His­tory: How the Heinz Hor­nets trans­formed Cray­ford

Classic Car Weekly (UK) - - Driven -

A meet­ing in a greasy spoon café, a food pro­cess­ing firm from Penn­syl­va­nia and a nud­ist camp helped trans­form Cray­ford from a tiny garage-based op­er­a­tion to a coach­builder with its own fac­tory work­ing on projects for Ford and BL.

Cray­ford traces its roots back to a part­ner­ship forged by David McMul­lan and Jeff Smith while both were work­ing for Lam­bretta-Tro­jan in Croy­don. While they’d been busy on var­i­ous Lam­bretta projects and been in­volved in the de­vel­op­ment of the Elva Courier, their big am­bi­tion was to pro­duce a car of their own.

The ba­sis for their first ef­fort in 1961 was the still rel­a­tively new Mini – and their goal was to cre­ate the world’s first con­vert­ible ver­sion. Work­ing by day at Lam­bretta and by night at a garage bor­rowed from Jeff’s brother-in-law, the duo suc­cess­fully trans­formed a 1959 MkI into a drop-top. A phone call dur­ing the project to David’s flat in Bex­ley­heath – which was on the Cray­ford tele­phone ex­change – re­sulted in him an­swer­ing with the word ‘Cray­ford’. The name for the new com­pany stuck.

Cray­ford built up its busi­ness with the 1963 launch of the Mini con­vert­ible – but its abil­ity to pro­duce cars was lim­ited by the size of its fa­cil­i­ties, which meant it could only build one car at a time. De­spite this the duo went on to in­tro­duce open air twists on the Ford Cortina MkI and Cor­sair and to get its Mini built un­der li­cence in Aus­tralia.

Its suc­cess im­pressed Heinz suf­fi­ciently to con­sider a dream or­der of 57 cars to give away in a ma­jor UK com­pe­ti­tion. Cray­ford looked to the booted Wolse­ley Hor­net for in­spi­ra­tion. But Heinz wanted to send three of its rep­re­sen­ta­tives to Cray­ford’s ‘fac­tory’ be­fore do­ing the deal.

David and Jeff per­suaded Heinz’s rep­re­sen­ta­tives to meet them in­stead at a café in nearby Big­gin Hill. David re­called: ‘The food was dread­ful and the café was freez­ing cold, but they weren’t put off and we won the or­der to pro­duce 57 con­vert­ibles.’

The duo also won a sig­nif­i­cant con­ces­sion from Heinz – the com­pe­ti­tion would be put back by a year, giv­ing them time to con­vert each Hor­net in­di­vid­u­ally at the Tates­field work­shop. The queue of cars wait­ing to be con­verted was stored at a se­cluded wooded area just out­side Big­gin Hill. Un­be­known to the pair of Heinz reps it was also home to a nud­ist colony.

The com­pe­ti­tion ran in early 1966, with wouldbe win­ners given the op­tion of or­der­ing their cars in Birch Grey or Toga White. Three quar­ters of the ap­pli­cants went for the lat­ter, mean­ing Birch Grey sur­vivors are now rare to­day. When the win­ners were cho­sen in March, 56 of them were women. The only male was a 17-year-old in Swansea, whose fa­ther made him sell the car

The win­ners took de­liv­ery of their 57s, all of which had a full BMC war­ranty, in May 1966. What they might not have been aware of was the com­pe­ti­tion’s im­pact on Cray­ford it­self – the size of the or­der helped to bankroll a new fac­tory in nearby Wester­ham, al­low­ing it to sig­nif­i­cantly ramp up the amount of cars it worked on.

Heinz, mean­while, re­vis­ited the ’57’ idea with a spe­cial edi­tion Rover Metro, given away in another com­pe­ti­tion in 1991.

There are 42 of the Heinz Cray­ford Wolse­ley Hor­nets known to sur­vive, with around half of them road­wor­thy. Not a bad sur­vival rate – they must have been full of beans!

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