The Richard Heseltine Column - Celebrating Tony Crook
Over the past 25 years or so, I have been fortunate enough to interview umpteen car designers, racing drivers, motor moguls, and more besides. Of these, almost all have been men and women I have liked and admired. There are exceptions, of course, not least a couple of ‘Eff One’ stars who were insufferable. One refused to shake hands or make eye contact but was more than happy to drone on about his property empire. The other gave one-word answers during our pre-arranged meeting, harrumphing like a stroppy teenager from start to finish.
I only mention the last two because of the contrast between them and one of the great interviewees, Tony Crook. 2020 marks the centenary of his birth, and I am forever grateful that I got to know the Bristol Cars legend. The funny thing is, he was famously feared by vast swathes of the media. His reputation for being prickly was, however, undeserved, not least because he was the kindest of men and modest with it. For starters, he was a gifted racing driver: one of the best of the immediate post-war period. Tony never bragged, though. If you asked him a question about his trackside forays, he would give you an honest answer. The point is, you had to ask.
Then there were his business activities which stretched from car dealerships to all manner of aviation endeavours. Most of what you may have read about him being rude to journalists or prospective customers is apocryphal, though. If he thought you had been unnecessarily harsh when reviewing one of his products, you would soon know about it, but he wasn’t unreasonable. He also refuted the popular claim that potential customers wouldn’t be allowed into his Kensington showroom if he didn’t like the look of them. One story in particular haunted him for years: that filmmaker Michael Winner was barred from crossing the threshold because he was, well, Michael Winner. When asked about it, he insisted he had never heard of him.
I was fortunate enough to meet Tony on several occasions, often at his favourite Chinese restaurant. What struck me more than anything was his sense of humour. Laughter was rarely far away. Here is an extract from a 2011 interview: “While I was at Clifton College, I had a supercharged MG PA. It was against the rules to have a car so I took to driving it around while wearing a false moustache. One day I was at a garage filling up the MG when the headmaster also stopped for some petrol. Well, by now I was fed up with being beaten so I went to a chemists and had a local anaesthetic. The headmaster gave me a whack on the behind but I didn’t flinch. I was, however, rather keen that he got on with it as the anaesthetic soon started to wear off…” I cannot imagine the CEO of any modern-day car firm recounting such an incident, can you?
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