A life extraordinary From Formula One to adventures in Cuba – Colin Crabbe tells all. “The deal for the Mercedes involved me handing over $10,000 in a paper bag at Checkpoint Charlie” Few have led as colourful a motoring life as Colin Crabbe. Richard Heseltine revels in the many stories perfectly recalled by this raconteur par excellence. Photography Tony Baker/LAT/Dalton Watson.
We live in a world where stories tend to be distilled into attention-grabbing soundbites. This is clearly an alien realm for our host, automotive archaeologist and sometime Grand Prix entrant, Colin Crabbe. The tales just tumble, each yarn being festooned with enthralling details and delivered with pitch-perfect timing.
That, and a rich mahogany inflection. All that’s missing is a pantomime wink to the camera. One moment he’s recalling how and why he failed his driving test four times, the next he’s waxing nostalgically about life on the start-money trail in the Springbok series during the late 1960s. He fixes you in the eye, serious and playful at the same time, adding more than once: “I probably shouldn’t tell you this because it’s in my book. Oh, sod it. Well, there I was in India when…”
As of right now, however, he’s renewing acquaintance with an old flame. “I never should have sold this car,” he says from behind the wheel of a 1920 Vauxhall 30-98. “I drove it across Russia in 2003, pursuing the 5.4-litre Bentley 4½ Litres. I loved this car. I taught Prince Michael of Kent how to double-declutch on that trip. Did I tell you about that? No? Well…”
With the photography done, it’s back to his beautiful Lincolnshire home where the manuscript for The Thrill of the Chase is tendered like sacred scrolls. The title is apt given that his love of all things piston-powered has led to a life spent in perpetual motion.
“My father was a great influence,” he says. “Archie Crabbe raced at Brooklands before the war. His right-hand-drive BMW 327/80, which he bought off the Frazer Nash stand at the 1937 Motor Show at Olympia, remains in the family.
He was a great enthusiast, and I remember he and a friend coming to see me at Ampleforth College in the summer of 1956 with a Jaguar D-type and an Aston DB3S coupé, both of which were fresh from Le Mans. I was 14 years old at the time and that did a lot for my standing with the other boys. There wasn’t a lot of room in what passed for the passenger seat of a D-type, though, but I was determined to fit. One of my clearest childhood memories is of being unable to breathe the faster we went. I was hooked.”
Crabbe’s ferocious independent streak inevitably led to brushes with authority, but he found support in some unlikely quarters: “I had cars and a motorcycle while I was there, which was against the rules. The school was run by Benedictine Monks and the day I left, I remember my housemaster, Father Walter, saying: ‘Goodbye Colin. Don’t forget to take your Austin.’
He had twigged years before but hadn’t let on. He didn’t know about my Talbot, though.” Then came a brief but memorable spell in the Scots Guards. “The Guards,” he corrects. “I was already buying and selling cars, and had several at any one time. That wasn’t really the done thing. I didn’t do myself any favours by taking up most of the designated parking spaces.
“What really did for my career advancement was the purchase of a Volvo Amazon from Woking Motors. It was a proper works-spec rally car with aluminium panels, bucket seats and a Halda Speed Pilot. It didn’t help that my Colonel also had an Amazon, albeit with four doors rather than two like mine, but they were both pillar-box red. I was forever being saluted, which amused me no end but tended to annoy the higher-ups. I remember being told to change the colour of the car. I refused, and that rather put paid to life in the forces. I left in 1964.”
Nevertheless, it was aboard the Volvo that he began his motorsport career the following year: “I had a few outings, but it wasn’t really suitable for racing. However, I did once make it from Marble Arch to the Caledonian Hotel in Edinburgh in five hours and 12 minutes. My racing career, if you can call it that, really began at Goodwood in June 1965 aboard the ex-Stan Jones Maserati 250F, the purchase of which almost bankrupted me. I started from pole and led all the way, only to pit thinking the race was over. There was still another lap to go.
“That same year, I bought an Aston Martin DP214 from my dear friend Tom Rose. I had a great year of club racing with that car in 1966. I suppose my best result was finishing second behind Ron Fry’s Ferrari 250LM at the St John Horsfall Meeting at Silverstone. Then it all got a bit serious because I went halves on a Ford GT40 with Edward Nelson.”
In addition to dealing in historic machinery, from the late 1960s Crabbe also ran mail-order company The Complete Automobilist, which supplied hard-to-find parts. By this time, he’d also become a Grand Prix entrant, Antique Automobiles being perhaps the least thrusting team name ever to grace Formula One.
“I demolished the GT40 at Brands Hatch during practice for the 1967 BOAC 500 race,” he remembers. “After that, I thought I’d rather come to the end of the road with motorsport, at least with the modern stuff. I thought I would continue having fun in historics, but in 1969 I spotted an advertisement in Autosport for a two-year- old Cooper T81B, complete with three Maserati V12 engines. It was £3000 all in. The Maserati connection swung it for me because it’s a marque I’ve always adored: aside from the 250F, I also had an 8CM, a 300S – all sorts.”
It was only after buying the car that he discovered a slight problem. At 6ft 5in, and broad of beam, he didn’t fit: “I remember getting into the car soon after it was delivered, only to then realise that I couldn’t then get out again. I had to wait the best part of an hour for my mechanics to arrive and rescue me. I then had to work out what do with it. I’d bought the car with the intention of doing some club racing.
“I decided I rather liked the idea of being le patron of a team so I entered it in the Madrid Grand Prix at Jarama in April ’69. It wasn’t a round of the World Championship, but there was a good mix of F1 and F5000 cars. I put Neil Corner in the Cooper because he was a good mate and, more importantly, he was the right size. Neil drove very well and finished sixth.”
Then matters took a turn for the serious: “I received an invitation from the organisers of the Monaco Grand Prix and negotiated very good starting money. I vaguely knew Vic Elford, who had won the previous year’s Monte-Carlo Rally for Porsche, and I asked him if he fancied having a go at winning the Grand Prix. First we did the non-points Daily Express International Trophy at Silverstone, where he was classified in 12th place. He then drove exceedingly well at Monaco and finished seventh. It was the last World Championship outing for a Cooper, too.
“After that, I bought the unique McLaren M7B, which we developed ourselves. We did our own bodywork, among other things, which really annoyed the factory boys, and Vic got us some points with fifth place at Clermont- Ferrand. He took another point with sixth place next time out at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone.
We then went to the Nürburgring, where he was taken out by Mario Andretti on the first lap and ended up in the trees. Poor Vic broke his arm in several places and, once again, I thought that was that. I would stick to my day job, but then I received an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
For 1970, Crabbe carved out his own piece of history by being the man who introduced Ronnie Peterson to F1: “Max Mosley offered me one of the new March 701s if we supplied our own DFV engine. Ronnie came with the car. It was a horrible, heavy, truck-like thing, plus we were hamstrung by having only one engine, which came out of the McLaren. Ronnie may be remembered for being a bit wild, but he realised our rather precarious situation as a privateer and drove accordingly. At the end of 1970, it was clear that I had to stop for good, though.”
Enter Crabbe the car finder: “I discovered about 150 in South America alone during the 1970s. It started after my accountant, of all people, showed me a photo of a 250F with palm trees in the background. That got me thinking: a lot of cars had gone to Australia or New Zealand to race during the winter, but they were known quantities. A lot more went to Brazil, Argentina or wherever once their careers ended in Europe but they never came out again. It seemed perfectly reasonable that I should have a nose about and Brazil became my main hunting ground.
“At that time, I was doing quite a bit of historic racing, competing with various Maseratis and my Mercedes W125. I was tipped off about that car in 1968 while I was out in Kenya. It was located on the Polish-Russian border and the deal involved me handing over $10,000 in a paper bag at Checkpoint Charlie. I used to get fan mail from people telling me how brave I was for racing it, which was nonsense because it was so easy to drive. The problem was, it got to the point that I was accused of pot-hunting. That rather took the edge off things, so I sold it.
“I was also fortunate enough to demonstrate the Auto Union D-type that I’d snaffled out of the Eastern Bloc for a client. It was fantastically original, although the engine had no internals when I got it. We took the restored car to the Nürburgring. It was extraordinary: tractable, fast and great fun.”
Crabbe’s ability to winkle out improbable machinery in unlikely places peaked in 1985 when he arrived in Cuba, a country that had an embargo on the sale of cars for export.
Our hero smiles a knowing smile before saying: “It took a good few years just to get a business visa. I was met off the aeroplane by a chauffeur, although ‘a guard’ is probably closer, and I didn’t go through passport control. I was then dropped off at my hotel – my room was bugged – before being driven around the island.
“I got 27 cars out of Cuba, including two Jaguar XKSSs, a Maserati A6GCS, a BMW 507, all sorts of things. I was careful to take out a number of ‘lesser’ cars, though, so it didn’t appear as though I was cherry picking.” He also returned armed with 800 boxes of cigars.
Crabbe’s circuit forays came to an abrupt end at Oulton Park in July 1988 when his Talbot-Lago was sideswiped by an errant ERA. It took the marshals 45 minutes just to remove the stricken pilot. Since then, the natural-born storyteller has continued to enjoy fine motor cars in far-flung countries, but, as Crabbe is wont to say: “I really shouldn’t be telling you this. You can read about it in my book…”
Thanks to Vauxhall owner Tony Lees; Jodi Ellis: www.daltonwatson.com
From top: Peterson blasts through Burnenville during the 1970 Belgian Grand Prix, the last to be held on the old Spa road circuit; Hispano Suiza trio outside Crabbe’s Baston showroom in 1968; Elford at Monaco in ’1969 – Antique Automobiles was, perhaps, the perfect entrant for an outdated Cooper Maserati.
From top: talking tactics with Peterson – ‘Mad Ronald’ drove with great respect for the team’s limited resources; Jaguar XKSS was discovered in Cuba, a source of cars for which Crabbe worked hard to gain access; in 1972, he uncovered this amazing Maserati treasure trove in a Brazilian scrapyard.
Clockwise: pressing on in the ex-Stan Jones 250F, Thruxton 1967; at Brands Hatch in the Aston DP214, ’1965; fabulous Mercedes W125, here at Oulton Park, was “easy to drive”; with Ronnie Peterson in 1970; Elford’s outing in the ’1969 German Grand Prix ended in a major accident.
Clockwise, from main: Crabbe today, aboard his old Vauxhall 30-98; in the GT40 that he shared with Roy Pierpoint at the Nürburgring in 1967; ‘Quick Vic’ Elford in the Antique Automobiles McLaren, Silverstone ’1969.