The 1949 Crosley Hot Shot was America’s first post-war sports car, pre-dating the Chevrolet Corvette by 4 years. It had frameless side windows, a one-piece windshield, and frogeye-type headlights - 8 years before the famed Austin-Healey “Frogeye” Sprite. The roadster was based on the updated Crosley CD sedan’s chassis. A "5” wheelbase stretch improved both the handling and the looks. The Hot Shot was also was the first modern American car with 4-wheel disc brakes. What it did not have was an abundance of horsepower. The 720cc OHC engine, while durable and rev-happy, produced only 26.5hp.
The Hot Shot’s horsepower issue would be addressed quickly. Crosley CEO, Powel Crosley, loved speed and he loved racing. Decades earlier he tried and failed to hire on as a driver at the first Indy 500 in 1911. The new-for-1950 Hot Shot Super Sport reflected his passion for the sport and for sports cars. It was built to go racing. The Super Sport’s overhead cam CIBA engine was bored out from 720cc to 748cc and given a higher 10:1 compression ratio. Output rose to 35hp and it could now rev to nearly 7,500RPM. These enhancements ware attached to a chassis that while primitive, gripped the road like terrier with a rabbit.
Serious drivers could take their Super Sports to the next level. Available via aftermarket suppliers were hot cams and ignitions, Amal dual side-draft motorcycle carburetors, and a Roots-type supercharger, together boosting horsepower above 60. That doesn’t sound like much, but with the top, doors and passenger seat removed for racing, the Super Sport weighed in at less than 1000lbs.
And racing it went on New Year’s Eve, 1950. The qualities of low weight and tenacious grip served the little Crosley well at Sebring, Florida that day and night. It was the site of America’s first major post-war endurance race, one that would become the internationally acclaimed 12 Hours of Sebring. In those days, endurance races were run on European rules, whereby cars were handicapped based on their engine size and whether or not they were supercharged. In this manner, big powerful Ferraris and Allards competed on equal terms with little Fiats and, on this day, a Crosley Hot Shot.
As the story goes, the car wasn’t originally entered in the race. Vic Sharpe, owner of the local Crosley franchise, showed up at the track that morning in a new, mostly stock Hot Shot Super Sport. He ran into a couple friends, Frits Koster and Bobby Deshon. The car the two had planned to race was experiencing mechanical troubles that threated to turn them into spectators. After a few practice laps in the Crosley, the two convinced Sharpe to let them “borrow” his car for the rest of the day.
Late to the show and with a big #19 painted on the side, they started 28thout of 28 cars.Koster and Deshon were experienced enduro racers. They knew that downshifting in and out of turns all day would slowly grind the Hot Shot’s non-synchromesh gearbox slowly into dust. Instead, they decided to just leave the car in top gear and let its superior cornering get them around the track. Going into a curve, the driver would sit up in his seat to let wind resistance slow the car, all the time keeping the engine gunned at 7500RPM. Through the turn he’d slide back down and the little roadster would pick up speed again. After the first hour of racing, the handicap formula showed the #19 Crosley in the lead. For the rest of the race they never trailed.
Hot Shots continued to go racing. A Super Sport won the Grand Prix de la Suisse in 1951. A few weeks later, another placed second in the Tokyo Grand Prix. One easily could imagine that Tokyo competition being witnessed by a young race fan and engineer named Soichiro Honda, who would remember what he saw. Especially when a dozen years later, gazing at Mr. Honda’s first automobile, the feather-weight Honda S500 roadster and one sees the influence of the Hot Shot.
The true grand prix, the big prize in endurance racing, remained the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Its 1951 running would have one particularly exiguous entry. A couple of amateur racers had taken particular notice of the Crosley’s performance at Sebring. Sportsmen George Schraft and Phil Stiles had always wanted to compete at Le Mans but lacked the funds to be competitive. With the Hot Shot, they saw their opportunity. They wrote to the factory for financial and technical assistance in preparing a car for their campaign. Powel Crosley, a racing fan and always with an eye for promotional opportunities, loved the idea. He had his chief engineer prepare a Super Sport chassis with a specially tuned engine. With Powell’s backing, Schraft and Stiles brought the car to famed racecar builder, Floyd “Pop” Dryer in Indianapolis to be fitted with a racecar body and have suspension modifications. Then it was off to France.
Soon after its arrival at LeMans, the Crosley’s two seats and cylindrical shape earned it the nickname, Le Biplace Torpedo. The trouble for le Torpedobegan at the pre-race technical inspection. The Hot Shot’s headlights proved to be too weak for the speeds of the Mulsanne straight and were disallowed. Regulation lights were installed but they required a larger generator. A shipment from the factory wouldn’t arrive by race time, so a French Marchel unit was fitted. This proved the car’s undoing.
The race started at 4PM. For several hours Schraft tore up the course, staying in top gear at close to full throttle. He was steadily moving up through his class, thrilling spectators as he passed more powerful cars in the turns, challenging for the lead. Then darkness fell, the lights came on, and the Marcel alternator began discharging. After a pit and some makeshift repairs, the car went out for a couple of more hours, but the team knew it was over. By midnight, the Crosley was out of the race. The next morning the new generator arrived from Cincinnati.
The poor Le Biplace Torpedo: it was certainly was not the first car done in by French technology. There is no telling how the car would have done through the rest of the race had it been able to continue. For Crosley aficionados, the 1951 Circuit de la Sartheremains the stuff of dreams.