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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”