The battle of Wills: Eccentric Engineers.

Barrie Wills

My 50 years in the global auto industry brought me into contact with a number of near-eccentric people. One of those fitting that description was the mercurial engineer, John Crosthwaite. Before my time with Reliant Motor Company, the UK’s largest specialist vehicle producer in its day, the Scimitar GT coupé was receiving rave notices, due not least to managing director Ray Wiggin’s astute hiring of John as a consultant chassis development engineer in 1966.

After serving an apprenticeship with Armstrong Siddeley Motors, John had worked in motorsport engineering, originally for British motor sport and aeronautics pioneer Tommy Sopwith, and later for John Cooper, Colin Chapman’s Team Lotus, and Dolphin in the USA, before turning his hand to the Indianapolis 500 with the American Mickey Thompson and then with Holman Moody. BRM’s Tony Rudd (later to join Lotus Cars as director of engineering) brought John back to the UK to become designer of the BRM Formula 1 car, to be driven by big names including Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart. John transferred to Ken Tyrrell’s team and then Matra before relocating to Turin to contribute towards the engineering of the Intermeccanica Italia road car, launched in 1966. Crosthwaite brought much needed handling skills to Reliant as evidenced by his improvements to the Scimitar GT and especially the development of its successor, the Scimitar GTE, the world’s first sports estate car.

Reliant’s John Crosthwaite

The executive team of Reliant at the time I joined at the beginning of January 1972, comprised Ray Wiggin as managing director, Bill Snowdon as finance director, Ron Heathcote as works director, Roger Musgrave as director of sales and marketing, Cyril Burton representing export commercial activities, manufacturing engineer Bob Myring, John, and me in charge of purchasing and supply. John was by then full-time chief engineer, leading four managers, former Austin engineer Bernard Cottier, who headed the engineering drawing office; a very talented former pattern maker called Ken Wood, who led body and trim engineering from the workshop within which master moulds were produced, and had taught Lotus the skills of fibreglass moulding while on loan at Colin Chapman’s request; a young former-Standard Triumph engineer called David Rock, who ran the prototype build and development shop; and Peter Jackson, a near-one-man-band engine design-engineering and development department.

Ogle Design operated through a monthly retainer and Tom Karen OBE had been working on his ideas for a replacement for the Regal three-wheeler since 1963. His new design was a radical change from the increasingly dated Regal, as was John Crosthwaite’s approach to the design engineering of the rolling chassis. Available both as a saloon and a van, when launched in 1973, the Robin was a brand new vehicle in every respect with the capacity of Reliant’s all-aluminium engine increased to 750cc.

A missed opportunity perhaps? The 4×4 adaptation of the Scimitar GTE

A few months earlier, John had surreptitiously converted a Bond Bug to four wheels. It was frowned upon and summarily dismissed, not least because, as had been the case with a Ferguson all-wheel drive GTE, John had made no attempt to ‘sell’ the idea to his peers. With hindsight, the rejection of John’s four-wheeled sports coupé concept was a huge mistake as Reliant was very well-placed to fill a gap in the market caused by British Leyland’s withdrawal of the affordable Austin Sprite (formerly Austin-Healey Sprite) sports car from the market. Had John undertaken a lobby, instead of taking us all by surprise, a different and more thought through decision might have resulted. The 4×4 Scimitar GTE was a missed opportunity for the same reasons.

In 1974, two years after starting at Reliant, I was called up to Ray Wiggin’s office to find a smiling Bill Snowdon sitting across from Ray’s desk. Ray announced he was appointing Bill as his deputy managing director and the board was to be expanded by a further two members, one of which was to be me. Export commercial manager Cyril Burton was the other to be offered a board post – but not John Crosthwaite. I wondered just how that would go down with our talented but mercurial product engineering chief. The answer to that question came the following day when John was informed of the new appointments by Ray Wiggin and immediately stormed out of the building, having resigned on the spot. Two new directors but a vacancy for chief engineer in the process – not a sensible exchange. Ray immediately took over day to day responsibilities for the engineering department with Ken Wood, Peter Jackson, David Rock and Bernard Cottier reporting to him, whilst a search went out for John’s replacement.

Later that year John was hired by former British Leyland managing director George (later Sir George) Turnbull to join a team of British engineers to assist Hyundai Motor Corporation of South Korea in the development of their first car, the Giorgetto Giugiaro-designed Pony. John’s tenure in that role did not follow its full course, perhaps because his style did not fit the more disciplined approach to business of the Standard Motor Company-trained Turnbull. His post as chassis engineer was taken by Girling engineer Peter Slater. Ironically, much later in Reliant’s history, Slater was to become its chief engineer.

A rival to the Mini- Moke was this Reliant Cub.

Crosthwaite’s relationship with Reliant was rekindled soon after his return to the UK in 1976 when he asked Ray Wiggin if he could use the running chassis of the four-wheeled Reliant Kitten as the basis for a Mini Moke-like recreational vehicle called Cub. He engineered and later manufactured the Cub, with its body styled by Peter Bailey of Ogle Design, through a company he founded as Reef Engineering in Atherstone, Warwickshire. The first fifty Cubs were sold in 1977 to Avis for use as holiday rental vehicles in The Seychelles, whilst several others were supplied into the Caribbean. John was very keen on water-sports, including scuba diving, water skiing and windsurfing and also designed and produced motorboats and sailboards. In the 1980s he was commissioned to undertake designs for specialist car production companies, including the Jimp, a mini Land Rover lookalike, and the Salamander, intended as a replacement for the AC Cars invalid carriage.

Whilst with Reliant, from 1968 to 1974, John was a member of the Car and General Technical Board of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) and a member of the British Racing Drivers Club from 1956 until 1983. John retired to the south coast of England in the late 1980s. There, he continued to windsurf and ride off-road mountain bikes until he was 76 years old, when he fractured his hip in a cycling accident on the South Downs. John died at the age of 85 on 5 September 2010 while on holiday in the Republic of Ireland. He was a truly amazing character and a more than able engineer.

You can find out much more of Barrie’s automotive skulduggery in his new book. CLICK HERE for details.

2 comments

  1. Another great read here. I owned a GTE back in the 90s, great fun and so cheap to run compared to the likes of a Jaguar XJS.

    Still a pretty car today.

  2. The finest car I ever owned has always been a split decision between the Scimitar SE6 and Audi Coupe Quattro. Even after all these years, I still cannot decide which one had the supremacy

    Audi was rapid, surefooted, built like a tank and got me all over the UK and Europe for three years covering in excess of 55,000 miles.

    The Scimitar was comfortable, so easy to self service and had styling that still looks simply sublime by todays standards. When the Middlebridge GTE version was launched I so nearly part exchanged the Audi to return to driving the blade once again, sadly I didn’t owing to my growing family.

    Anyway, thanks to you both for these beautifully written insights into the world of motoring. Long may you both succeed and enjoy your words of wisdom as I do.

    If you see or hear from Tom Karen (I understand you both know him quite well) thank him from me designing one of the most lovely looking cars this side of a Maserati.

    Bern

    Age: 71 and three quarters

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