American Hero

Crouls's collection. The 250 Monza, the 250 GT Berlinetta, the 195 S; photo Pawel Litwinski-

Jack Croul’s story is not fiction, but a real story, one that we would all love to have lived. a young bomber pilot in world war II, an enthusiastic entrepreneur and a passionate fan of motor racing of the old continent, he has built the most beautiful things in his life, beginning with his memories. he’s also a great benefactor and someone who loves Italy in the same way that he loves America. a gripping story…

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Jack Croul is telling the tale of one of his toughest missions in a US Air Force B-17. ‘As the German fighters were attacking us head-on, I thought the bright white lights on their wings were the landing lights blinking. Then I realised that they were the lights of the German fighter’s machine guns.’ Later he describes supporting the Normandy landings in a placid tone of voice, as if he were telling the story of something he had seen at the cinema. ‘I was 19 years old. My position on board was right in the nose of the aircraft [completely windowed so as to give the best visibility] and I had the dual role of navigator and machine-gunner, with two guns aimed at different angles to protect us from enemy fighters. I flew 33 combat missions and kept a diary of each one.’ He pauses for a moment, and his face allows you to see that the memory is still strong. ‘We were lucky. On some occasions we were hit, some of us in our plane were injured, but on that day in May 1944 planes were being shot down all around us. Our group sent 26 planes that day and 12 were shot down. There weren’t many of us who were able to complete so many missions.’

Count it on your fingers: if Croul was 19 years old in 1945, then today he’s 86. Yet you wouldn’t say so, for he seems to be ageless: as lucid as he was then and in good physical condition. So good that he has come to Brescia for the 1000 Miglia, for the 16th time. But what does the memory of the famous Italian road race have to do with the memory of the World War II for this collector of the great events of history? ‘When I got back to Pasadena from Snetterton, our English base’ – and some may remember that after the war Snetterton became one of the many circuits that helped English motor racing become so important – ‘I spent four years in college studying economics. Soon after graduating I began work in a paint shop. I did everything, from mixing paints to selling them.’ However, Croul did have time for a very special passion: he had bought an MG TC and had become an avid reader of motorsport magazines. In one of these, in 1950, he had seen a photo of a Ferrari that had won the 1000 Miglia at an average speed of more than 100km/h, as driven by Giannino Marzotto. It was a revelation. Perhaps it was the disturbing but fascinating memory of those lands he had seen from the sky without being able to get to know them, the seduction of those Italian cars, small and light but extremely highperformance, and the euphoria of a period when the economy was experiencing dizzying growth bringing affluence; the fact is, he began to follow motor racing with a passion. ‘The first race I saw was at Pebble Beach, when they still raced on road circuits, in the forest near the sea. Phil Hill won, in an Alfa Romeo 8C 2900, and from that moment on I continued to go to the track and pursue an interest in racing cars. At that race, I saw a Ferrari for the first time, a 166 MM Barchetta driven by Jim Kimberly, and I have a couple of photos of him racing. But work was too demanding to leave sufficient time for him to do any actual racing himself. So, in the finest tradition of the American self-made man, Croul began to acquire a small shareholding in the company where he worked, Behr Process Corporation, known for its shiny metal tins with the quality-assured embossed trademark. He continued to increase his shareholding until he took control in 1985, along with his father-inlaw. ‘It was an incredible time: so many houses, so much paint. We were like Ford, who only manufactured cars in black. For us it was white paint. White or white.’

But how could that be if the competition had 40 different colours? The answer explains why Croul not only has a collection of cars that includes, among others, one of the most important Ferraris as well as a number of perfectly functioning fighter planes, but above all a reputation for giving a lot of money to charity, something for which he is widely recognised in America. Croul is shrewd and inventive. ‘By using a computerised tinting machine we managed to produce a full range of colours using just three basic colours. This gave us an extraordinary advantage over our competitors who had to deal with huge inventories of containers of each of their colours.’
There was no time for racing, but Croul’s dynamism couldn’t restrict him to work: he was a fan of yachting, but aircraft remained in his heart. So he gained his pilot’s licence (the young airman at the time did not fly) and in 2000, at the age of 76, he even gained a helicopter pilot’s licence.
However, all this had not been enough to rub out the memory of that photograph of Marzotto and his Ferrari unleashed on the roads of Italy. So, in 1994, Croul signed on for the re-enactment of the 1000 Miglia, in a Nash Healey, but his application ended up in the rejection pile. Disappointment soon faded; he decided to put an advert in a specialised magazine, asking if anyone entered was prepared to give up his place. Fortune favoured him once again: an American who had entered a Fiat 8V Siata was no longer able to take part. Croul took over the entry and the car and was so thrilled with the Italian experience that, once back in the USA, he even bought the car he had hired.
It was the beginning of a series of major acquisitions, the jewels in the crown being the Ferraris: his first purchase, the 250 GT Tour de France factory car, which won fifth place in the 1956 1000 Miglia with Olivier Gendebien, not too far behind the winner, Eugenio Castellotti. Shortly afterwards he was able to buy the 340 America Vignale, the winner with Luigi Villoresi at the wheel in 1951, and a 212 Barchetta Touring Superleggera. At this point the collection was enriched with another truly special car: Marzotto’s 195 MM, the model that had ignited his passion for Ferraris.

‘I like to use my cars, I keep them all in perfect condition and I drive them on all the mountain roads around Newport Beach’

Today the collection includes another rather special car; a 250 Monza from 1954 (and thus a 12-cylinder model), with new bodywork created by Scaglietti in 1957 in the style of the then-new Testa Rossa. This was a model which changed the rules of sports car styling of the period, with its protruding ‘pontoon fenders’. The wonderful thing is that Croul didn’t just limit himself to buying cars. He also got to know the drivers who had success with them: Giannino, as extrovert as ever; Villoresi, now forced to use a wheelchair but still clear in his memories of his achievements; and the great aristocrat of road racing, Gendebien. ‘I like to use my cars, I keep them all in perfect condition and I drive them on all the mountain roads around Newport Beach,’ Croul says. In his garage he has a beautifully organised workshop with 40 cars in his collection. ‘Unfortunately, however, cars nowadays are too expensive. For this reason I decided to concentrate on my aircraft collection…’ Aircraft? Yes, because it’s no surprise that someone whose life was saved thanks to Allied fighter planes escorting bombers on their missions should become passionate about these special guardian angels. ‘A P-38, perfectly restored and in flight condition, costs around $1.5m. Some Ferraris cost much more!’ He has two P-51 Mustangs, the planes he loves most since they would escort B-17s on even the longest missions; Spitfires and P-47 Thunderbolts did not have enough range and, in the most delicate part of a mission, often had to return to base because they were running out of fuel. When Croul, at 7.25am on the morning of D-Day, bombed French soil 10 minutes before the first Canadian and Australian landings and, in a second mission in the afternoon, took the attack inland, there were no more fighters. ‘A couple of years ago,’ he continues calmly. ‘I read that a P-47 Thunderbolt sunk in an Austrian lake had been found. It had crashed on the last day of the war, 8 May 1945, while we in England were shooting in the air from joy and our General was even firing into the hayloft in celebration. The pilot had gone too near the water and had hit it with the propeller. He was lucky enough to be saved by two teenage girls who were there in a boat, as if they were expecting him. The aircraft had remained in perfect condition, with even the original decoration on the nose. Now it’s here, in America. We are restoring it and still need a couple of years to finish it.’ For a child of 1924, that’s not bad! ‘I have four planes, I keep them close to home, there’s an airport for collectors, but I don’t fly them myself. The P-51 Mustang, with its 500 horsepower, seems as if it’s about to topple over when you give it maximum gas.’ We had this talk during a dinner at home. It wasn’t an interview; that would have been nowhere near as pleasant.

‘What I would like to be remembered for is having been an honest man’

Besides Croul is not a man for interviews. He is not a man who puts himself forward, or someone who wants to be seen. It even seems as if he observes the world from a step backwards, with discretion and with great elegance. That’s why it was wonderful to have been able to tell this part of the adventurous, extraordinary story of his life, of his passions and humanity. ‘At work I created more than 30 dollar-millionaires among my employees and, among other things, I’ve built a centre for research at the University of California, I’ve donated City Hall and I’ve restored the historical buildings of the port area. What I would like to be remembered for is having been an honest man who helped a lot of people in difficulty. I consider myself to be a fortunate man.’ That’s Jack. But it would be nice to think that he will also be remembered for having decided, at this young age, to buy and restore a B-17 in which he flew over the Normandy coast; as a way of recalling this brave youngster who had the good fortune to survive a monstrous event in which many of his peers, from a world divided in a futile way, lost their lives.

Published on The Official Ferrari Magazine issue 11, December 2010

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  • manny navarro

    some people have extraordinary lives. i am not one of those people

  • Ducati28

    What a great story and an amazing passion for Italian cars.