The Crossley Brothers, Pioneers of Power

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The timeless scene of an old engine in a Welsh meadow. Except that, of course, back in the day, the engine would have been securely fixed to the concrete floor of a barn or engine room, and not sitting in the great outdoors atop a trailer. However, this engine travels to events (and powers Damian’s and his partner Rosie’s camper van at shows), so it has to be mobile.

Crossley Bros. was launched in 1867 by brothers Francis and William J. Crossley. Both brothers had served separate engineering apprentices, and were looking to build their own businesses. With the help of his uncle, Francis bought an engineering business in Manchester city center, and William soon joined him.

The Crossleys manufactured pumps, presses and small steam engines. Said to be devoted Christians totally opposed to the consumption of alcohol, the Crossleys refused to sell equipment to breweries, as they did not approve of their machinery being used for the production of alcohol. In 1869, the brothers obtained the rights to the patents to a gas-powered atmospheric internal combustion engine designed by German engineers and inventors Nikolaus August Otto and Carl Eugen Langen. These engineering icons were responsible for the development of the modern internal combustion engine, so acquiring the rights to these designs was an extremely smart move by Crossley.

Everything looks and feels well made on the Crossley, and now that it’s been fine tuned, it is running smoothly and economically.

Atmospheric engines weren’t around for long, and 4-stroke was to be the next step. In 1876, Crossley’s rights were extended to the famous Otto 4-stroke engine, and business boomed. The company moved to larger premises, became a limited company, and made several significant technical improvements, such as the poppet valve, the hot tube ignitor and the carburetor. Their “heavy fuel” oil engine, which would secure the future of the company, came out in 1891.

Progressive company built noteworthy engines

Never a company to miss an opportunity, Crossley also acquired the rights to the diesel system in 1891 and produced its first diesel engine in 1898. It’s no exaggeration to say that the Crossley company was a pioneer in engine history. The quality of their engines and their forward-thinking methodology put them center stage as far as engines were concerned. The company’s assembly line-style production methods contributed to its manufacturing success. It is said that Henry Ford took great interest in Crossley’s methods when he visited the factory at the turn of the last century.

In 1904 Crossley began producing cars and busses through a separate company called Crossley Motors Ltd. Being devout Christians, the company’s founders used the Coptic cross as the emblem on their road vehicles.

The top of the engine’s float bowl, another beautifully crafted part.

In 1919 Crossley Bros. bought Premier Gas Engines of Nottingham, a builder of large engines. In 1935, Crossley changed its name to Crossley Premier Engines Ltd. The Nottingham factory was expanded, and production continued there until 1966. The engines produced were large horizontal heavy oil engines used to generate electricity or provide power for industrial plants such as water pumps, mills and air compressors.

These engines were produced in a range of sizes, based on a standard cylinder unit, as either in-line or horizontally opposed cylinder engines. In the 1930s, Crossley built a pair of 16-cylinder opposed engines of 3,500 horsepower for electrical generation in Jerusalem. At that time, they were the largest oil engines in the world.

Damian’s 1920 Crossley PH1070 (Paraffin [kerosene] Hopper Model 10, 7hp). 1920 was the first year for the hopper-cooled PH1070.

Over the years, Crossley produced more than 100,000 engines, many of which remain in use today. By the 1960s, stationary engines were no longer a profitable business and the company ended up being taken over, reorganised and merged with a number of companies. Company records are held by the Anson Engine Museum, Manchester, which also holds a collection of Crossley engines.

Our local Crossley

Readers of earlier issues of Farm Collector might recall my nephew, Damian. He’s a stationary engine enthusiast and has been featured in Farm Collector in the past with his Lister and Powell engines. Lister engines are popular engines on the rally circuit. They were reliable and sold in large numbers, making them an excellent choice for the novice collector. The Powell engine, on the other hand, is a quirky beast. Not many were built, and they are notoriously challenging to get running just right.

Lifting up the lid of the main bearing oil well.

Having explored these two extremes of the vintage engine scene, Damian now finds himself owner of a totally different make of old engine, namely a Crossley. Crossley engines are seen by many collectors as the Rolls Royce of stationary engines, so for Damian, owning a Crossley was a chance to try out something different, and to compare it to the other makes of engine that he owns and runs.

Damian didn’t set out in search of a Crossley engine. He only has access to a small outbuilding, so acquiring an endless array of engines isn’t really an option, tempting as it is. In fact, Damian’s shed was already full up with engines, so he wasn’t looking to buy anything else, but then he received one of those phone calls that change all of the best-laid plans.


He who hesitates loses the engine

The caller told Damian that a gentleman in the nearby market town of Llanrwst was selling his old Crossley engine, and that the engine had been in the same town since it was new in 1920. This news changed everything: Damian knew the reputation Crossley engines had for quality, and of course it would be nice to own one, but what made this offer impossible to resist was the fact that here was a chance to buy an engine that had been right in Damian’s locality for nearly 100 years.

Damian, a golf course groundsman in North Wales, was delighted to become the new owner of this 1920 Crossley engine in the summer of 2018.

Opportunities like that don’t come along very often, and if you hesitate, the moment passes and might never come again. It would have been rather a sad thing if the engine was sold out of the Conwy Valley, or out of Wales itself, especially just two years before it could claim to have existed for a century in the same little corner of Wales. Damian feels that old engines are important parts of our industrial, social and agricultural history, and their personal stories are important too. An engine that comes with a life story is of far greater value than one with no known history.

There aren’t many vintage engine collectors in Llanrwst, so if the engine had sold to anyone other than Damian, it would likely have been taken away from the place where it had spent its working life. It was meant to be, and the engine followed Damian home on a trailer.

Assembled on the home place

Built in 1920, the 6-7hp Crossley Model 1070 was bought new by a farmer named Evan Jones who lived on the outskirts of Llanrwst. The engine arrived by train into Llanrwst station and was laid on three pallets. Too heavy to lift manually, the engine was delivered to its new home in several pieces. The three pallets were probably carried by horse and cart to the farm “Tyddyn Ucha.”

After it was built in 1920, the Crossley (serial no. 84,153) was shipped by rail from Manchester to Llanrwst. Dismantled for the journey, it arrived on three pallets. It was reassembled on the farm by a Crossley engineer.

Later, a Crossley engineer travelled to the farm to assemble the engine and get it running properly. It’s quite likely that the engineer travelled to Llanrwst in the same way as the engine had, by train and up to the farm by horse and cart, because whilst of course there were motorcars on the roads in 1920, they were rather few and far between. 

Although the engine is now fitted onto a trailer so that it can be taken to shows and events, while it was in use on the farm, it would have been firmly secured to a concrete base. At 6-7hp, the Crossley was quite a large engine for a small farm, given that it was likely only used to power a chaff cutter, corn mill and root chopper. Damian wonders now if there was a special reason the farmer chose a larger-than-usual engine. Perhaps he had a specific purpose in mind. One wonders if the engine was used to provide electricity, but that seems unlikely as Crossley offered engines designed specifically for that purpose, and this example isn’t one of them.

It’s only a drip oiler, but it’s beautifully made. When was the last time you saw anything so functional made with such pride? It’s just a part of an engine, but it’s built with care and with an eye for quality rarely seen these days.

Whatever it was used for, the engine continued to work without problems for many years. In 1984, the farmer’s son, Vernon, wrote to Crossley, requesting information and spare parts, as he was obviously intending to service the old engine. Damian has copies of those letters, as well as the original handbook. The letters indicate that the engine was built specifically for Mr. Jones, and it was of the latest type. For instance, it has a hopper on top to hold the cooling water, a feature first introduced for 1920, whereas most examples have a water tank instead. One avid Crossley collector told Damian he had never seen another engine of that type fitted with a hopper. 

When the farmer’s son died, the engine was sold out of the family, but it didn’t travel more than a mile to its second home. Bought by a local mechanic, it stood idle for 15 years on a trailer in storage, until Damian bought it in the summer of 2018. As soon as he got the engine home, Damian found that the magneto wasn’t working, so he stripped it down and cleaned it, and thought for a moment that it looked rather hopeless, but after fiddling with it for a few minutes, it came back to life and started working. Other than that, there was nothing stopping the engine from working. Within the same afternoon, Damian had the engine up and running again.

Damian doesn’t know the history of the little oilcan, but it came with the engine when Damian bought it, and it appears to have been with the engine for a long time.

“What a difference it makes …”

With any stationary engine, it takes a bit of time to get to know the engine and learn what its traits and troubles are, and the Crossley was no exception. It is one thing getting an engine running, but to get it running just right often takes a bit more time and knowledge.

The Crossley had been well cared for, but it hadn’t been run for 15 years.

Through his dealings with his more troublesome Powell engine, Damian’s ear has become finely tuned and he’s developed quite a knack for being able to overcome problems by listening carefully to the engine sounds and making the appropriate adjustments. We all have our different skills, and Damian’s particular skill is the ability to distinguish and pinpoint the separate sounds that a running engine makes, and to notice the tiniest irregularities in the rhythm. Consequently, the Crossley is running extremely well now, and is far more economical than was first predicted.

“When I first bought the Crossley, people kept saying that it would be heavy on fuel, and they’d say things like ‘I wouldn’t want to run that all day at a rally!’” Damian recalls. “Someone told me ‘you will use two jerry cans a day (the slang phrase “jerry can,” dating to World War II, describes steel containers devised by the German army to carry fuel. A jerry can holds 5.3 U.S. gallons), but now that it is running correctly, it is quite economical. I had it running all day and into the night over a whole weekend’s rally on four gallons of kerosene, which is less than half the price of petrol. It just goes to show what a difference it makes when something is running properly.”

The Crossley’s magneto and flyball governor.

Innovative features set Crossley apart

Quality engineering is one of the first things Damian noticed about the Crossley. There is the real feeling that this is a well-made engine, and it also has innovative features lacking in many other engines of the period. “I think it must have been quite cutting edge at the time,” Damian says, “and when I compare it to the Powell, it is so much more advanced.”

These old tools came with Damian’s Crossley engine.

The Crossley, for instance, is fitted with a vaporiser, which gives the engine a head start when it comes to warming up. The vaporiser has a passage through it, allowing exhaust gasses to pass through the mixing chamber, so as soon as the exhaust has warmed up, vapour heats the mixing chamber to the appropriate temperature. Engines without a vaporiser are much slower to warm up, as the entire engine must reach the required temperature before it can run efficiently and smoothly.

Through endeavoring to fine-tune the Crossley, Damian has learned a lot about the engine, its fine workmanship and forward-thinking technology. Working on the engine is satisfying in itself, and in truth a lot of collectors enjoy an engine that presents a challenge, because tinkering with the engine and improving its way of running is all part of the fun.

The Crossley even came with a spare plug housed in a neat little tin. It’s great that these items all managed to stay with the engine all these years.

That is the beauty of old engines. They are relatively simple to work on, making this a very accessible hobby. Damian’s Crossley engine is soon to be 100 years of age, and if this were a car or a tractor of that vintage, it would be far too expensive for many people to consider owning. Although they’re not everyone’s cup of tea, old engines are very affordable and the hours of fun they give their owners are priceless. The long history that goes with them is quite something, too. FC

Josephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. Email her

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