1951 Crosley LeMans Special. Click image to enlarge
Story and photo by Bill Vance
Taking a tiny car from America, the land of the automotive mastodon, to Europe, the birthplace of little cars, and challenging them on their own soil in France’s annual 24 hours of Le Mans road race was a most audacious adventure. The fact that it was done on little more than a shoestring makes it even more incredible.
Crosley Motors of Cincinnati, Ohio was formed in the 1930s by Powel Crosley, Jr., who had grown rich making radios and home appliances. It was the culmination of Crosley’s long-time desire to create a small, fuel efficient car for the common man. His first 1939 Crosley was a basic little machine powered by a two-cylinder, air-cooled engine.
The Second World War ended production in 1942, but after the war Crosley was back in business, now with a robust 724-cc single overhead cam, over-square, four-cylinder engine that had been used to power military generator sets. The block was initially made out of sheet metal, but was later converted to cast iron when corrosion problems arose.
In the post-war car shortage, Crosley’s Marion, Indiana plant prospered for a few years producing small sedans, convertibles, station wagons and light commercial vehicles. In 1949 it expanded into sports cars with the Hotshot model.
The Crosley Hotshot quickly gained some notoriety by winning the first race run in Sebring, Florida, a six-hour event held on December 31, 1950. The Crosley was, of course, too small to win on sheer speed against the likes of Jaguar’s, Ferraris, Aston-Martins and Cadillac-Allards, but it won what was called the Index of Performance, a calculation based on distance travelled and engine size. With its small displacement the Crosley had to average only 84 km/h (52 mph) to win.
Encouraged by the Hotshot’s Sebring success, two Florida racing enthusiasts, George Schraft and Phil Stiles, decided to enter a Crosley in the Le Mans race. Powel Crosley verified the required production numbers for race officials, and Crosley chief engineer Paul Klotsch provided factory assistance.
For the racer the Crosley engine was fitted with such items as a steel crankshaft, hotter cam, twin carburetors and finned aluminum crankcase and valve cover. Ignition was beefed up and a tachometer installed. After some tuning and experimenting the horsepower was increased to at least 42 from the stock 26.5, quite a feat at that time for a �-litre engine.
The pair then took the Crosley to Indianapolis where race car builder Floyd Dryer fabricated a light, open body complete with cycle type fenders to satisfy the regulations. The suspension was also improved for better handling.
After breaking in the car, Schraft and Stiles loaded it on a trailer and headed for New York. As a further shakedown the Crosley was driven part of the way on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Once in New York it got its final tune-up and was loaded on a ship bound for France.
The Crosley passed technical inspection at Le Mans with the exception of the headlamps. Because the larger generator needed for better lights didn’t arrive from the factory in time, a French Marchal unit was fitted.
The race started at the customary 4:00 p.m. and for the first couple of hours the Crosley was circulating at 118 km/h (73 mph) with more on tap – the car was said to be capable of 100 mph – and moving up through its class. Schraft stayed in high gear all the way around the course because the Crosley’s non-synchromesh transmission was marginal for the extra power, and they didn’t want to shift it too much.
By 6:00 p.m. things began to go wrong when Schraft pitted and reported that the generator was discharging. Stiles went out anyway, but disaster soon struck when the generator seized up and tore itself off its mounts, destroying the ignition wiring and disabling the water pump in the process.
Some Yankee ingenuity with taped wires and a by-passed water pump got the car back on the track briefly, but it was no use; the Crosley’s race was over.
It was discovered that the Marchal generator had plain bearings rather than ball bearings, which probably contributed to the failure. Ironically, it was a French part that did the American car in. The American generator arrived from Cincinnati the next day.
With the car repaired, Stiles and his wife toured around Europe before shipping it back to the U.S. Once on home soil it was raced in several events for a number of years.
Could Crosley have won the Index of Performance and its class at Le Mans? It probably had a very good chance. The Crosley engine was robust and capable of high rpm without failure. If it had won if would have been a stunning upset to the French and Italians with their specialization in fast, small cars. But alas it didn’t, and thus the story of Crosley at Le Mans goes down as a tiny chapter in history, a brave David and Goliath attempt to do the improbable, if not the impossible.