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The builder's plate from the vintage Crossley tourer

Bushland find a missing link for a vintage car project

In April 2008 I took my son Oliver metal-detecting. We’d been to beaches a few times, but this particular weekend we decided to go to bushland near the Newcastle suburb of Jesmond. We chose the spot of a former settlement named “Hollywood” where people built shacks during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

There isn’t much left of Hollywood now, and I guess when they build the next stage of Highway 23 there will be even less. But I remember stumbling on some old hearthstones, chimneys and fruit trees when I was a kid, and learning the story of the little informal village that once stood there.

Oliver and I found nothing of value, but among the bottletops and rubbish we found an interesting little flat plate of metal with a hole in each corner. We took it home and cleaned it, and found it was a maker’s plate from an old car. “Crossley Motors Ltd, Manchester” the plaque read, along with chassis and motor numbers.

An amazing coincidence

Interested to see what kind of car it might have come from, we looked up the make on the internet and were able to determine that it was a tourer model, built about the time of World War I. We also saw an email address for an organisation in England known as ‘‘The Crossley Register’’, which appeared to be some sort of enthusiasts’ group. We emailed the register with the details on the plate. Within 24 hours we had a reply from the UK, telling us that the actual car from which the plate came – a Crossley 25/30 model built in about 1920 – was ‘‘by an amazing coincidence’’ under restoration by Arthur Garthon, in Wagga Wagga. We phoned Mr Garthon and asked him to tell us the chassis and engine numbers of his Crossley. When the numbers tallied, we told him we had the original builder’s plate, ready for him to collect.

Arthur Garthon in his restored Crossley tourer: the car from which the plate had been taken

Astonished, Mr Garthon told us a little about the car and put us in touch with its previous owner. It’s quite a vehicle, weighing a couple of tonnes and powered by a four-cylinder, 5.5-litre engine. Cars like it appear to have been assembled from parts used in World War I staff cars, hastily prepared for the postwar consumer market. This particular Crossley is unusually complete for a veteran car, having suffered a bad rear-end smash many years ago and being left for decades unrepaired. The car’s previous owner, John Corby, told me from his Port Macquarie home that he had bought it in 1956 from an Arthur Rose, of Scenic Highway, Adamstown. Mr Rose died shortly after selling the car, but he told Mr Corby that the car had been in his family for a long time. Mr Corby spent years working on it before selling it to his friend Mr Garthon. Mr Garthon was a long-time prominent car dealer in Sydney and some years ago was awarded an Order of Australia for his vintage and veteran car restoration work.

The day the plate went missing

How the plate came to be buried in the bush at Jesmond is anybody’s guess. It must certainly have been separated from the vehicle for decades. A little light was shed on the mystery by Arthur Rose’s daughter, Gwen Parlane, who clearly remembered the day the plate was missed. It was in the 1950s and she was putting her bicycle away in the shed where the Crossley was also stored when her father exclaimed that somebody had been “at the car”. He flung up the bonnet of the Crossley and immediately saw the builder’s plate had been removed.

Gwen Rose with her mother and grandmother in front of the Crossley Tourer

“Dad was furious that it was taken”, Gwen said. ‘‘He said it was a really important part of the car. It was something that proved what it was and when it was made, around the time of World War One.’’ Nobody could ever suggest a motive for the theft. One idea was that the thief might have known somebody named Crossley and stolen the plate as a namesake gift, but there’s no evidence for or against that theory. For old Pop Rose the theft was a burr under his saddle until he died.

The old ‘‘Croz’’ was part of the family and well-known around Newcastle for many years. It is reputed to have brought up the rear in more than one city May Day parade and Gwen’s brother Trevor recalled driving down Hunter Street in the Croz with his wife-to-be in the back seat, ‘‘waving like the Queen’’. Crossley was for many years a favourite make of the British royal family and in 1927 a dozen of them were imported to Australia for the visit of the Duke of York at the opening of Parliament House. There was a Rose family legend – which has proved impossible to confirm – that their Crossley had been part of a royal motorcade.

It’s nice to think that, by a stroke of luck, the old car has got its long-lost builder’s plate back where it belongs. Old Pop would surely be pleased.

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