car dealer, Charles Jarrott and Letts in London, they started to think about building cars. The dealer was importing De Dietrich, Bugatti and Oldsmobile cars and wanted a British vehicle – an “English Mercedes”. So the company formed Crossley Motors in 1906 to facilitate the production and bought the dealer! The first car was developed in 1904 and the company felt that a new business structure was necessary. Interestingly, Henry Ford visited their factory and took back a motor for his own car and the idea for mass production!
It was around this time that the company split. The car company went in one direction as a standalone entity in 1910 and the original company continued the development of engines for a wide variety of uses. This section of the business is now owned by Rolls-Royce after a selection of owners and mergers including Crossley Premier, Amalgamated Power Engineering and Northern Engineering Industries.
The car company started by making a 22hp open tourer followed by a seven litre 40hp model with chain drive and a pump to push water through the engine for cooling. Both cars used four cylinder motors and were ready for coach-builders to add a body for the final customer or the buyer could get a complete car straight from the factory. It didn’t take long for the vehicles to have a major design change – the chain was replaced by a shaft.
The next model in 1909 was the 12/14 and this was one of the first cars to have the engine and gearbox designed to fit in line down the chassis. It was powered by a 2.3 litre four cylinder and produced just 15hp, in fact the following year it took the 15hp name with a slight increase to a 2.6 litre.
Like other early manufacturers, Crossley realised that some owners were enthusiasts and were interested in racing, so the factory entered cars in several early races like the Tourist Trophy and gained some success – always a good marketing ploy!
The next model was called the 20/25 and was bought in volume by the British Army and the newly formed Royal Flying Corps as staff cars. This model was in production for about ten years and they produced over 10,000 thanks to the military buyers and the Army also had some fitted out as ambulances and equipment carriers.
After the war, Crossley went back into production with a new model, the 19.6 and this was joined in the early 1920s by a 2.4 litre 14hp model. The 19.6 used a 3.8 litre four, with another new feature, a detachable head – remember many engines at this time were still sidevalves. The 14hp was sold throughout the empire including many being shipped to Australia and New Zealand.
The military started to sell off their surplus staff cars and the factory produced a slightly redesigned version called the 25/30 or the “RFC” after its original buyer. This model was very popular with royalty with some being used by the Emperor of Japan and the King of Spain. In Britain, King George V and the Prince of Wales bought cars for their use. Several were shipped to India for State Visits by the Royal Family. Two 25/30s were used as the first motorised crossing of Africa from the Cape to Cairo – it took nearly two years!
Crossley also continued to make military vehicles to satisfy the demand from the army who were busy in many parts of the sunsetting Empire. These were based on the 19.6 and they even built a six wheeler! The 19.6 spawned the 20/70 sports model that used features that we would use today to increase power – high lift cams, higher compression, improved fuel delivery and lightweight wheels. The 20/70 made about 75hp.
In 1925 Crossley built their first six cylinder engine and fitted it to a new model – the 18/50 also known as the 20.9. This started with a three litre and due to the weight of the car, it soon became a 3.2 to increase the power. Twenty of these cars were shipped to Australia and New Zealand for the Royal Visit by the Duke of York. The featured image of this article is one of them, now in the National Museum of Australia.
Incidentally, the odd numbering of the cars – the 19.6 and 20.9, also seen on other cars by British manufacturers, was due to the Royal Automobile Club. These numbers are the horsepower ratings defined by the club.
To improve the business, Crossley launched what would become the saviour of the company – a range of buses to join its military vehicles – more about these later. The mid 1920s were an interesting period for the company. The wholly owned dealer, Charles Jarrott was the sole Bugatti dealer for the whole of the Empire and so the company did a deal to built 25 Brescia Type 23 Bugatti’s under licence as the Crossley Bugatti.
The company also founded Willys Overland Crossley to manufacture the US cars in Britain, Germany and Belgium with the German factory building Austin Sevens under licence. The Overland 4 was the first vehicle built and it didn’t sell well, so the company built the Overland 13.9 with a Morris Oxford motor. This didn’t succeed and Crossley took a huge financial loss.
Their answer was to bring the Willys-Overland Whippet design over to Europe with production in Germany and Britain. It also didn’t sell, so the company took a leaf from their parent and started to build commercial vehicles that were more successful.
The parent company had launched the 15.7 in 1928 with a two litre six cylinder and was renamed the Silver in 1930. A lightweight sports model was also produced that was entered into rallies.
In 1931 Willys Overland Crossley bought the car business of AJS, a motorcycle manufacturer. They had been selling cars with Coventry Climax engines, but it wasn’t enough to save this subsidiary and it keeled over in 1933. The AJS models became Crossley’s and were smaller models to go alongside the Silver and the 20.9 that was renamed the Golden. The small models used 10hp Coventry Climax engines, similar to other manufacturers and came in a range of family saloon, sports saloon, sports coupe, sports tourer and to be in line with the larger cars, they became known as Quicksilvers.
Several distributors built versions with differing bodywork and were known as the Torquay and Buxton – after rally wins. Other coach-builders like Avon Motor Bodies and Tickford produced designs that the factory liked and used their design features in a new model called the Regis. Originally it was based on the smaller chassis but was heavier so the Coventry Climax was replaced by a Crossley designed six cylinder.
Crossley’s vehicle sales had been slowing during the 1930s and they developed their final model, the 26/90 in 1937. It is possible that only one was built fitted with a 3.5 litre Studebaker motor before production was stopped in favour of the more successful commercial and military vehicles and also buses.
However after the Second World War, bus sales didn’t grow and the company was sold to AEC, the Associated Equipment Company, the makers of the famous London Bus. This entity was swallowed up by Leyland Motors that became part of the grotty British Leyland concern. The reality is that Crossley’s heritage and main money spinners throughout its life were commercial vehicles not road cars. They even dabbled in aircraft with AVRO and agricultural equipment through Saunderson.
The images are from the National Museum of Australia (featured image) and the Vintage Sports Car Club of Australia.