To follow the development of the Crosley car and see its place in the American automobile industry, it is necessary to go all the way back to the turn of the century when R.E. Olds was building thousands of Curved Dash Oldsmobiles.
These cars were essentially a light body, a small one cylinder engine, and four bicycle wheels. The first "light car" to be mass produced. Following Olds was the cycle car craze just prior to World War I. These cars were absolutely minimal vehicles usually powered by a motorcycle engine and selling for a few hundred dollars. The Model T quickly brought an end to these generally poor vehicles. A few survivors hung on into the twenties; the Auto Buckboard and the Auto Redbug - both ancestors of the go-kart.
Then in 1929 a group of businessmen formed the American Austin Company to build the very successful British Austin 7 in the United States. This unfortunate company staggered on from failure to failure in the thirties, in the process re-organizing and changing it's name to the American Bantam Company and lodging in Butler, PA. As almost a dying gasp, Bantam invented the Jeep for the U.S. Army in 1940. The Army rewarded the company by ordering almost all of its Jeeps from Willys and Ford.
Other than the Bantam, there were no American Mini-cars in existence at the time. So, a possible market was there waiting, waiting for a product to fill it.
Experiments began at Crosley in late 1937 to build a small, low priced car to do for the automobile business what Crosley had done for radio. To open the curtain a little, the name of Crosley Radio Company was changed to just the Crosley Company and plans went forward on the car. Rumors of a Crosley car began to appear in newspapers through the last part of 1938. It wasn't until 1939 that any confirmation came from the Crosley Company. On April 2, Lewis Crosley confirmed the rumors and gave a few specifications of the new car. It would be a two cylinder coupe that would sell for $395. An unconfirmed rumor had the car being a three wheeler.
On April 20, 1939 a press release by the Crosley Company described the car as a three passenger coupe, to sell for $300 and have a rear track of only 18 inches. Why this some what erroneous press release was sent out is unknown, but eight days later the new Crosley was shown to the public at the Indianapolis Speedway and the rear track was the same as the front.he car was indeed small, with a wheelbase of only 80 inches and prices of $325 for the convertible coupe and $350 for the convertible sedan. The cars were in production at two plants; Cincinnati and Richmond, Indiana. The engine was a Waukesha air cooled, opposed, two cylinder unit. The car could be had in gray, yellow or blue, all with red wheels and a black top. All up weight was only 925 pounds.
On introducing the cars, Powel Crosley stated, "I have always wanted to build a practical car that would not only operate at low cost, but also sell at a low price." By June 11th the Crosley was in quantity production. But some problems were developing that would plague Crosley throughout the pre-war years. Production during the second half of 1939 totalled 2,017 cars, not even a week's run of either GM or Ford. Getting parts supplers, starting the assembly lines and putting the cars together all created problems. The outbreak of war in Europe also began to cause supply problems.
Crosley's marketing technique was to be as radical as his car, the cars were to be sold through large department stores and appliance stores and service was to be obtained at special, centrally located service centers. Powel Crosley was trying to invent a new way to market cars, to change the method that the "big three" used to sell its products to the public. In keeping with his marketing plans, on June 14th Crosley announced that several large stores would sell Crosleys. Most notable of these were Macy's in New York and Bamberger's in New Jersey. Mr. Fielding Robertson was the manager of the Crosley Distribution Corporation which was to handle the servicing. Fourteen orders were received the first day the Crosley cars were put on display by Macy's. A huge crowd swamped the exhibit of the two cars on the first day they were displayed. The price had now climbed up to $350 and gray and blue were listed as the standard colors with yellow as an option. By July 15th a showroom had been purchased at 155 East 44th Street in New York and was used as the main factory showroom.
The 1940 Crosley models were announced on October 1, 1939, but the new line did not debut until the tenth. The line was now expanded from the two original models to four, a "Delivery" and a maple wood bodied station wagon were added. However production was down to a mere 422 for 1940, the per cent of the market was so small as to not be measurable. The 1940 Crosley had another distinction. All of the original engineering drawings are now in the hands of the Crosley Club. How the club got them is very interesting and also very curious. It seems that in 1973 the Willys-Overland club located a warehouse full of engineering drawings for the Willys car, all dating from before World War II. The drawings were purchased by the Willys club and were being cataloged by the Willys Club members when the 1940 Crosley drawings were found mixed in. These were offered to the Crosley Club and were purchased. How the drawings got into a warehouse full of Willys drawings is a mystery. There is no known connection between the two makers, although both companies were involved with light weight Jeeps during the war.
One possible reason for the minimal 1940 production was the early introduction of Crosley's 1941 models on July 28, 1940. The 1941 models were almost identical to the 1940 models with only one noticeable change. The 1941 line was again expanded to more body styles to bring the total offered to ten. Now available was a "Covered Wagon" (sort of a convertible station wagon), a parkway delivery and a panel delivery.
Also produced in 1941 by either an outside company or the factory was a vehicle called the Mosquito, a cut down 1941 sedan with single rear seat with hand rails. This mini-Jeep was tested during 2nd Army maneuvers at Camp McCoy by officers of the 147th Infantry Regiment. Mr. Bart Vanderveen (a noted military vehicle historian) has informed me that at least one other modified military Crosley was produced in 1941. A "Covered Wagon" model converted for military use was also tested.
With only two wheel drive and small tires it is unlikely that any of the Crosley military conversions were very successful.
The 1942 Crosleys were quietly put on the market in late 1941. Added was a hard-top model with a round "opera" in the rear quarter. With gas rationing coming into effect, Crosleys were becoming more desireable cars to own. This aspect was stressed by Crosley ads, including an "A" is for Ample ad in 1943 referring to the "A" type gas ration sticker. From the ads it appears possible that Crosley might have been building cars after the February 1942 cut-off date. Crosley then turned to War.
Powel Crosley was not content with only building cars, he also built several prototypes of motorcycles (one a three wheeler) boats and later a snowmobile. During the entire pre-war period Crosley managed to produce 5,757 cars, not an awful lot but definitely beyond the prototype stage.
In addition to the above mentioned snowmobile was a very interesting Jeep. Crosley did not participate in the initial trials for what became the original Jeep but became involved in 1942 in a project to build a special mini-Jeep. This was to be a special light weight vehicle capable of both being transported by a C-47 (the military version of the DC-3 ... and more about that later) and easily manhandled out of the mud by the troops. The first pilot model, called a CT-3 Pup, (no details on what the C or the T stand for or whether there was a 1 or 2) and was delivered to the Army in February of 1943. After the first one completed its tests at Fort Benning, Georgia (the Army's paratrooper training school), 36 more were ordered.
The "Pup" weighed 1,125 pounds and used the Waukesha two cylinder engine (of 13 horsepower) with a special adaption on the three speed transmission that gave it six forward speeds and two reverse. After six Pups had been sent overseas for further testing, the Army changed its mind and decided to end the project. The reasons are apparent; a 13 horsepower motor lacks the power to move 1,100 pounds of vehicle plus cargo across really rough terrain. Astonishingly, a number of Pups survive, at last count it was seven or eight. In addition to the Pups there was also a snowmobile (snowtractor), a motorcycle and several other odd vehicles. There also appears to have been a small truck for use by the Air Force.
At this point we can sum up the pre-war period. The pre-war Crosleys were something less than perfect; the lack of a closed model initially made the cars somewhat impractical and durability was not one of their strong suits. Cannonball Baker did manage a one and half times trip across the U.S.. By the end of the 1942 production models, Powel Crosley realized that much improvement was necessary in both the engine and body.
The story of the post-war Crosleys really starts in 1943. It was in the summer of that year that Paul Klotsch, the chief engineer of Crosley Motors, met Mr. Lloyd Taylor of Taylor Engines. Mr. Taylor had designed a unique engine made of steel stampings, all hydrogen brazed together. The complete engine weighed only 133 pounds, was very compact and was producing an unheard of 36 horsepower at 5600 RPM from only 44 cubic inches. In addition to the novel stamped steel construction, the engine also had a shaft driven overhead cam. Technically, the jump from the pre-war two cylinder engine to this little four cylinder powerhouse was unbelievable. From a small, basically obsolete (in automobiles) engine to a small OHC design that wasn't duplicated by the "Big Three" for over twenty years Crosley had achieved a near miracle.
Crosley took an exclusive license on this engine and before the end of the war had sold it to the government for many applications, most notable being generator sets. The first contract was for the U.S. Navy and required the engine to run continuously at full power for 1200 hours (if in a car travelling at 50 MPH, this would equal 60,000 miles-without stopping). From this contract many others followed, the little five main bearing four cylinder mill powered generators, auxiliary power plants, back up generators in PT boats, refrigerator units and even the Mooney Mite airplane after the war. It should be noted that the prototype 36 horsepower unit had a 9 to 1 compression ratio and used 100 octane fuel (Aviation Gas). For use in the Crosley cars, the engine was detuned to 7.5 to 1 compression ratio (still the highest in the industry) and delivered 26-1/2 horsepower. It was christened the Cobra-from COpper BRazed. The entire block, of 125 stampings weighed only 14 pounds. The crankcase was an aluminum casting for ridgidity and the inside of the block was at first plastic lined and later zinc lined for resistance to rust. The block was held together by press fits, spot welds and crimps prior to brazing in a 2060 degree F furnace.
On June 20, 1944 Crosley Motors and Crosley Radio were separated, the Radio division was sold. The money obtained from the sale was used to finance the post-war cars. According to one story, the post-war Crosley was designed by some moon-lighting Hudson Body engineers in Detroit over a period of one to two days. The similiarity of the Crosley to the famous step-down Hudson does sort of support this. Whatever the case, the new Crosley was announced on January 20, 1946. The car was supposed to have an aluminum body and weigh less than 1,000 pounds. The Crosley can claim to be the first post-war slab sided car, an honor usually claimed by Kaiser-Frazer. Although announced in January, the first cars were not built until May 5, 1946. The first car was a 1947 two door sedan, with a normal steel body and weighing 1,150 pounds. By July 4 the Marion, Indiana factory had managed to build 149 cars. When it is considered that Crosley had 600 "Dealers" and had orders totaling 30,000 cars, this was a drop in the bucket. To speed deliveries to key markets, Crosley played a trump card that had been part of the development of the Pup - he could fly his cars in on DC-3's. Two Crosleys were flown into New York's LaGuardia airport for delivery to Macy's Department store. There was no problem fitting the two of them into a DC-3 airliner. The publicity from this was excellent.
When shown to the public on August 27th 1946 a crowd of over 9,000 people showed up. Something over 1,000 people wanted to place orders, but unfortunately the orders had to be limited to ten per day. For all of 1946 Crosley managed to build 4,999 cars (4,987 sedans, 12 convertibles and 8 pick up trucks). The price was $853.58 for the two door sedan - compare that with $1,072 for a Chevy two door sedan and you can see that pricing was to be a problem all through the post-war period. By February of 1947 Crosley was quoting a 30 to 60 day delivery, by comparison, there was a one year wait for a Pontiac.
On November 18, 1947, the new 1948 Crosleys were announced. Added to the line was a panel truck, a Sports Utility and a station wagon. The wagon was another Crosley first, the first all steel bodied station wagon - beating Plymouth by a year. The initial problems with the steel stamping engines appeared to have been worked out (mainly oil leaks) and production reached 19,344 for 1947 (14,090 sedans, 1,249 wagons, 4,005 convertibles and 3,182 trucks).
1948 was to be Crosley's year, production reached its peak of 27,707 and Crosley was actually the country's largest producer of station wagons (wagons accounted for 23,489 of the production). But unfortunately the bad publicity of the early stamped engines and the gradual meeting of the demand for new cars by the bigger car manufacturers began to tell. The new 1949 models were announced on December 16, 1948 and in 1949 production crashed to a mere 8,939 cars and trucks. A new line was added - the DeLuxe, the cars featured squared off styling, more room, improved interior and exterior appearance . . . and nobody bought them. Crosley had managed a new car for 1947 and another new one for 1949 (by Detroit's definition!) while everybody else struggled for one new design in that period. What happened in 1949 was the subtle change going on in America - "bigger and better", more cylinders, more horsepower, longer, lower etc. Oldsmobile created the horsepower race with '49 Rocket V-8, Chevy dropped its old style and got a new, larger body, so did the Ford and Plymouth. All of a sudden it seemed, the country changed. One of the last things people wanted to do it seemed was to economize. That social change spelled doom for the Crosley.
Early in 1949 the Cobra engine was replaced by the Cast Iron Block Assembly - called the CIBA for short. The new engine weighed only slightly more than the old one and promised better durability. But by now it was really almost all over. Crosley attempted a come back, spear headed on July 14, 1949 with the introduction of the Crosley Hotshot. The Hotshot was America's first mass produced post-war sports car. Crosley managed to build 752 of them in 1949. Price cuts were tried on the other models but that did not seem to make much of an improvement in the now dismal sales picture.
On, or about May 15, 1949, Crosley made history again. A new hydraulic brake replaced the previous mechanical brake system on all Crosley models. The new system happened to be disc brakes . . . and on all four wheels. This brake was a spot disc and was the granddaddy of all modern disc brakes. So in 1949 you could buy an overhead cam engined, four wheel disc braked American sports car! And this sports car was cheaper than any other car on the market! There had not been anything like it before and, sadly, there has not been anything like it since. America's only European style sports car was a Crosley. Despite this, Crosley production continued its downward curve, hitting only 7,612 cars and trucks in 1950. Of this number, 742 were "roadsters".
In addition to the Hot Shot, on February 18, 1950 a Crosley Super Sports - with Leopard skin seats - was shown at the New York Sportsman's Show. The car was in production (without the leopard skin) by March 14th. Following the Super Sports on June 21, 1950 was the Super series sedans, wagons and trucks. By raising the compression ratio to eight to one, thirty horsepower was produced. In addition, roll down windows replaced the previous sliding ones. The wonderful disc brakes proved to be a failure, salt on the roads caused them to freeze up. Thus Crosley was forced to go to normal hydraulic drum brakes in June of 1950.
If two sports cars and a whole new line was not enough, the Farm-O-Road was introduced on July 19, 1950. if stamped steel engines, overhead came, four wheel disc braked and a host of other innovations led the way for future American small cars, the Farm-O-Road stands alone. A very rare creation. What do you call a jeep-car-tractor? Farm-O-Roads could be used for just about everything, but mainly it seems they were used as utility vehicles around country clubs, golf courses and estates. They were definitely the best self-propelled riding lawn mowers ever invented! In fact, so useful was the Farm-O-Road that the vehicle was produced long after the Crosley Automobile Company closed its doors in 1952, but I am getting ahead of myself. Sadly, from here on, Crosley's victories were to be moral, not financial.
On the last day of 1950 came what is Crosley's most famous racing victory. A completely stock 1950 Crosley was entered in the first internationally recognized road race in the U.S., Sebring. Crosley number 19 entered by Fritz Koster and Ralph Deshow pulled a first place on formula. Fritz and Ralph were two totally different drivers, Ralph drove the Crosley flat out (he claimed the handling was so good and the top speed so low that he didn't slow down for most of the turns!) gaining valuable time. He then handed the car over to Fritz who had a reputation of "keeping the car together". Evidentially this was the right combination as the Crosley led (again on formula) for the entire race. The little car covered 288 miles in six hours, an average of over 66 MPH! At the time of the race an interesting story was told. It goes as follows: Fritz and Ralph had wrecked their car in practice laps and happened to see the Crosley in the spectators' parking lot. They talked the owner (Gus Ehrman) into letting them race the car. I have not been able to verify this. If true, the Crosley would indeed be as stock as anyone would want!
Crosley was quite successful in racing and a modified Super Sports did quite well at LeMans until the voltage regulator quit. Needless to say, Crosley Hotshots and Super Sports were extensively used as the basis for various home built racers. Added to the land victories, the engine was used in boats and again was a winner. Many companies came into business to supply high performance parts which could squeak the little four banger out to over 100 horsepower. The power output of the engine compared very well with contemporary European Grand Prix engines (on a horsepower per cubic inch basis).
On November 13, 1950 the 1951 line was introduced and for the first time the Crosley sported a real propeller in the middle of the grill. Production, which was bad in 1950, fell to only 4,839 in 1951. 1952 was to be the last model year Crosley and was introduced on November 26, 1951.
The now inevitable end came on July 17, 1952, after a production run of only 1,522 cars. Powel Crosley called it quits. From 1949 to 1952 he had lost between three and four million dollars on the car. Compared to Kaiser's loss of fifty million between 1945 and 1954 this was not much - but it was all from Powel Crosley's personal funds. General Tire bought a controlling interest in the company by obtaining 317,077 shares at twenty cents each. Production of cars had stopped somewhere around July 4th but the plant was still building engines to meet government contracts.
This should be the end of the story, but it isn't. The Crosley engine and the Farm-O-Road were too good to die. The engine kept going in boats - the Marine Division of the Aero-Jet General Corporation produced the "Vee Drive" and Fageol continued engine production at least through the late fifties, several other companies produced versions of the Crosley engine for marine use in to the 70's, the Bearcat 55 being one of the last. The engine continually popped up in cars - such as the Panda in 1956 and was used by various Italian Sports cars in the fifties (such as Nardi, Bandini and Siata).
The Farm-O-Road went back into production as the Crofton Bug on a very, very limited basis around 1960. Even Lloyd Taylor, the original designer of the "tin engine" kept at it. In 1958 he produced the "Super Sports" engine - a two liter tin engine which produced 145 horsepower (Taylor - where were you when Crosley needed you?) But that engine never made it the way the original "three quarter liter" engine did in the Crosley. In the 1980s Taylor was still making fabricated steel engines, and tring to sell his ideas. He had a 150 hp and a 186 hp version that passed California emission tests in 1981.
With the scrapping of the dies, there will never be any more Crosleys. Not that somebody didn't try though - Ed Herzog (owner of Service Motors in the 50s, 60s, &70s) attempted to get production going back in 1952 but could not raise the money. He did manage though to buy most of the left over parts at the factory. Thanks to Ed, a lot of Crosleys are still on the road.
It is interesting to speculate as to what would have happened if only Crosley had hung on for a few years more . . . in 1956 the big foreign car surge began and people were buying cars, that were no where near as good as the Crosley, in great numbers. Had Crosley continued for only three years more, they might have ridden the crest of the small car boom that occurred. The money that would have made the company would probably have carried it through until 1973 brought the need for small cars again.
All that is left now are the cars and a devoted group of Crosley owners who will probably keep the little cars rolling along and thumb their noses at Detroit every time one of the big three claims some "fantastic" first - like four wheel disc brakes in a low priced car . . . Crosley had it all - over 40 years ago.