1950 Crosley Super Sport
1950 Crosley Super Sport
Photo: Bill Vance

by Bill Vance

The first American post-Second World War sports car

During the 1950s sports cars were popularized in North America by cars like the English MG, Triumph, Austin-Healey, and Jaguar.

Their acceptance caused Nash to introduce its beautiful 1951 British-American hybrid Nash-Healey, and General Motors to produce its Chevrolet Corvette in 1953. The Corvette wasn’t very sporty, however, with only a two-speed automatic Powerglide transmission; no manual gearbox was available until 1956.

But the honour of building the first American post-Second World War sports car fell to Powel Crosley, Jr. of Cincinnati, Ohio.

In the 1920s the adventurous Crosley had discovered radio. He was appalled at their high cost, however, and working with University of Cincinnati engineering students, developed one that could be sold for $20. He set up the Crosley Corp. and began building them commercially. Crosley was soon the world’s largest radio manufacturer, and he even had his own station: WLW in Cincinnati.

He branched into other home appliances, and his Crosley “Shelvador” refrigerator was the first to have shelves in the doors. An avid baseball fan, he became owner/president of the Cincinnati Reds in 1934. They played their home games in Crosley Field.

With his financial security Crosley could now pursue his dream of building automobiles. In 1939 he started producing a tiny car powered by a two-cylinder, air-cooled, 0.6 litre engine. This sold in modest numbers until World War II stopped car building in 1942.

Auto production resumed in 1945 and in those car-starved years Crosley prospered moderately with his diminutive cars, now much improved with a four-cylinder engine. To give his model line some lustre, he brought out the Crosley Hotshot sports car in 1949.

At only 3683 mm (145 in.) long, the tiny roadster resembled an inverted bathtub. It had no doors and no trunk lid, the spare tire was bolted onto the rear deck, and the windshield was a flat pane of glass. The headlamps perched on the hood like a frog’s eyes.

The Hotshot’s wheelbase was only 2159 mm (85 in.) and it had tiny 4.50 by 12 inch tires. Power went to the rear wheels through a three-speed, floor-shift transmission. At just over 499 kg (1100 lb) it was a real flyweight.

It was under the simple hood that was to be found the Hotshot’s best feature: its overhead cam, five-main-bearing engine. Although it displaced only 725 cc (44 cu in.), the four produced 26.5 horsepower at 5400 rpm, an astronomical speed for an American production engine. It was America’s highest specific output engine.

It had a larger bore than stroke before most manufacturers had discovered its advantage: 63.5 by 57.1 mm (2.50 by 2.25 in.). And overhead cams were a rarity in American production cars.

The engine had been used in a Navy generating set during World War II, and was very light due to its sheet metal construction. The metal parts were brazed together, thus the name “Cobra” (for COpper BRAzed) block. Unfortunately in automotive service the sheet metal developed disastrous leaks. Crosley changed to a traditional cast iron “Ciba” (Cast Iron Block Assembly) block in 1948, but Crosley’s reputation had been damaged.

Another very advanced, but then unappreciated feature, was four-wheel disc brakes. These were fitted in 1949, making the Crosley the world’s first production car with four-wheel discs.

The Hotshot soon gained a reputation of sorts by winning the 1950 6-hour sports car endurance race held in Sebring, Florida. With a mere 725 cc of displacement it won under a handicap system called the “Index of Performance,” a formula based on distance travelled and engine size. With its tiny engine the little Crosley won by just cruising around at 84 km/h (52 mph). A Hotshot also raced at the 24 hours of LeMans, France, and was doing well until its generator burned out.

Tom McCahill of Mechanix Illustrated magazine (10/49) tested one and reported that it accelerated from zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 28.1 seconds, and reached a top speed of 119 km/h (74 mph). This was not quite as fast as the MG TD, which took 22.8 seconds to reach 96 (60), and topped 129 km/h (80 mph). But McCahill also noted that the MG had a 1.25 litre engine, and cost almost twice as much as the Hotshot.

McCahill admitted that the Hotshot, and the later Super Sport, had shortcomings. They were simply and crudely built, which kept the price at less than $1000. But McCahill’s conclusion was that it was “dollar for dollar and pound for pound…one of the greatest sports cars ever built.”

Alas, even the enjoyable little sports car couldn’t save Crosley Motors. From a 1948 high of 29,089 Crosleys, sales declined annually until by 1952 demand fell so low that car production stopped.

Powel Crosley had made a valiant attempt to build a small, economical North American car. And his Hotshot/Super Sport was a sports car truly built for having fun. Alas it was just too small, and ahead of its time, so it remains a tiny chapter in automotive history.

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