1949 Crosley
1949 Crosley. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

When Powel L. Crosley Jr. became appalled at the high prices being charged for radios, he set about to develop a low priced one in co-operation with University of Cincinnati engineers. It was successful and he began manufacturing them. By the early 1920s his Crosley Radio Corporation was the world’s largest radio manufacturer, with its own broadcasting station, WLW in Cincinnati, Ohio.

He expanded into appliances, and his “Shelvador” refrigerator pioneered shelves in the doors. An avid baseball fan, he bought the Cincinnati Reds, who played their games in Crosley Field.

Ever the eclectic entrepreneur, in the 1930s Crosley began pursuing his dream of building a light, economical car. His engineers designed a two-door, four-passenger model that was 3,048 mm (120 in.) long with a 2,032 mm (80 in.) wheelbase. It weighed just 420 kg (925 lb), and was powered by a two-cylinder, 0.6 litre (39 cu in.) air-cooled, 15 horsepower Waukesha engine. Items like basic tubing and fabric seats, hand-operated wipers, and sliding windows kept the price at $250.

It was introduced in the spring of 1939, and marketed through Crosley dealerships and appliance stores, where they would pass through the front door. By year’s end he sold over 2,000.

But mechanical problems kept 1940 sales to just 422 cars. Crosley’s new chief engineer, Paul Klotsch, improved the engine mounts, and increased engine durability. Sales revived, and when the Second World War ended production in 1942, 3,300 Crosleys had been sold.

Crosley participated in war work, one of his products being a small, sheet metal, inline four-cylinder engine that powered navy electrical generating sets. With an eye to the future, Crosley obtained the patent rights. When peace came in 1945 Crosley sold controlling interest in the radio and appliance businesses, but kept the automotive division, Cincinnati-based Crosley Motors Inc., which had its plant in Marion, Indiana.

The heart of Crosley’s return to cars was the new engine. It was assembled from sheet metal stampings, with thin-walled steel tubes for cylinders. These were brazed together with copper (it was called the COBRA engine, for COpper BRAzed) by being “cooked” in a furnace. It weighed a feathery 26.8 kg (59 lb) without starter or generator.

The valves were operated by a single overhead camshaft, and an oversquare (bigger bore than stroke) bore and stroke of 63.5 by 57.1 mm (2.50 by 2.25 in.), gave a displacement of 725 cc (44 cu in.). Its 26.5 horsepower was developed at over 5,000 rpm, an almost unheard of speed for an American engine at that time, and it would rev beyond 6,000. The five-bearing crankshaft ran in an aluminum crankcase.

Crosley’s new post-war car kept the 2,032 mm (80 in.) wheelbase, but the two-door sedan was now 3,683 mm (145 in.) long, and weighed 522 kg (1,150 lb).

Production began in mid-1946 and by year’s end a car-starved market had absorbed 4,987 sedans, plus a handful of convertibles and pickups. For 1947 Crosley recorded almost 20,000 sales. This increased to over 28,000 in 1948, some 23,000 of them station wagons, making Crosley the world’s largest wagon producer. It would be Crosley’s best year.

A serious engine problem surfaced that had not emerged in military use. The sheet metal parts were subject to electrolysis, and corrosion ate tiny holes through cylinder walls and other parts. Coolant was lost or entered the oil, with disastrous results.

Engineer Klotsch solved the problem with a new “CIBA” (Cast Iron Block Assembly) block. It was retrofitted to many cars, but Crosley’s reputation had been tarnished.

Crosley pressed ahead. More contemporary styling was adopted for 1949, and four-wheel disc “Hydradisc” brakes were fitted, the first four-wheel calliper-type discs offered on a production car. Unfortunately they proved troublesome and Crosley returned to drums in mid-1950.

Crosley also pioneered a new sports car, the 1949 Hotshot. In spite of its tiny 725 cc engine and 26.5 horsepower, it provided surprisingly good performance, thanks to a weight of only 499 kg (1100 lb). Tom McCahill of Mechanix Illustrated magazine reported a zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) time of 28.1 seconds and a top speed of 119 km/h (74 mph).

The Hotshot’s successor, the Super Sport, which had a 10.0:1 compression ratio, recorded zero to 96 (60) in 19.7 seconds, and a top speed of 124 km/h (77 mph). McCahill’s summed up the $1,000 Crosley sports car as a “tin tub on wheels with a fine engine.” A Crosley special contested the 1951 LeMans, France, 24-hour race where it ran well until it retired with generator failure.

Crosley also developed a small, versatile, Jeep-type utility vehicle for road or agricultural use. The 1,600 mm (63 in.) wheelbase Crosley Farm-O-Road appeared in 1950, and had six forward speeds and two reverse. Options included a dump or pickup box, and dual wheels.

Engine problems and a changing market resulted in just over 7,400 sales in 1949. In 1950, in spite of the sports car and utility vehicle, sales slipped to some 6,800.

Although the end was in view, Crosley managed to hold sales about even at 6,600 in 1951. This was below break even, however, and Powel Crosley closed the doors on his dream in 1952 after just over 2,000 ’52 Crosleys had been produced.

Powel Crosley died in 1961 at the age of 74. His success in home appliances unfortunately hadn’t transferred to his cars.

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