Colin Crabbe, Thrill of the Chase
448 pages Hardcover with dustjacket
280 mm by 230 mm
550 B&W and Color illustrations
Signed, 400 copies, $125
Review by Pete Vack
If you have ever fallen prey to the Thrill of the Chase, you will absolutely love this book.
Although I eagerly anticipated the arrival of this book, I was a bit concerned when I read the table of contents and found almost as many chapters as there were pages! And nothing seemed in order, a series of disconnected jottings strewn over the landscape of a huge 9.25 by 11.25, 488 page hardcover tome.
But I knew a bit about Crabbe and therefore knew that this had got to be good; it was absolutely impossible to have a dull book about Colin Crabbe particularly when written by the man himself. Patience then was my copilot as I hoisted the book to my reading table. And patience was duly rewarded.
Colin’s biography is aptly entitled, “Thrill of the Chase”, a phrase which could be applied to the pursuit of women, pheasant, big game, fish or the discovery of long lost classic cars, all of which the 74 year-old Colin Crabbe excelled at doing over his long and interesting life. As enthusiasts, we’ve all experienced the visceral anticipation, unbearable excitement and pure joy of finding and eventually purchasing a rare car. That’s why we can relate so intimately with Crabbe’s experiences, even though his lofty goal might be a W125 Mercedes rather than an Alfa Giulia. However, the greater the prize, the greater the thrill, and it is addictive.
Like his father, Colin Crabbe is a big guy, 6-5 or so at his peak, and to top it off, both son and father Archie were members of the Scots Guard in their youth, subject to wearing those tall bearskin hats that one sees at the gates of the royal palace. Towering, they were. Colin actually served time as a Queen’s Guard in 1962 – you may have seen him in front of Windsor Palace. And while normally such height is a great asset, when one longs to get behind the wheel of Italian race cars, great height is definitely not an asset and prevented Crabbe from enjoying a number of delectable cars.
Archie Crabbe was a landowner whose income was far above the average; the family had also established a successful whiskey enterprise (John Crabbie Whiskey) before the ‘i’ was dropped from the last name. Colin was sent to public (read private) schools and had what at times must have been an enchanted childhood, playing in haunted castles and being somewhat of a pain in the ass. The downside was some mean nannies and often severe corporal punishment at the hands of headmasters. As he grew up he would share his father’s passion for skiing, hunting and eventually, cars. Fortunately, while not getting into a great deal of detail Crabbe gives us a fairly good feeling of what life must have been like in this Harry Potter type environment. On a critical note, Crabbe keeps us on our toes and on Google by often writing as if we are all Scots and Brits, fluent in the terms used by upper class gents of the late British Empire.
Born in 1942, Colin became fascinated with racing cars at the critical age of 14 when in 1956 his father arrived at Ampleforth College where Colin was attending school, driving an Ecurie Ecosse D Jag similar to the one that was driven at Le Mans. “My standing amongst my fellow pupils was given an immediate boost,” wrote Crabbe. Colin Crabbe the enthusiast was born on that day.
Antique Automobiles was established in 1968 after Crabbe had served his time in the Scots Guard and was more or less at a loss as to what to make of a future. Crabbe found a suitable old Methodist chapel converted to a garage 100 miles due north of London in a small village called Baston (with an ‘a’ not ‘o’) and was in business.
Crabbe also inherited the ability and right stuff and the right contacts necessary travel to the most unlikely places to shoot snipe or find cars. A nose for deals and the ability to travel the world at the sound of a telephone call meant that Crabbe was not only at the right time but could be at the right place- Cuba, where he found the Ferrari TRC (0690MDTR) he would keep for 30 years (he would sell it for $3,080,000 in 2013), Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, India, and wherever else might harbor old classics when they were cheap and before they fell completely apart.
His ability to ferret out cars before anyone else plus the addition of a restoration shop at Antique Automobiles soon made Crabbe one of the major players in the classic car field between the years 1966 to about 1988. His adventures around the world finding Ferraris, Maseratis, Alfas, Mercedes and others constitute the bulk of this book and are far too numerous (and fantastic) to even begin to numerate here.
There are so many ‘high’ points throughout Crabbe’s career (and this book) that it is impossible to just speak of one truly incredible discovery. But the W125 Mercedes comes closest.
We’ve been long aware that Crabbe was one of the first to go behind the Iron Curtain and return…with a prewar Mercedes Grand Prix car. The art that was inspired by this find graces the cover of his book, and is perhaps the most important purchase Crabbe ever made. Can one imagine crossing Checkpoint Charlie into the dreaded GDR in 1968 with $10K cash and nothing but vague details about the most powerful Grand Prix car ever built?
Turns out that it was all pretty simple. “It was quite frightening crossing into the German Democratic Republic, but nothing could have been easier….In fact we were never to encounter a problem when dealing with the various Communist regimes. Play it straight and you do not get into trouble.” The car had been discovered in Leipzig by a small film company, who had a VW(!) engine installed to make it drivable. The original engine was packed in a box and part of the deal. In walks Crabbe with a satchel full of money and the car is his.
A corollary to this deal was that Crabbe ended up with another prewar Mercedes, the ex-Don Lee W154 which was brokered by our old friend Dick Merritt. Crabbe kept the bill of sale, written on a page of Holiday Inn tablet, for the amount of €3645 or $8750.
While there is no doubt that Colin made a lot of money over the years (he was after all in the right place at the right time) it is equally clear that he is and was an enthusiast first and foremost. The shot of Crabbe in the 250F on the lead page I think says it all. Along with guys like Neil Corner, Crabbe was around when racing with the VSCC was still more fun than business, and today he notes with despair that the enormous value of the cars today has taken a great deal of the pleasure from those halcyon days of the VSCC.
Fun had its downside too, as Colin had a few racing accidents, one of which nearly shut down the ignition for good. In 1988 while racing a Talbot Lago at Oulton Park he collided with an errant ERA. Crabbe would spend six weeks in an induced coma and many months recovering from the impact. In 1989, a year before the great crash, Crabbe was offered a variety of jobs by auction companies, and his words on the subject are well worth reading. He spent many a happy year competing in vintage rallies around the world, using such cars as an 1100cc Cisitalia, a Vauxhall 30/98 and his father’s BMW Fraser Nash. There is not any aspect of the sport or hobby that has escaped Crabbe’s attention and participation; a consummate car nut if there ever was one. His favorite “modern” car? A Porsche 911 2.7 RS.
Thrill of the Chase is hard to put down but also hard to categorize. It does contain significant amounts of information about many classics and another great Dalton Watson index makes the information easy to find, but you’ll probably get more by Googling the particular chassis number. Since Colin was interested in many cars, they run the gamut from Italian to German to French to English. Crabbe was not a famous athlete, race winner or champion, but an interesting person nonetheless. The photos of the cars both as found and restored are remarkable and well-presented despite their age. For those new to the hobby, Crabbe’s thoughts on auctions, restorations, originality and the huge amounts of money being made by various classic car events should serve as words to the wise.
But, for the True Believers out there, let me tell you this; if you have ever fallen prey to the Thrill of the Chase, you will absolutely love this book.