By Jim Hinckley
Automotive trends come; automotive trends go. Occasionally the trend or some aspect of it goes mainstream, becomes an integral part of the industry and the subsequent success overshadows the quirky, obscure beginnings. In other instances, the trend begets an idea or concept that is so futuristic it can be decades before it is accepted.
Streamlining and the designing of interior space to emulate aircraft cabins or train compartments became a fringe for eccentric visionary designers in the early 1930s. The Stout Scarab of 1936 is an excellent example of this school of thought, representing a design concept that would take almost a half century to be widely accepted as the minivan.
Micro cars, alternative energy cars, and hybrids have taken longer to garner acceptance in America and even today represent a very small percentage of the market. This in spite of the fact that before 1912 electric and steam powered cars was among the best sellers and that hybrids predate the Woods dual electric of 1917 by years.
To design or conceive a vehicle or automotive concept that is ahead of the technology to make it feasible or before the consumer is willing to accept it takes daring and more often than not a great deal of risk to investment capital. Chrysler discovered this with the Airflow, Chevrolet with the initial air-cooled model of the early 1920s, and Studebaker with the Coupe Express.
A few individuals, however, are undaunted by the fear of failure and press on. Powell Crosley Jr. was such a man. TIME magazine summed up his efforts to build “a really fine light car that any family can afford to buy and run …” by saying he was “…no whit disturbed that the US motorist has never cared enough for an undersized car to make it profitable to builders.”
The car introduced in 1939 represented Crosley’s third attempt to manufacture a car; the first had been in 1909 and the second in 1913. This time, however, he had the backing of a fortune made as the largest manufacturer of radios in the world.
For Crosley the diminutive little car represented wish fulfillment as he had longed to popularize the small car concept in America. As with many visionaries he was several decades early, it would take the energy crisis of the 1970s before manufacturers and the consumer would take the subcompact seriously.
Sold primarily through the extensive Crosley appliance dealer network the little twelve horsepower vehicle was billed as the car of tomorrow. Initial sales were leas than anemic, a problem compounded with numerous production issues including broken bell housings.
Surprisingly, by 1941 sales began to climb, largely the result of resolution of initial problems and numerous stunting for sales campaigns. Among the latter was the amazing cross-country adventure of daredevil of Cannon Ball Baker who drove a Crosley wagon 6517 miles and averaged 50.4 miles per gallon.
With the attack on Pearl Harbor and subsequent rationing of gasoline, a used Crosley became a hot commodity. This sudden popularity did nothing to obscure the writing on the wall for most everyone except for Mr. Crosley.
The postwar Crosley featured an ingenious engine designed by Lloyd Taylor for lightweight, stationary engine applications. The entire cylinder block and cylinder head, fabricated from sheet metal stampings brazed together with a special copper paste and bolted to a cast aluminum crankcase weighed but fifty-nine pounds!
Expansion of available models was another change for Crosley in the post war era. A fixed rail convertible and a pick up truck joined the sedan and soft-top wagon and in 1947, the line up expanded to include an all steel station wagon.
In spite of inherent leaking problems with the engine and cable operated brakes the wagon proved to be a surprisingly strong seller pushing sales more than 23,000 units in 1948. The following year marked major changes for the Crosley; headlights were integrated into the fenders giving the car a more modern appearance, a cast iron version of the trouble prone engine became the power plant and the brakes were hydraulic disc units borrowed from Goodyear-Hawley aircraft units.
In spite of the long overdue improvements sales plummeted. Crosley responded with two new models, neither of which were mere face lifted versions.
The Hotshot roadster introduced in late 1949 had its own chassis with a wheelbase five inches longer than standard models. The cars performance surprised most everyone as Crosley had come to be seen as something of a joke. Tom McCahill of MECHANIX ILLUSTRATED even ranked it as among the ten best sports cars in the world!
The second new model, Farm-O-Road, was a utility vehicle that utilized standard Crosley components with the exception of a two-speed rear axle. A lengthy list of options included dump bodies and a variety of implements such as a mower and cultivator.
It was to no avail. Production for 1950 narrowly missed the 8000 mark and the following year dropped another 5000 units.
On July 17, 1952, General Tire purchased controlling interest in the company and Powell Crosley Jr., after injecting more than $3 million into the venture, conceded the battle to create “America’s most needed car.”
Manufacturing of the durable little engine continued well into the 1970s for various applications. A small cottage industry began providing tubular chassis, fiberglass bodies and all manner of speed equipment for those who chose the cars for competition in H-modified SCCA racing events. Today the more than 800 members of the Crosley Automobile Club keep the legacy of Powell Crosley Jr. alive.
Intermittent wipers and sub compacts, alternative energy vehicles and heated steering wheels are all silent monuments to the genius of independent thinking. Likewise are the Crosley, the Woods dual electric and the Stout Scarab, the Davis, the Adams-Farwell and the Jordan.
With that in mind if you are thinking of buying a collector car perhaps something out of the ordinary, something to celebrate the rich diversity of the American automotive industry might be in order. In addition, perhaps, while you are at it maybe a Crosley refrigerator with radio built into the door might be a welcome addition to the garage.
By Jim Hinckley
Jim’s Crosley Antique Radio Page
The Crosley empire began with radios, expanded into appliances, and climaxed with cars like the Hotshot
This view is from the Sacramento Valley in Arizona looking west on the pre 1938 alignment of Route 66. The California border (the Colorado River) is about forty five miles ahead.
As expected the fuel economy of the Adventurer is just a little less than needed to consider it atrocious – 11.25 on the run to Peach Springs. Now, comes the age old question of what to do about it?
Out of the blue I developed two problems at the same time, no turn signals and the truck won’t idle. Both problems occurred on the 1.5 mile drive to work!
I thought there might be a problem in regards to octane as the afternoon before I had dropped in the only gas available, 87, and made about a run of about thirty miles. So I topped off the tank with 91 octane.
This hasn’t helped the situation. The fuel filter is clean so as both problems developed at the same time perhaps there is an electrical issue to consider.
With the introduction of the new Toyota Tundra the last bastion of American automotive dominance was breeched. The all-American pick up truck now must share the road, the work, and the glory that comes with a job well done.
There was a time not so long ago when competition for American built trucks and automobiles was miniscule at best. Automotive manufacturers in most every industrialized country labored under the fact that the vehicles of choice, often by a rather large percentage were those built in the good old USA. Ironically, in large part this overwhelming success led to the globalization of industry and development of international trade that has transformed the American auto industry into one where Dodge products are assembled in Mexico and Nissan’s are built in the states.
The industry has come full circle. It was the sale of heavy manufacturing equipment at Graham’s Lafayette, Indiana, facility, coupled with the supervision of four company engineers, as well as body dies, from American Bantam, that are the foundation for Japans automobile industry and on its first manufacturers, Datsun. Ford modernized Soviet production methods with the establishment of tractor factories during the 1920s and was a major manufacturer of automobiles in England since 1911, in Germany since 1925, in France, and in Australia since 1925.
Initially there was a well-deserved perception European automobiles were superior to those built in the United States. Even though no longer the case by 1914, William Durant capitalized on this to build an empire on the name of Swiss born racing legend Louis Chevrolet.
By 1920, the United States was the undisputed leader in automobile manufacturing and development. An industry wide study that year showed that not only was Ford the world leader in automobile sales and production they were the leader by a mile with one of every three cars sold in the world being built by that company.
During the teens, the three “P’s” (Packard, Peerless, and Pierce-Arrow) dominated the international luxury car market. Peerless and Pierce-Arrow passed from center stage but Packard remained a dominant force in this market even in early post war years and at times even outsold Rolls Royce even in the colonies of the British Empire.
By 1930, Cadillac and Lincoln were also dominating contenders in this market, a position they would hold throughout the 1950s and 1960s. The Cadillac slogan, “The Standard of the World” was more than mere advertising hype.
World War I marked the launching of American dominance in production of trucks. During the war, the durability of Jeffery Quad (4×4) trucks became as legendary as the Jeep in World War II.
After the war liquidation through Motor Reception Parks of a large number of surplus American military vehicles, including Jeffery trucks and Dodge touring cars in Europe as well as North Africa further expanded exposure to American built vehicles. The result was an almost instantaneous explosion in demand for more.
Throughout much of the 1920’s and 1930’s, at the prestigious Paris Le Salon de l’Automobile, twenty five to fifty percent of vehicles displayed were American models. At the annual automobile shows in Melbourne and Sydney, Australia, during this period almost every American automobile manufacturer was represented.
The 1920’s were, in large part, a prosperous time. This as well as a relative lack of trade barriers fueled the export of American built vehicles to unprecedented heights. In Australia, one of the largest markets for these automobiles and trucks, two thirds of all cars registered annually had been manufactured in the United States. By the mid 1930’s ninety percent of all automobiles, the majority of which were in commercial operation, in Japan were American models.
In France as the rising number of American produced vehicles threatened to swamp the nations automobile industry stiff tariffs were levied. To stay in the market Ford purchased the French manufacturer Mathis creating Matford. Other American companies followed suite with similar endeavors.
The Great Depression as well as increasing import tariffs checked this supremacy but did not stop it. Checker, in the 1950s, sold the majority of the first generation Aerobus in Turkey, and shortly before World War II, in Egypt, Studebaker was often the volume leader.
In the Union of South Africa by 1935 more than one half of all motor vehicles in use was of American manufacture. On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, during the 1920’s, Auburn, Studebaker, Graham, Chrysler, Marmon, and Hupmobile, among others, constructed some of their most luxurious showrooms in Rio de Janeiro.
Even in the Soviet Union and China, American manufacturers were well represented as evidenced with a rare parade of automobiles through the Red Square of Moscow in 1925 led by a Lincoln and the Emperor of Manchukuo (Japanese occupied Manchuria) choosing a 1933 Lincoln limousine for his transportation. Cuba, well known for its fleets of vintage automobiles, is a time capsule of America’s automotive dominance even in the post war world.
The superior performance and quality of the Duesenberg gave the American lexicon a new comparative term, a Duesey. Through Lend Lease in World War II trucks built by Studebaker gave the Soviet lexicon new slang for indestructible, Stude.
In the post war years European coachbuilders were contracted to build, on American chassis, dream cars such as the Chrysler Norseman or Checker Centurion. However, more often than not when wealthy clients called upon these old world artisans to construct one off models the chassis upon which these custom creations were built were American.
In Switzerland, the durable Checker was the chassis of choice one of that countries leading manufacture of ambulances. Seton of Sweden, a special markets auto producer, chose Checker for similar reasons. Moreover, in the early 1960s the State Department ordered several Checker built limousines for embassy duty in countries such as the Soviet Union where Lincoln or Cadillac built vehicles had proved to be to fragile for the extreme conditions.
Today corporations are multinational behemoths that have blurred the brand names as well as nation of origin. More often than not the attempt to “buy” an American automobile is an exercise in self deception. Unless, of course, one chooses to forgo a few modern amenities and select a former king of the road, a vestige of the great empire that was the American auto industry for their transportation needs.
My Barn Find
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