America’s Home Grown Kei Car – The Rise and Fall Of The Crosley Automobile

(a superb article first posted two years ago)    If you are reading this in the year 2061, I hope that the spirit of entrepreneurship is still alive and vibrant in America. I hope that the “can do” dynamic that defined our earlier years as a nation can still lead dreamers to pursue their passion despite the seemingly insurmountable odds against success. On that hope hangs today’s tale. Inventor, tinkerer, tycoon – all of these labels easily attach themselves to Powel Crosley, the founder of the car that is the focus of our story. That his eponymous car failed in the market is indisputable. After just eleven model years, the Crosley disappeared and was soon rendered a footnote in automotive history. But while it lasted, the car gave the buying public a real, if unorthodox, choice in basic, subcompact transportation.

Powel Crosley had already made a couple of fortunes in pre-war America before he got into the auto business. In the early 1920’s, at a time when a decent home radio cost about a hundred dollars, the young Crosley  figured out a way to build and sell a quality set for twenty. Sales took off like a rocket and assembly lines in Cincinnati worked day and night to satiate demand.

Later, when evolving family work and leisure habits changed home refrigeration from luxury to  near necessity, Crosley caught lightning again with his company’s “Shelvador” line of high quality, low cost refrigerators. The Shelvador raked  in profits that made Crosley one of America’s wealthiest men during the great depression. Crosley used the money earned from appliances to diversify into broadcasting, farming and even major league baseball.

But for all of his interests, Crosley harbored a lifelong passion to build a low priced, simple and reliable automobile. As the depression ground on through the 1930’s, he began to formulate the basic concepts that would result in a working prototype by 1937. The so called CRAD (Crosley Radio Auto Division) prototype was downright weird, with a rear track only a foot and a half wide and an 80 inch wheelbase. Clearly, a more mainstream offering would have to be developed.

When pictures were leaked of the oddball car, the reaction was immediate and unforgiving. Cooler heads prevailed and the final version of the first production cars were announced with an identical front and rear width.

To sell the car, Crosley found that he already had a sales channel up and running. Crosley radio and appliance dealers covered just about every city and town in those years and they provided a ready made outlet for a new line of goods from a respected name. Over 300 dealers promptly signed up to carry his namesake car. This is not as odd as it sounds today. Both General Motors and Nash were major players in the appliance markets in those days (with the Frigidaire and Kelvinator lines, respectively) and consumers  had no reluctance to buy their transportation from the same company that had made their kitchen appliances.

By April 28,1939, the Crosley was finally deemed ready for introduction to the buying public. Powel Crosley was a natural promoter, and the debut was designed to make a splash and attract as much favorable press coverage as possible. The Crosley  was unveiled at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with all of the ballyhoo that he could summon. Later that week, the diminutive car was the centerpiece of the Crosley exhibit at the World’s Fair in New York. What the press and invited guests saw was a quite possibly the most spartan, plain car seen before or since.

There was virtually no chrome trim or useless adornment on the outside. The interior was likewise simple,with only a speedometer, water and gas gauges and a three spoke steering wheel. Even roll up windows were not available in a Crosley. The car was tiny in every dimension – the 80 inch wheelbase was almost 15 inches shorter than a VW Beetle. The overall length stopped short of ten feet and curb weight came in at just about 925 pounds.

To obey its mandate for economy in every facet of ownership, the car used a 12HP Waukesha air cooled twin cylinder engine for motive power. What power there was traveled to the rear wheels through a conventional three speed transmission . Crosley had set an ambitious goal of sixty miles per hour as the top speed, but to get to a mile a minute,the little twin would have to spool up to its engineered limits and stay there. But we must remember- there were no interstate highways in those days. The vast majority of long distance driving was done on two lane roads where even full size cars couldn’t go much faster than fifty due to limitations in brakes, suspensions and even  the roads themselves. Thus the Crosley’s “comfortable” cruising speed of 45-50 mph was not as bad as it sounds some seventy years later.

In many ways, the first Crosley models represented a step backward in time.Even though all major manufacturers had abandoned mechanical brakes, they were the only ones on offer in the Crosley. In an era when interiors were becoming more and more flashy and pretentious,the Crosley was like riding in a Model T. Even an all steel body was not available until 1940. The price was also a throwback : A $250 MSRP made the Crosley by far the cheapest car in America.

The Crosley was slow to catch on. Despite fuel consumption that could break 50MPG in the hands of a careful driver, the company sold only a little over 2000 units in its debut year. More model variations were added in 1940 and 41, but true volume production remained an unfulfilled dream. Like every other make, the coming of World War II meant that all assembly of civilian autos was suspended for the duration. But the war ironically made Crosleys more valuable than just about any other make on the road

When the U. S. officially adopted gasoline rationing on May  15th, 1942, the value of pre war Crosleys (below) jumped and the cars began to sell secondhand at a premium. Drivers that were issued an “A” ration sticker (above) had to make due on 4 gallons of gasoline a week until further notice. That meant that the Crosley’s outstanding fuel economy was suddenly in demand. Wartime speed limits were also set at by the government at 35mph. This put the Crosley on an even footing with just about any other car you could possibly drive.

During the war, the company built radios, cookstoves and gun turrets. But the most effective weapon turned out of the company’s factories was among the least known until after the war: the proximity fuze.

The proximity fuze used Crosley’s existing radio technology and the new science of radar to detonate an antiaircraft shell close enough to enemy planes to destroy them. It was no longer necessary to score a direct hit to bring down a deadly kamikaze or fast bomber. The proximity fuze made expert gunners out of 19 year old farmboys (or so the enemy thought) and saved countless lives in the process. Although the name was a half century from general use, Crosley had built America’s first Smart Bomb.

As we have seen, after V-J day, America’s car makers raced to get a postwar model into production in order to grab some market share and resume their higher profit margin civilian business. The cars from the major producers were just lightly facelifted 1942 models, but after three and a half years of privation, buyers didn’t care. Anything on wheels would sell to a public desperate for cars. Crosley was late in returning to car production-  the first postwar cars didn’t roll off of the assembly lines until early summer 1946. The delay was understandable because the all new Crosleys really were all new. A  longer slab sided body that was still plain but attractive put the car’s styling closer to mainstream offerings. The 80 inch wheelbase carried over from pre war models, but the biggest change was in the engine room.

The engine that emerged from Crosley’s wartime production for the Navy would be the secret weapon that the company hoped would turn a niche product into a mass market sensation. The so called COBRA engine that had been developed as a lightweight military spec motor during WW2 by Lloyd Taylor of Taylor Engines would forthwith be the engine installed in Crosley’s entire line of cars. On paper, the engine held great promise. The bare unitary block/head weighed just 14.8 lbs; complete with flywheel, the total installed weight was 133 lbs (60 kg). The little 724 cc overhead cam four produced 26 horsepower- double the air cooled twins output of just a few years before. And because the block and head were made from sheet steel, the COBRA cost a lot less money to build.

The little four  had powered refrigeration units and portable generators during the war, and its 44 inch displacement could return the same outstanding fuel mileage of the old air cooled twin and was quieter to boot. It seemed for a moment that the company had unlocked the secret to making money with a specialty product that sold in low volumes. But company engineers (and Powel Crosley’s brother Lewis) had warned the founder that the COBRA had some design flaws that would come back to haunt them all if not addressed, and as we will see, the warnings were not heeded. The resulting damage that the engine did to the cars reputation would go a long way toward wrecking the company’s finances and forcing Crosley out of the automobile industry.

But for the moment, Crosley, like every other manufacturer, was busily trying to fill the overwhelming demand for new cars. The seller’s market was in full fury by the late fall of 1947 and production at the company’s Marion, Indiana factory was ramping up explosively. Postwar inflation had meant a dramatic jump in prices. The two door sedan was now priced at $905. This still made the Crosley the lowest priced new car on the market, but the price gap with the major makes was narrowing. The lowest priced Ford for 1946 “officially” retailed for $1074, but dealer mark up games usually meant that official prices were a fiction. Nonetheless, the Crosley  had its best year ever in 1947 as nearly 19,000 units were shipped. The high tide for the car (and the company)  would be reached in 1948, as just under 29,000 cars were built and sold. 1948 also saw the introduction of the company’s first and only hit -the all steel station wagon.

The wagon was so popular in those days before the major makes had adopted all steel construction, that for a while, Crosley sold about one third of all wagons produced in the U.S. This should have been a signal that the market would consider a somewhat larger Crosley, but management didn’t get the hint and plans for the next design cycle kept the cars subcompact dimensions virtually unchanged. This was another error that would come back to visit the company in due time. To keep the assembly lines running at a profitable rate, Crosley even marketed a small pickup based on the station wagon chassis. Even though the bed was small and the cab barely could accomodate two people, the Crosley pickup sold well enough to have its own assembly line for a few months in 1947.

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In the summer of 1948, tools and dies were being installed in the company’s factories for the new 1949 models that would compete with the first wave of all new designs from the Big 3 since the war. After steadily rising sales in the sellers market, Crosley Motors thought that it was ready to start making the first rung on the price ladder its exclusive turf and even expand its appeal to other areas of the small, light car market.

To that end, the company followed up its success in the station wagon market by introducing the Hotshot roadster with a longer (85 inch) wheelbase and a starting price of just $849.The Hotshot was an clever niche car that could go fast and provide incredible handling and roadholding due to its longer wheelbase and radically low center of gravity. Braking was achieved by a new (and superior) technology that would come to be the cars longest lasting legacy- disc brakes.

But just at the pinnacle of success and acceptance, the Crosley was destined to begin a descent into irrelevance and failure. Some of the problems that made themselves apparent in 1948 were of the company’s own making, others were just part of the changing business dynamic of the early 1950’s.

The first body blow to Crosley Motors was the long simmering issue of the COBRA engine’s tendency to develop tiny holes in the cylinder walls due to electrolysis. This was triggered by the use of copper and steel brazed together to form the water jackets and cooling passages. After a few months of use, defective engines began streaming back to corporate headquarters in Cincinnati as the company frantically tried to engineer a fix that would address the issue. Galvanizing was tried, but didn’t really remedy the problem and the company had to replace thousands of nearly new engines at great cost. The ruined powerplants couldn’t even be sold as scrap metal. It was slow to dawn on Crosley that an engine designed for the military was almost disposable-the Navy could replace them  when needed and swabbies could do maintenance after every few hours of use. Owners of everyday transportation could not. The resulting bad publicity caused an alarming drop in sales late in the 1948 model year.

The 1949 Crosley debuted with new styling and a new engine. The troublesome COBRA was dropped for the CIBA (Cast Iron Block Assembly)  of the same displacement and this engine proved to be reliable and long lived. The company tried to assuage furious owners of COBRA engines by retrofitting their cars with cast iron engines. Price guides of the day showed a dramatic drop in value for the COBRA mill.  But just then another smoldering problem burst into flame. The disc brakes installed in the new cars began to deteriorate rapidly when exposed to road salt  and another expensive recall had to be undertaken. Amidst  lawsuits and disastrous press coverage, the Crosley was rapidly gaining a reputation as a lemon. Potential buyers also had a new range of market choices starting in 1950 that made the Crosley look like an even worse value for the money. The first wave of compact cars from major producers  had much more room , lots more power and proved to be much more sturdy and well engineered than the Crosley.

Sales continued their collapse and by late 1951 it was obvious that the car could not survive  much longer. Powel Crosley had sold his broadcasting and appliance empires years before to concentrate on autos and had personally supported Crosley Motors on a sustaining basis for some time. Even though a wealthy man, he couldn’t sustain the company’s losses forever. So when he was approached by General Tire in the spring of 1952 about selling the company, he made the only rational move that he could – he sold out the entire operation for cash and stock. General Tire had no intention of building cars. It simply wanted to purchase manufacturing plants and the CIBA engine technology for other uses. The deal would also shelter General from high taxes by using Crosley’s losses to offset the parent company’s profit.

On the week of July 4th, 1952, a skeleton workforce assembled the final few Crosleys, punched out for the last time and the Crosley story reached its end.

The Crosley came and went all too quickly on the American car market. The car’s legacies are mixed, even as we remember fondly today what its inventor tried to accomplish in the most unsettled time of the history of the automobile.

Powel Crosley left the auto business for good after the sale of his company was complete. He still dabbled in big league baseball as owner of his hometown team the Cincinnati Reds, but his best years were behind him and he died of a heart attack in March 1961.

General Tire remade its self as General-Aerojet after buying out Crosley Motors and set about finding new and novel applications for the CIBA engine. There was some defense contract work through the 1950’s and the engine powered refrigeration units for many years on container ships and other transport platforms.

The engine was even marketed as a marine unit for several years and was moderately successful. General Tire eventually diversified out of the tire business altogether  (ironically, for broadcasting) and sold its namesake operations to Continental Tire.

The Crosley radio and appliance names live with us still, but the current company that uses the brand  has no direct connection to the original corporation founded by Powel Crosley. The trade name was resurrected to provide instant recognition for a generation of consumers that knew that they could trust products with the name Crosley.

The cars one feature that lives with us today is the disc brake. Although the Crosley units were prone to rust and warpage, later development remedied those problems and by the end of the next decade, disc brakes were becoming common (especially on the front) of many new cars. Today, discs are standard equipment on just about every new car sold in the U.S.

The Crosley car itself was soon consigned to the back of used car lots as a bargain basement problem child that could often be bought for a lot less than $100. The COBRA equipped cars fell off the road pretty quickly and it was often a prudent decision to scrap a Crosley rather than pay for an engine swap. Rebuilds of the COBRA were rare. Also, the coming of high speed interstates in the mid and late 1950’s meant that the Crosley was now functionally obsolete because it could simply not attain the high speeds that were required for freeway cruising. Many were parked behind barns and under sheds and forgotten. Those few that do survive have a dedicated, but small following. Most car spotters have never seen a running Crosley except at a car show. The one model that has obtained coveted collector status is the Hotshot. Prime examples fetch big money today and change hands infrequently.