Toymakers for the Ages

Did you blow up your historic race engine?
  England’s Crosthwaite & Gardiner can make you a whole new one.

HE'S TOO YOUNG TO BE FATHER CHRISTMAS, but John Gardiner could play the Great Toymaker's chief elf. His blue eyes; how they twinkle as he describes a particularly clever feat of race car replication. Your own eyes must betray your wandering thought, for Gardiner abruptly turns and darts away. Not a chap to take his toymaking lightly (despite the whimsical flower in his shirt pocket), but a master craftsman as proud and plain-spoken as any Great Britain has ever produced, he means to fetch the item itself to make sure you understand the achievement.

Swerving in pursuit through grimy machine shop aisles narrowed by piled-up Jaguar Lightweight engine blocks and Coventry Climax crankshafts and Auto Union transaxle cases, all gleaming new, you nearly collide with him as he stops to unlock a door. "The pattern stores," he announces, and pushes it ajar.

The little room is stacked, packed, crammed with red-colored, block-shaped objects. While your host roots around for whatever it is he wants to show you, your eye begins to discern outlines suggesting cylinder heads, intake manifolds, supercharger rotors. Handscrawled labels read Ferrari. Aston-Martin. Mercedes. Maserati. Bugatti. Your penny drops. These are casting molds. Resin and wooden core boxes for the forming of molten metal into... magic things.

Do you have a rare vintage racer that you dare not race for fear of ruining the irreplaceable? Fear no more. John Gardiner and his partner, Dick Crosthwaite, can replace it. Not repair, replace. Reproduce. Make a new one of. Including an entire powertrain, castings and all.

In a real sense, what Crosthwaite & Gardiner are doing in their warren-like premises, Hogge Farm, is cloning dinosaurs-giving birth to historic machines long vanished from the earth.

Just this is what they have been doing recently for Audi. The automaker's small but growing stable of prewar Auto Union GP cars, which perform raucous demo runs at premier vintage events like Goodwood and Monterey, are largely the handiwork of a small specialist company in an old farmyard outside the village of Buxted, a few winding miles inland from Brighton on Britain's south coast.

Think of it: Manufacturing technology that once defined the outer reach of a government-backed German conglomerate is now a matter for English cottage industry. How in the heck long has this been going on?

Nearly 40 years. Dick Crosthwaite and John Gardiner became partners in 1963, drawn together by mutual fascination for repairing and race-tuning old Bugattis. Their present staff numbers about two dozen, a group whose range of skills must be all but infinite. The company portfolio includes such 1970s diversions as running Alain de Cadenet's Le Mans program, and creating Jaguar-powered, retro-styled sports cars called Kougars. More recently there have been crankshafts for Kenny Roberts' Modenas motorcycles, plus cranks and blocks for Volvo touring cars. But C&G's core business is restoration work of a kind and complexity few other firms in the world can dream of tackling.

The rambling, comfortable old shop, which literally used to be the outbuildings of a farm, is stuffed with machines as basic as decades-old lathes and grinders, but also as exotic as a custom-made, four-axis CNC machining center and a sparkling new spark-erosion mill. C&G doesn't have its own casting foundry, and certain specialized work like body paneling and connecting-rod making also is subcontracted out, but virtually everything else is crafted on site.

"It sounds like a stupid, superfluous remark," says Gardiner with manifest lack of repentance, "but we're buying the spark plugs, we're buying the tires, we don't actually weave the material for the seats. But apart from that, everything, every last single component, is made from raw materials. Nuts, bolts, everything."

At a time when old cars again command incredible value, the world offers many shops restoring/remaking bodies, chassis frames and machined components, but C&G is one of very few reproducing whole engines. They started 25 years ago with Bugatti straight eights—brand-new ones from the sumps up. Then came the Climax FPF, the 2.5-liter four-cylinder so vital to owner-racers of late-1950s Coopers and Lotuses. The company has also satisfied crying needs for new Maserati Birdcage fours, Ferrari 312 flat-12s, Aston and Jaguar sixes, and the Mercedes-Benz M154 V12.

The project of building new Auto Union C-type V16s and D-type V12s came after C&G cured an internal water leak problem for the private owner of one of the very rare surviving originals. They went on to build two more running cars out of what Dick Crosthwaite describes as "a few wheelbarrow loads of parts" rescued from former Soviet territory.

"We ran them at the Nurburgring [historic event] in 1994," continues Crosthwaite, who tends to the commercial side of the partnership. "Audi wanted one for its museum, but the owner wanted such a lot of money, and I said, 'Why don't you just make some new cars?'

"We went in on a cold, wet day and they didn't know who we were or where we were from, and it was a long, protracted negotiation. One of them said, 'We thought we could use an Audi V6 and just put more exhaust pipes on it.' I said, 'No, we are going to make the engine. The engine will be the right thing.' "

The right thing: Prof. Ferdinand Porsche's incredibly intricate supercharged powerplant that had been partially subsidized by Hitler so Auto Union could challenge Mercedes-Benz in the epic Silver Arrow era of the 1930s. At least Audi, Auto Union's heir, could provide all the necessary drawings.... Wrong.

Little paperwork survives, John Gardiner discovered, much less parts or tooling. Nor was anyone found who remembered how the original work was done.

"It's amazin' how short people's memories are," comments the brusque Brit as if six decades were as many weeks. But, he adds, "In a lot of cases it's best not to ask, because folk'll tell you something rather than say they don't know."

Anyway, having to puzzle it all out on his own suits his temperament. To re-create an extinct engine, Gardiner and his staff proceed like paleontologists, examining what hardware may still exist, studying old photographs, learning about period manufacturing methods, and then interpolating how something must have been made and assembled.

"The big secret," he explains, "is puttin' yourself back in time and trying to imagine what the man was thinking when he was making it. Because there's lots of things that are complete anomalies, all sorts of strange designs, and somebody's done it that way for a reason-the plant and equipment they had [on] hand."

One example is a two-piece camshaft on early Bugattis. "There's all sorts of theories about rotation of the camshafts to get different valve timing. The truth of the matter is, they only had a short cam-grinder."

Once he'd worked out how the Auto Union V16's massive, one-piece crankcase/cylinder block had to have been cast, Gardiner came up with 35 separate, painstakingly carved cores. "Put together like a Christmas puzzle," as he puts it, these in turn give shape to the interior of a mold made of hand-packed foundry sand.

"So in the finish you've got a block of sand which is sort of six foot by four foot by three foot high," he continues with infectious relish. "To do that V16, we'd melt a quarter of a ton of metal, and it takes eight people pouring at once down eight separate holes to a sort of grid at the bottom, so the metal can flow up evenly. That's the secret of any casting, so in theory it all freezes at the same time.

"When you pour the metal in you know whether you've got a good casting or not, just the way it goes. It should be a total anticlimax, with no noise-no bubbles, no hissing. If it's done right it should be like pouring a beer with no fizz. just totally quiet and effortless."

No less of a challenge were the V16's heads.

"Unlike a lot of other engines, where you have one core box that forms every combustion chamber with its ports, here every one is different. The curvatures and angles are different from the ends to the middle, and the two heads are mirror images of one another. We've had to make 16 different core boxes, all by hand."

More fun ensued when it was time to install the moving parts. Due to the use of roller bearings, which have to slide into place axially, the crankshafts are assembled out of a multitude of finely machined segments. To build up the V16's bottom end, including all the bearing rollers as well as the crank sections, rods and pistons, etc., Gardiner believes there are approximately 700 separate parts. He hasn't bothered to count them, because he has done so for the later Auto Union D-type's V12, which is even more complex.

"There are one thousand, one hundred and eleven components in the crankcase of the very late ones. That's how many bits you've got to physically pick up one at a time, make sure it's clean and correct, and physically assemble it."

Obviously, the cost of such work is staggering. This peculiar business is a delicate balance of enthusiasm atop price. Dick Crosthwaite explains the economics involved with a small example. "One of the things we've just done is making rotor arms and distributor caps for the Maserati Birdcage. '

"How many hundred thousand can you sell? Well, [collector] Nick Mason might buy one. So you've got to find a way of doing it that's financially viable. A firm that can mold it in short numbers for us probably can't make the tooling. But we can, maybe in conjunction with somebody else, and we can make a lot of the brass bits that get molded in. And so with a sort of little conglomerate and a bit of organization, you can produce something at a price that the end user, the historic racing car owner, can afford."

Whereas the original Maserati parts were molded of Bakelite, Crosthwaite and Gardiner's new ones are then mal-injected resin. Similarly, their metal parts are often superior to originals, because today's alloys are more consistent in quality, and computer-controlled machine tools are more precise. Which raises the question about basic design: Isn't there a temptation to improve a classic in light of modem know-how?

"Occasionally," admits John Gardiner. "We sometimes deviate from the original [casting] with extra webbing, just to try and stiffen it up a little bit." For customers who race their newborn 2.5 Climaxes hard, the Buxted shop offers a lighter, stronger crankshaft than Coventry could produce in 1960.

"We're making the same thing, but better," is Gardiner's stance. A solid, no-nonsense sort despite his boyish enthusiasm for his craft, he turns into Hogge Farm every morning across the lane from Hogge House, a fine historic manse adomed with a plaque featuring a pig made of iron and the date 1583.

"It was the home of a man called Ralph Hogge," Gardiner recounts in his measured country drawl. "He got the commission to be Queen Elizabeth the First's Master of Ordnance, to supply the Royal Navy with cannon [to fight against] the Armada. He was the first person in Britain, or the first person in the world as far as we know, to cast an iron cannon. And that was how the British Navy gained superiority, because iron was cheap and plentiful, whereas bronze isn't.

"Up the road here is the Ashdown Forest, which is a forest with no trees, because they was all burned to make charcoal for the iron smelting. And the stream where [Hogge's] millpond was is at the bottom of our hill. So this site where we're standin', or certainly within a short walking distance, is where it all started, the British industrial revolution."

He reflects a moment, his eyes gauging yours to see if you grasp the significance. "That's why you find companies like ours in this country, I think. Britain has always been like that: Whatever it is, get on and find a way around it, and do it. It's the challenge, I suppose."

John Gardiner turns away again. The day is getting on and he has big shoes to fill.


Article by Pete Lyons, with Photography by Charlie MaGee
AutoWeek, January 31, 2000


Cloning exotic old cars is the specialized calling of partners John Gardiner and Dick Crosthwaite (left and right, respectively, in top right photo). Working in what were formerly the outbuildings of a farm, they construct virtually everything from raw materials (including fasteners) based on exacting research of how the originals must have been manufactured. After nearly 40 years in the business, their shop has developed the ability to re-create machines as complex as Auto Union grand prix cars, reproducing every component up to and including a complete V16 powerplant, buying only things like spark plugs and tires.