History: How the Heinz Hornets transformed Crayford
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!