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