Whatever Happened To...Crosley

Glenn Arlt

January 14, 2014

In the latest installment of a series examining short-lived automotive marques and models, Glenn Arlt looks at America’s first post-war mass-produced economy car and Ohio businessman behind it.   

Powell Crosley

Born in Ohio in 1886, Powell Crosley rose to become an American pioneer of radio and broadcasting. He was also an innovator and entrepreneur responsible for building many essential appliances such as refrigerators, washing machines and even airplanes. But his true love was always the automobile.            

In 1908, Crosley began his prolific business career with the goal of establishing a company that could build an inexpensive yet reliable automobile. He called the automobile the Marathon Six, but the venture proved unsuccessful. Instead, he turned to the manufacture and selling of auto accessories while, at the same time, plunging into the then new and exciting world of radio.

Roamio Radio

Setting the Stage for Success

Shocked at the $100 price tag for consumer radios, Crosley used a over-the-counter how-to manual to build one from parts. Crosley’s 20-dollar Harko radio soon made him a household name with consumers and, by 1924, he owned the largest radio manufacturing facility in the world — a company that also produced the first popularly-priced car radio, the Roamio.

By the 1930s, Crosley had parlayed his new-found fortune and knack for innovation into the world of household appliances. He invented a non-electric, kerosene fueled freezer for farmers he called the Icyball. He also was the first to offer the rather revolutionary idea of refrigerators with shelves in doors, dubbed the “Shelvador.

By 1939, with these early successes behind him, Crosley was finally able to rekindle his dream of producing an automobile for the masses. The original two-seat Crosley sedan had a diminutive 80-inch wheelbase, weighed just 925 pounds and utilized a Waukesha opposed, twin cylinder, air-cooled engine, much like that of the post-war Citroen 2CV. With a price tag of only $325 to $350, the car was competitively priced compared to its competition, namely the American Bantam that sold for $449 to $565. 

While the rising showroom prices of cars didn’t seem to bother automobile manufacturers of the day, Crosley remained committed to selling reliable vehicles that anyone could afford. The idea paid off with roughly 5,000 Crosley cars built and sold to the car-hungry public in 1946.

Crosley’s liquid cooled, inline four-cylinder engine with an overhead camshaft was highly advanced for the time. It was powered by the innovative “COBRA” (COpper BRAazed) four-cylinder engine, which was developed from a war-time engine which powered U.S. Navy torpedoes. Unfortunately, the engine proved very unreliable and most of the brazed engines required replacement.

Crosley soon came out with a four-seat version of his increasingly popular car. Selling for just $888, 19,344 vehicles were sold in 1947 while the Crosley station wagon that debut the following year accounted for 26,239 sales, putting it ahead of Lincoln in 1948.

Crosley

More Crosley Firsts

By 1949, Crosley began building CIBA (“Cast-Iron Block Assembly”) engines and offered them inexpensively for retro-fitting in 1946-1948 cars. The new cast-iron engine used the same 44-cubic-inch displacement design, pistons, rods, crankshaft, valves and overhead camshaft driven by a vertical jack-shaft. Power was still rated at 26.5 horsepower.

By this time, Crosley vehicles were vastly improved mechanically and aesthetically. He also showed himself a visionary in regard to automotive safety by introducing the first caliper disc brakes for production cars, while still maintaining an affordable price point at just under $900.

In 1950, Crosley upped the ante yet again with the introduction of the Hot Shot Super Sports roadster and critics like the famed car-tester Tom McCahill were impressed.  In a 1951 review, McCahill praised the Hot Shot in Mechanix Illustrated, calling Crosley’s “mechanized roller skate” a great American sports car.

“This thousand-dollar tobacco-can on casters,” wrote McCahill, “is a great sports car in any league [and] with it’s 10 to 1 compression ratio (it) will take anything in its class ever delivered to these shores. If a team of six Crosley Super Sports were to race a team of six MGs at either Bridgehampton or Watkins Glen, I’d put my hundred bucks on the Crosley Team’s nose every time. The Super Sports hold the road like glue and it corners like a baby Ferrari.” Considering that a Crosley won the first race at Sebring in 1950, McCahill certainly had the right idea.

Crosley

The End of the Production Line

By 1952, after Crosley had poured his personal fortune into the venture, he gave up and sold the Marion, Indiana, factory. The engine went on to be produced in various forms, including Homelite (later Bearcat) four-stroke outboards, until 1970. 

So, why didn’t Crosley succeed where Volkswagen later did? In hindsight, timing had a lot to do with it.  Even in 1952, the suburbs were only just beginning to burgeon, and second cars in any household were considered a real luxury. Crosley’s market was limited to the U.S. whereas Volkswagen automobiles where sold throughout the world with the corresponding economies of scale. With healthy sales worldwide, VW could afford to wait for the market for small cars to develop.

Today, Crosley convertibles — especially the improved 1948 through 1952 models and the Hot Shot and Super Sport open sports cars — can top $25,000. Conversely, early (1946-1947) Crosley sedans can be had for under $6,000 in Number 3/good condition. Station wagons top out at under $20,000, which probably would have made Powell Crosley smile, since his cars were never intended to be affordable, not "valuable." 

Comments

  1. Ken Drovdal Mandan, N.D.

    Dear sirs; I read with interest your article on the Crosley automobile. As a teenager I owned one in the mid 1950's and I believe it was an early to mid 1940's model. It was a panel type body style, black in color that I paid forty dollars for and I drove it for two years during the summer months only as it was not a good vehicle for South Dakota winters in those years. My Grandpa drove a pickup style Crosley that he had before I found mine and he and I would go fishing with it on occasion. After two years I sold mine for the same forty dollars I paid for it and that gentleman then cut it apart and made two boat trailers out of parts of it using the front and rear axles. Goodby Crosley!!! I do recall breaking the cable to the clutch one time and scrounging for parts at the local car yards to patch it back together and then I enjoyed driving the car for months afterward. Respectfully yours, Ken Drovdal, Mandan, N.D.

  2. Bernie Smit Lafayette, IN

    My friend, Wm. "Bill" Hoffine, age 92, remembers fondly the post war years he spent as a Crosley dealer in Lafayette, Indiana. He and his wife would take public transportation to Michigan and each would drive a new Crosley back to their dealership. He recalls being able install a CIBA engine in a customer's Crosley in a few hours for $39.95 complete.

  3. Ron New Jersey

    I had no idea any Crosley had sporting pretensions, but if McCahill said so, that's pretty good authority. But please tell me Crosley won its class at Sebring, not overall, for heaven's sake!

  4. carmen sacchetti Bluffton, SC 29909

    My great friend Joseph "Joe Moon" DeLorenzo (deceased) was the Crosley master in Conn. and right up there with the most knowledgeable Crosley person. He had a number of these cars including the Hot Shot and Farmerall. I believe his wife still owns some of the cars. Rest in Peace Joe Buddy. Carmen Sacchetti

  5. Ted Main Former Detroiter, now Illinois

    Just a comment about the Crosley. My friend in high school, Dick Fry, and family had a couple of Crosleys; one red pickup and a station wagon. Both ran great and my friend enjoyed working on them. This was in the early 60's. When we moved to Detroit, I heard about a unique Crosley dealer. It was J L Hudson at their former huge downtown department store. A section of an upper floor was dedicated to the dealership. T. Main

  6. Devereaux Langdoc Santa Barbara, California

    I hold great teenage memories of our chartreuse 1948 Crosley sedan! My sister and I commuted to high school (Loveland, Ohio) for more than a year in our tiny yellow-green Crosley. At least once, my sister came out to find the Crosley had been picked up by 4 classmates and carried to a location she couldn't drive out of! After their great guffaws... the guys came out of hiding and picked it back up to return it to the parking lot. Another incident occurred while driving back out to our farm near Cozaddale, Ohio... route 47 had several seriously narrow "one lane" bridges and a huge Buick caught us from behind and decided to see if he could actually pass that tiny little Crosley in the middle of the one lane, just to see if he could! He made it through with maybe the width of a layer of paint! And, much to my terror! We always had to park the Crosley on a slight incline in our front yard next to the driveway because the electric starter simply could not spin the engine over fast enough to start. We always had to roll at least 5 feet and then pop the clutch to ensure starting. I mourned the loss of our fabulous Crosley personality... That car really was a character! It was greatly frustrating to remember the upgrade to the next car was a Nash Rambler station wagon... Oh, My! Thanks Mr. Romney! I much preferred my Crosley!

  7. Karl Pallastrini Carmel California

    Growing up in Rural Carmel Valley California, my father had two early 1950's Crosleys. One was the hardtop "convertible" and the other was a two door hardtop. Dad drove the cars to work in Monterey around 25 miles one way daily for many years. When one was down for "maintenance"…the other one carried the load. Both cars were bought for a total of $100.This was my first introduction to a small car and I was taken. I remember taking the engine out of the convertible and carrying it into the garage. Didn't weigh much. I could never figure out how that little engine moved the car along for so many years. Truly a Shelvador on wheels.

  8. Bill Fabrey Sharpsville, Pa

    I owned a 49 station wagon in 53 & 54 in high school, they were hard to come by!!! Had a great time with that thing when I was at football practice a bunch of guys picked it up and walk it to the football field, coach wasn't real happy with me!!

  9. Chuck Anderson Tennessee

    In the mid 50s, many Crosleys were cut up to make micro-midget race cars. In 1956, I had one that used a Crosley frame, steering box, and front and rear axles along with a Cushman motor scooter engine. Micro-midgets was a very popular class in Florida at that time. Crosly engines were also used in a number of class H sports cars in the late 50s.

  10. Pete irvin Georgia

    My sister and I inherited a 1950 Red Crosley Hot Shot from my father who was a dentist in Indiana. In the late 50's dad traded dental work for the car. He loved taking people a ride in his pride and joy. The car is in great condition and will always remain in the family.

  11. Lucky B, Houston Houston

    My grandfather was a Crosley appliance and car distributor in Houston and I have a picture of him in one of the first Crosley automobiles in the mid 30's at Crosley field. He was a very small man and the car was just about right for him. Your article brought back pleasant memories.

  12. tedforlenza statenisland

    1951CrosleyHotShot

  13. charles williams Powder Springs, Georgia

    Enjoyed article on Crosley. I learned to drive on a 1948 Crosley sedan and recently found on and I am in the process of restoring this little jewel. I started learning to drive when I was 13 years old and would visit my aunt in Alabama who had one. Looking forward to getting it ready for some Sunday drives

  14. John "Skip" Hickman Florida

    I had a buddy in high school that had a Crosley wagon. We had a great time with it. Never though that in the future I would race boats. In the 48 cu in class we ran a Crosley engine with increased compression, racing cam, on straight metanol fuel and they would stay together at 9400-9600 - rpm. The best engine we ran came from freezer unit on a semi-truck "Frigid King" or Thermo king. Also I drove a raceboat with twin Crosleys .... hooked end to end with one engine turning in reverse with a reground cam. That was in the 91 cu in class. Very interesting engine and very inventive ... that Mr. Crosley.

  15. Bob Hermann Houston De.

    In 1950 My Brother Jerry worked at an independent gas station named Hiedes gas on main st in Rochester In. Well on pleasant summer day he called me and told me that Mr Hiede has a Crosley car at the station and I should come down and see it. Upon arrival sure enough here was the Crosley .After a through inspection I asked if I could take it for a drive and was given permission to drive around the block. .Well the block was stretched into several miles and my memory tells me that the car so responsive to my driving input that it was total new experience in my limited age of 16yrs. I did have some driving experience because I drove every thing I had permission to drive and a few I didn't . LOL

  16. Bob Luther Alexandria Virginia

    Ever heard of a Stutz Bearcat replica built on a Crosley chassis? At one time it was registered in Pennsylvania (has a state issued vin plate). It looks like a 'factory build' and is yellow. The cosmetics appear to date back to the 50's or 60's. Thanks!

  17. ED Mt. pleasant Michigan

    I noticed the picture of the convertible 2 seater looks like a bug eyed sprite (Austin Healey). what is the relationship between Crosley and Austin? If any.

  18. Doug Mebane nc

    In the mid 60's I owned a Salem wood inboard boat. It was one of the last built at the Salem Boat works in Salem Va. It was originally owned by the Salem Police chief. This boat had a Crosley engine installed with a roots supercharger from the factory. I restored the boat but never ran it with the supercharger. It certainly needed it. Lots of fun.

  19. Fred United States

    Crosleys are infectious, and some of us can't have just one (6 here). There is a great national Crosley Automobile Club with lots of fun events and annual national meet. not owning a Crosley is no problem, we have a lot of people that just enjoy them.

  20. Frank Woods Canton Ohio

    In 1960 my friend, Doug had a 1939 Crosley. It was modified with a Ford "60" flat head V8, Chrysler 3 speed tranny and I think a Chevy rear end. No drive shaft as they all bolted together. We were juniors in high school and enjoyed our "hot rod" until the front axel broke. Our first convertible. In 2011 I discovered a friend of my had that same '39 Crosley. But sadly it was by then only a pile of rust about a foot high from outside storage for the last 20+ years. Only salvageable parts were the 4 hub caps

  21. Roy Doolin Hardin Texas

    The Crosley transmissions got used in Power King and Economy tractors.

  22. Barry Pa.

    The tin block was used by the military in WWII. It was never used in torpedos. It was used to power portable generator units, refrigeration units, and was used in PT boats, and B25's to power the radar units. The military used alcohol based anti-freeze, and loved the engines. After the war when the engine was used in the post war Crosley the civilian anti-freeze was salt based,, and along with electrolosis, it ate holes in the sheet metal block. I have many Crosleys, and rebuild the engines for the cars, and for the many race cars that still run the engine. The 3/4 midgets were almost all Crosley powered, as the Hmod race cars. The engine was also used in the first Hydroplane race boats. Sonny Hull who started the Crosley powered Hydroplanes is still alive, and still has his winning boat all restored.

  23. Glenn W. Arlt Traverse City, Michigan

    Ed, there was no relationship between Crosley and any other car manufacturer, though I'd never before seen the resemblance between the late 1950's Austin-Healey Bug-Eye Sprite and the Crosley roadsters, you are right. But then it would have been Healey (the designer) "borrowing" the lines from the Crosley which was out of production by 1952, wouldn't it? For the person who asked about the Sebring races, no the Crosley didn't win outright!

  24. CROSLEY CAR OWNERS CLUB Worldwide

    Thank you, Glenn, for a well-done article on Crosley. (A quick correction: Crosley did offer both two- and four-seat models from the start, and Powel's name is spelled with one L.) Our CCOC of five hundred members worldwide offers free memberships - ownership isn't a prerogative - and the CCOC emphasizes preservation and restoration of these historic Crosley cars and trucks. The CCOC is on Facebook and at Yahoo Groups at http://www.groups.yahoo.com/group/Crosley . That's all it takes to join. Thanks again!

  25. Barry Pa.

    A stock Crosley Hotshot won first place at the first Sebring race. The race was run by handicap rules. In other words, engine size x a certain number equaled the number of laps the car had to complete.

  26. Doug Hawthorne, nj

    My dad made deliveries for a drug store in one when he was in high school. (late 40's) He said it had really bad brakes.

  27. RJ MO

    Although there may never have been a relation between Crosley and any other auto manufacturer I found the information in this link pretty interesting. Crosley might be the only reason we even know of Datsun/Nissan today! http://www.earlydatsun.com/datsundb.html

  28. michael roberts missisippi

    didn't crosleys get a 2nd lease on life in japan as the DATSUN 39?