If Neville Crichton’s life was a movie, critics would slate it as overblown, absurd, unrealistic and a load of bollocks.
First published in the May 2016 issue of Wheels magazine, Australia’s most experienced and most trusted car magazine since 1953.
“Born in a far-away land called New Zealand to a penniless farmer, he builds a series of multi-million-dollar car businesses around the world, loses all his wealth overnight and grows it again, while simultaneously becoming a champion race driver, bedding babes and skippering race boats at the highest level, including two wins in the Sydney to Hobart, all despite contracting throat cancer, surviving with a hole in his throat instead of a voice box and thus risking death if he falls over the side of one of the super-yachts he’s designed.”
Many believe he could also play the bad guy in the film, with a ruthless, winner-take-all persona. This is not his life story – we simply don’t have room for that – but even the highlights of what sounds like a life lived thrice over beggar belief.
SOMETIMES one story, a single moment, can tell you everything about a bloke, and can cause his life to pivot wildly. In Crichton’s case, it’s a tale of bacon versus sausages.
Born in 1945 on a farm on New Zealand’s South Island, by the age of 12 Neville was buying bicycles cheap, tarting them up and selling them for enough profit to buy his first sailing boat. Within a year of quitting school at 15 – “I hated school; couldn’t stand the discipline” – he was living on his own in Auckland and getting nabbed, repeatedly, for dealing used cars without a licence.
“When the police came around the last time I had four or five cars at home, and they were pretty strict about it, too,” he grumbles. “I’d do the sanding down, get them painted, sell them off. I was just a backyard car dealer, but I thought I’d better get into the business.”
With a gift for selling, he quickly rose from flogging tractors to monosyllabic farmers to setting up his own dealership, despite having only one car to sell.
“I remember it was a Holden Monaro. I borrowed some money and within six months we were the biggest used car dealer in Auckland. The business just took off; it was easy, and I loved it. I just absolutely love selling cars.”
By 29, Crichton had made his first fortune and decided to sell up, buy a yacht and go sailing the Pacific, indefinitely. But about 10 months later, in 1975, that significant moment arrived.
“I was having breakfast one morning at the CYC (Cruising Yacht Club) in Sydney with a big pile of businessmen and they were all talking about this deal and that deal and what they’re going to buy and sell. I went back to the boat – I had a mate on there – and I said: ‘There’s $5000 in the safe, just get the boat back to New Zealand. I’m gone. I’m getting out of here’.
“These guys were talking about all these deals and decisions and the only decision I had to make today was whether to have bacon and eggs or sausages and eggs, and I was struggling with that. I had to get off that boat. They’re doing deals and I’m this fucking dumb yachtie, doing nothing.”
Crichton went straight to the airport and bought a ticket home where, not for the last time in his life, luck stepped in.
Before he’d even left the Customs area at Auckland airport he bumped into someone who offered him a good deal on a car business in Hawaii. Crichton didn’t even leave the airport, jumping straight on a Honolulu flight on his way to becoming, for a time, the biggest Mazda dealer in the world.
“Everyone said, ‘Forget Mazda, you’d rather have herpes than Mazda’, but I felt it gave me an opportunity to get into the car business. Within three months we were doing 300 cars a month and we were away. My timing couldn’t have been better. The little 323 came out, it was a good car and Mazda went through the roof.”
LUCK, it seemed, was on Crichton’s payroll, but then his fortunes changed, drastically, in 1979. He was diagnosed with throat cancer, despite being a non-smoker. Doctors speculated that a kick in the throat while playing rugby as a kid – which left him with a Darren Lockyer-like voice and the life-long nickname of Croaky – was likely to blame.
He suffered through 30 operations, including a tracheotomy that robbed him of his sense of smell, forever, any sense of taste and, for a whole year, the power of speech.
“It was bloody difficult; your brain’s wanting to express things, but you can’t say a word,” he says, his rattling yet booming voice coming out of a 50c-sized valve in his throat that he has to hold closed, blocking off the airflow and vibrating the muscles in his neck, to talk.
Crichton was the first person in the world to have this then experimental procedure, after tracking down a doctor in Indianapolis who was struggling to find willing guinea-pigs.
“It was pretty agricultural, and still is, but it works,” he shrugs.
“The whole period of cancer is a bit of a blur; I’ve kind of put it out of my life. But I was in business all the way along. I never stopped, even when I couldn’t talk, but it was bloody difficult.
“After one of the last big operations, I got out of hospital, went on the boat and did a trans-Pacific yacht race. Which wasn’t the smartest thing I could have done. But that’s the way I handled it; I never, ever accepted there was an issue.”
Dogged, damned determination got him through again when, at the end of 1981, he was told he had three months to live, an announcement he says changed his life.
“I sold my business, sorted out my marriage, went back to New Zealand. I might have thought I was going back there to die, but I went back and thought, ‘Bugger that, I’m not going to’. I worked at it pretty hard and I was back in business within three months,” he says, almost laughing at his own cussedness.
“I just didn’t accept that I had cancer; the hole in my neck pissed me off a bit because I [used to] love swimming, and water skiing and surfing, but I didn’t slow up on the yachting. If I fell in the water I was gone, I knew that, but I still did some stupid bloomin’ things on boats...”
This included capsizing a maxi-yacht, in the middle of the night, which should have killed him much quicker than cancer.
“I didn’t think about [dying], I was just more worried about the boat and the crew; it wasn’t good,” he recalls.
By the mid-1980s, despite being told to lead a less stressful existence by doctors, Crichton decided his life didn’t have enough excitement in it, so he transferred his already hugely successful car racing hobby to Australia, having twice won the New Zealand Touring Car Championship in his spare time. He also bought a little company in Sydney called Ateco and turned it into a vast car-selling conglomerate (his estimated worth today is $175 million, which is probably on the low side).
In Australia, Crichton raced for the JPS BMW team – infamously neglecting to tell the cigarette-sponsored team about his throat cancer until after signing the deal – the HDT and Dick Johnson, and partnered legends like Jim Richards, all while running a huge business during the week, and still racing yachts.
“I was driving at the same level as those guys, but they did it full-time and I had a large business. I think I could have been quite competitive if I’d just done nothing else, but it was always a small part of my life.
“I remember we had a [TV] hook-up from the America’s Cup to the car at Bathurst one year; we had a three-way conversation with [Kookaburra skipper] Iain Murray on the Cup boat, Dick Johnson and myself, while driving around Bathurst.
“I love cars. I love driving fast. I was always convinced that if my teammate could do a time, I could do it. Mind you, the first time I drove around Bathurst I was so slow you could have taken my time with a sun dial. But Jim Richards was fantastic; he would tell me where I was going wrong, and I was a very good copier.”
Crichton quit racing in 1990, after one bad race made him realise he was wasting his time, and concentrated on sailing, at least in his spare time, and designing super-yachts – having set up what became a $3 billion luxury boat-building industry in NZ back in 1982.
“I just wanted to build a boat and couldn’t get anyone excited about it, so I set up my own yard, just to do my boat, and then someone else was interested and suddenly I’m in the boat business. I basically started the super-yacht industry in New Zealand,” he says, without a trace of modesty.
But how does anyone do all this, all at the same time? Does he not sleep? “Oh no, I’ve got to have sleep, at least five hours,” he laughs. “But there’s no such thing as an eight-hour day.”
Crichton reckons sailing is harder than racing cars, particularly when the weather is pounding you, but easier to learn. He believes driving at the elite level is a skill you have to be born with, and he’s actually far more famous as a skipper, having won 174 major blue-water classic races; he’s even something of a celebrity in Italy, where yachting is a big television sport.
“You do get spotted in the street; I quite enjoyed that, actually,” he grins.
CRICHTON is not a man who minces words; he tends to barbecue them, particularly when it comes to people he feels have slighted him in business, or journalists, many of whom he treats with raging contempt.
Asked by The Sydney Morning Herald about a $28 million investment he made in a coal company at the centre of a corruption inquiry involving controversial Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid, Crichton replied: “It’s none of your fucking business where I invest money.”
He later sued some of the country’s wealthiest coal barons and two high-profile stockbrokers for misleading and deceptive conduct over millions of dollars secretly funnelled to the Obeid family.
Partly it seems to be a fear of being sued that makes it hard to get anyone to comment about him on the record, but as one industry insider put it, “there’d be as many views about him as there are people who’ve met him”. Others speak of his brutality with staff, his ruthless business practices and high turnover of female partners, describing a man of win-at-all-costs intensity.
Over the years, he’s taken the Australian import licences for various brands, built them up and then seen them snatched back by manufacturers as diverse as Kia and Ferrari.
“Kia were so smart they halved their business when they took it off me,” he thunders. “It was making in excess of $40 million a year; they turned it around from 26,000 cars a year to 15,000 cars and lost $100m in the first 18 months. I couldn’t believe it – they were all, ‘Crichton’s making too much money, we’d better be greedy and take it back’.
“I remember saying it’s disappointing because the business is bulletproof, even the Koreans can’t fuck it up. But they did, they found a way.”
You can tell he’s more upset, but less voluble, about losing Ferrari. His office sits above a shiny red dealership in Sydney from which he used to sell the famous Prancing Horses, not that he ever loved driving them.
“When we first took the franchise over, I took an F430 home and I thought, ‘This must be the biggest bucket of shit I’ve ever driven in my life’,” he recalls. “I couldn’t believe how anyone would buy one. It couldn’t get up my driveway. I thought, ‘How could anyone pay $400,000 for this?’ I’ve got to say the cars have got immensely better, but the early ones were just shocking. I never took another one home, ever, but I sold lots of them.”
Making too much money may have cost him at times, but ask Crichton if he’s ever had any failures and he goes silent for quite some time, trying to think of one.
“I lost everything in 1989 in the stock market. I was pretty upset about it and I could have killed the fucking stockbroker who sold me the shares. I think we had about $80 million worth of shares and within two weeks they were worth nothing. It wasn’t good,” he rages. “If I’d had the guts I would have jumped off the Harbour Bridge, but I didn’t.
“I remember just after that, Audi advised me I’d got the franchise for Australia and I was struggling to find the money to fly to Germany to sign the contract. But we borrowed the money to set it up, and sold that to Inchcape for $25 million in goodwill, and that got me going again.”
Crichton is 70 now and lives in Point Piper right next door to ‘Aussie’ John Symonds’ mega-mansion, but he reckons if a burglar broke into his house “they’d look around and say, ‘you need a bit of help, here’s some money’.”
He doesn’t take holidays, nor can he seriously consider completely retiring because he’d be “bored stiff”.
“I’ve always said when I don’t want to go and sell a car on the floor any more I should get out of it, and it’s getting close to that time now,” he says. Five minutes later he’s downstairs, schmoozing a former Ferrari customer, his patter as smooth as his voice is rough, his eyes still twinkling with little dollar signs.
You couldn’t make him up.
On (and off) the record
Ask a range of people what they think of Neville Crichton and you’ll hear the same words a lot: “not on the record”, “competitive”, “tough” and “bastard”.
There are rumours of some friction between Crichton and Ferrari over its decision to take the brand back in-house locally, but Herbert Appleroth, CEO of the local arm, barely has an unkind word to say about him.
“I have enormous respect for Neville as a businessmen as well as a sportsman,” Appleroth says. “What he has been able to achieve in business as he also has done in sport is a credit to his determination and competitive spirit. However, on the flip side, like in sport, Neville likes to win and not give an inch.”
Compatriot and former teammate Jim Richards says he’s never had a cross word with Neville, but then he’s never been in business with him. He rates him as a driver, though.
“It’s hard to know how good he could have been if he’d done it full-time, but he drove very well, better than a lot of other guys, and he’s beaten me in races in New Zealand,” Richo says. “There were a few people doing it as a part-time thing back then, but he was better than that, he was like a professional. I think he could have been bloody good.
“He was very successful in business. When he did something he wanted to do it to the best of his ability, but with racing he couldn’t because he had to work. If the phone rang he’d have to answer it, even at Bathurst.”