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Curator’s Column

After his failure with the 1909 Marathon Six car and the 1913 DeCross Cyclecar, Powel Crosley Jr. purchased an automotive parts mail-order business in 1916 and became very wealthy over the next two years. In 1921, shocked by the $100 price tag for consumer radios, he developed the Harko, an inexpensive radio that could be mass-produced and retailed for $7.00, headphones extra. Once Crosley established himself as a radio manufacturer, he decided to expand into broadcasting. In 1922 Crosley established WLW, a Cincinnati radio station. By 1925 Crosley’s company, the Crosley Radio Corporation, became the largest manufacturer of radios in the world. All of these successful ventures crowned him the “Henry Ford of Radio”. With his fortune, Crosley also became owner of the Cincinnati Reds baseball team and expanded to other electrical appliances, introducing the first refrigerator to have shelves built into the door, called the “Shelvador”.

In the late 1930’s, redirecting his new fortune back into the pursuit of his passion for cars, Crosley developed a low-priced, economical vehicle, hoping to reduce manufacturing costs by using cheaper materials such as sheet metal. His initial prototype, developed mid to late 1938, was the CRAD (Crosley Radio Auto Division), a three-passenger coupe with a very short 18 inch rear axle, eliminating the need for a differential. The CRAD led him to his first production vehicle, named the Crosley Car, unveiled on April 28, 1939 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It weighed a mere 925 pounds, with a wheelbase of only 80 inches—almost 15 inches shorter than the later VW Beetle—and its overall length measured less than ten feet. The Crosley Car was powered by an air-cooled 13.5 hp, 580cc Waukesha boxer twin, developed from an orchard sprayer motor. It was known as the Model 150 Cub Twin, with a fan as an integral part of the flywheel. Powel converted part of his Richmond, Indiana facility, then dedicated to Shelvador production, for his automobile factory.

In 1939, the Crosley Car was the lowest-priced car in America; $325 for the two-door convertible coupe and $350 for the four-passenger convertible sedan. The low price undercut the equally diminutive American Bantam of the time, selling for $449 to $565. The interior of the Crosley Car was simple; only a 60 mph speedo, odometer, ammeter, oil pressure, and a three spoke steering wheel. Cutting cost further, a four-gallon, gravity-fed gas-tank, mounted above the motor, allowed the engine to operate without a fuel pump.

Immediately after their introduction, Crosley Cars were shipped off to the 1939 New York World’s Fair where they were promoted as “The Car of Tomorrow for the World of Tomorrow.” An inventive marketer, Powel initially offered Crosley Cars through large appliance and hardware stores. The 48 inch-wide Crosley Car was narrow enough to pass through a commercial doorway. Crosley Cars became available at Macy’s in New York and Bamberger’s in New Jersey. The first day they were displayed at Macy’s, a crowd swarmed the display and fourteen orders were received. A Crosley Car could be purchased in the standard colors of  “Crosley Gray” and “Crosley Blue” with “Sequoia Cream” as an option—all with Chinese Red wheels and a black top. Post-war cars had much better color options.

The Crosley was offered in a variety of models and about 5,757 total were built before World War II halted production. During the war, Crosley manufactured radios, generators, cookstoves and gun turrets. Their largest contracts were top secret bomb proximity fuzes—ranked only behind the A Bomb and RADAR in importance to winning the war. Car production ramped up after the war with small sedans, pick-ups, panel vans, and wagon bodies. They utilized the new, water-cooled, 4-cylinder, CoBra (Copper Brazed) engine also known as “The Mighty Tin”, the the first production engine to use overhead camshaft. Early in 1949, the CoBra engine was replaced with more reliable, water-cooled, 4-cylinder, CIBA (Cast Iron Block Assembly), engine. During that same year, Crosley became the first U.S. car to include four-wheel caliper-style disc brakes and the Crosley Hotshot was noted as America’s first “Sports Car”, five years before Corvette. In 1950, a completely stock Crosley Hotshot was entered in the first six-hour Sam Collier Memorial Grand Prix of Endurance—known now as the 12 Hours of Sebring, and took first place. In fact, all through the 1950’s Crosleys enjoyed success in the H Modified, 750 cc category of SCCA sports car racing.

With wide-open roads and parking that was not so much an issue, Americans preferred larger automobiles. Also the low fuel prices of the time negated any need for economy. Sadly, the lightweight, fuel-efficient Crosleys failed to become popular among American consumers. Crosley ceased car production in 1952. The Reds (of which Crosley owned 52%), played at Crosley Field in Cincinnati until 1970. Powel Crosley Jr. passed away on March 28, 1961. WLW, “The Nations’ Station”, is still an AM powerhouse, broadcasting at 700 on the AM dial.

Curator’s Column – Spring 2020 | Volume 17 | Issue 2