Thoughout the first decade after World War II, as American cars grew ever larger and more powerful, one car maker took a diffent path. Not one of the more than 75,000 cars built by Crosley Motors over 10 model years weighed more than a fraction of a ton. Predating the Volkswagen by a decade, some might argue Crosley was ahead of its time. Others might say its founder, Powel Crosley was chasing an icon of the past, the Ford Model T, whos time had come and gone. Either way, Crosley is a story of what might have been.
The $10 Automobile
The story of the Crosley Motor Company began with a friendly wager between a teenager and his father. In the year 1900, fifteen-year old Powel Crosley, Jr. of Cincinnati, OH, had become taken with an emerging new technology called the automobile. Putting his new-found passion to the test, Powel bet his dad $10 - a week's wage at the turn of the last century - that he could build a car able to travel one city block. With funds borrowed from his numbers-wise younger brother, Lewis, the young entrepreneur was able to assemble what he needed, an old buckboard wagon borrowed from his grandfather, a battery obtained from a local theater, and an electric motor of his own design. From these Powel constructed a crude but effective vehicle. With the younger (and lighter) Lewis at the wheel - tiller, actually - the car made its maiden voyage. It went one block from the neighborhood post office and back. With his winnings Powel paid off his suppliers and his brother, who had bankrolled the endeavor, and was left with a dollar or so in his pocket, a nice night on the town in those days. He had also acquired a dream that would span a lifetime. The following year Powel graduated from high school, and the Oldsmobile Curved Dash became the first mass produced car. The age of the automobile had begun. Powel Crosley, Jr. was determined to be part of it.
By the age of 21, Crosley was indeed in the automobile business, albeit briefly. Throughout college and very a short career as a bond dealer, he spent his spare hours designing a more serious car. Powel was an excellent salesman and he had Lewis’s numbers to back up his pitch. He persuaded local investors to finance a low-priced six-cylinder car called the Marathon. At that time, cars of this type cost $2,000 or more. Powel had designed the Marathon Six to cost just $1,700. It was a superior product for less money. That axiom would become the guiding principal that carried Crosley though the course of his career.
He received sufficient orders for cars to cover the firm's startup costs. All looked well for the Marathon's late 1907 launch… until disaster struck. The Panic of 1907 was not unlike our Great Recession a century later. The U.S economy temporarily seized up as banks nation-wide called in loans. Entrepreneurs and businesses went bankrupt by the thousands. Among them was Powell Crosley, Jr.’s Marathon Motor Car Company. His first venture was doomed but his dream of being a carmaker lived on.
After the Marathon collapse, Powel moved to Indianapolis, a city that at the time rivaled Detroit as a car-making center. He went to work for a large Dayton-Stoddard dealer owned by Carl Fisher. Mr. Fisher, a promoter extraordinaire, was also the driving force behind the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Powel’s job was prepping new cars, delivering them to customers and making repairs where necessary. He struck up a friendship with Fisher, who’s skills as a showman made the Indy 500 a spectacle. They also helped him sell a lot of cars. One of Fisher’s bolder publicity stunts involved strapping one of his Dayton-Stoddards to a hot air balloon and flying off, then driving back to Indianapolis 2 hours later to great acclaim.
After three years learning about sales, promotion and publicity from Fisher, not to mention soaking up the atmosphere down at the Speedway, Powell moved on to work for the Parry Automobile Company as their promotions manager. Unfortunately, the Parry Pathfinder was a rather ordinary car and that failed to catch on. Meanwhile, Gwendolyn Aiken, Powel’s sweetheart back home who had been patient though out his adventure, was becoming less so. He returned to Cincinnati to marry her. A daughter soon followed and then a son. There was another brief foray into car making. The 2-seat De Cross Cy-Car was a bit different in that the driver sat behind the passenger. One was built before funding dried up. With a family now to support, Crosley put cars aside for a while and concentrated on to the relatively more stable field of advertising.
The Rubber Hits the Road
As Crosley turned his efforts to ad campaigns, the automobile’s impact on the American landscape by leaps and bounds. It was now 1916. Nearly a million Ford Model Ts were on the road. The trans-continental Lincoln Highway was complete, opening new places for drivers to go in their Fords. Americans were racking up miles exponentially. These ever-greater distances were exposing the inadequacies of period tire design. Blowouts were common. At the time, one of Crosley’s largest advertising clients was Ira Cooper of the Cooper Tire Company. Cooper’s primary business was retreads. Retreads are worn-out tires capped with lightly used treads. Ira had thousands of old tires and treads ready to be given new life. Many of them, however, were too worn out to reuse. Cooper’s plan was to convert this growing mountain of useless rubber into a new product called tire liners - a kind of patch between the tire and inner tube that would help guard against punctures. Cooper wanted Powel Crosley to develop and promote this new business.
Crosley called this tire-inside-a-tire the Insyde Tyre. He set up a system of franchise dealers to handle sales, which he vigorously promoted. Insyde Tyres were an instant hit. The success led Crosley to convince Cooper to form the American Automobile Accessory Company, one of the first mass aftermarket accessories makers. Before long, Crosley had bought out Cooper and brought in his very first partner in the automobile business. Powel Crosley could spot growth markets and to create the products to feed them. His bother Lewis got them built cheaply and with superior quality. This partnership would participate in another three decades of success.
Powel dreamed up a seemingly endless array of new gadgets for folks to improve and personalize their now million+ Model Ts. There was the Lil Shofur, a devise that helped return steering mechanisms to a strait line, a fuel additive called Kick, and a self-vulcanizing tire patch called Treadkote. As patriotic fervor rose in the build-up to WWI, Powel came up with a flag holder that clamped to radiator caps so that Americans could proudly display Old Glory. They sold, as Powel recalled, “like cool drink in an arid desert.”
By 1919, American Automobile Accessories had sold more than one million dollars worth of products and the Crosleys were looking to expand into new businesses beyond automobiles. The first was phonographs. These devices cost about $100 at a time when the average working man’s salary was $12 a week. RCA Victor’s patent of the Victrola had recently expired, creating an opportunity. By early 1920 Crosley introduced the Amerinola, a phonograph costing half that of RCA’s machines. Sales quickly took off. The following year, a new rage was sweeping the country: radios. Legend has it, Crosley, at the request of his son, Powel III, walked in to Cincinnati electronic store to inquire as to the price of a new radio. Upon the news that it cost $130, Crosley left instead with a twenty-five cent pamphlet called The ABCs of Radio, along with an idea for his next business venture. Called the Harko, it was more radio for less money than anything on the market. Before long the Crosley Radio Corporation was the largest radio manufacturer in the world and Powell Crosley Jr. became known as the Henry Ford of Radio.
With the radio came the need for programing. To fill that need, Crosley created WLW-AM Cincinnati, which for a time was the most powerful radio station in America. When the Cincinnati Reds baseball club threatened to leave town, Crosley bought the team he’d routed for as a boy, keeping them in the city, and adding a valuable source of programing for his radio station.
The Crosley bothers used the same strategy that brought such smashing success in radio and phonographs to all his businesses. Powel found products the public wanted, and Lewis found a way to make them both affordable and profitable. “For the masses, not the classes,” was their company mantra. But Crosley’s entry in the refrigerator business was not living up to expectations. While Crosley fridges were cheaper than the completion, they were also smaller and not any better. That all changed in 1933. An inventor walked into Powel’s office to pitch an idea: shelves on the inside of the door. It seems strange today that no one had thought of it before, and downright bazar that the inventor had offered his idea to GE, Kelvinator and Frigidaire, and all three turned him down. Powel Crosley did not turn him down and the Shelvador was his next big hit.
Throughout his rise to the top Crosley took on nearly a dozen different industries, dominating several of them. Even the best hitters on his Cincinnati Reds baseball team failed seven out of ten times each trip to the plate, and Powel, too, had his strikeouts. Forays into cameras, furnaces and airplanes, were all flops. One of the more embarrassing was the Xervac hair growing device that used vacuum power to suck hair to the surface of barren scalps. It ended up destroying what little hair users already had.
Each time Powel had an idea for a new product he would go to his brother with two questions: What do you think, and how much do we risk before calling it a day? Lewis always answered, yes, because he had the upmost trust in his brother’s instincts, and then he gave a number. The failures never hurt much because any loss incurred was limited to a manageable number provided by Lewis.
Two decades had past since Powel Crosley returned to Cincinnati to sell ads out of a one-room office for $20 a week. His visionary mind, supported by the steady eye of his brother, had placed the Crosleys among America’s greatest industrialists, wealthy beyond wildest dreams. Still, Powel Crosley had one more dream to chase. He still wanted to make cars.
One day in 1936, Powel went to his brother with a plan to build an economy car in the Crosley mold, one with a price so low virtually anyone who wanted wheels could have them. He put to Lewis his usual questions about viability and costs and was surprised by his brother’s response. The answers were “no” and “zero”. Crosley was a public company now. They had shareholders to answer to and Lewis felt the automobile was too risky a venture to pursue. Fair enough, Powel would use some of his own considerable fortune to fund Crosley Motors.
Several years earlier, Powel had purchased an Austin Seven for use at his Florida estate. The Seven was an economy car conceived by Sir Herbert Austin partly in response to Britain’s 1921 horsepower tax – the Seven had very few of those. The little car seemed to fit Crosley’s built-for the-masses formula, and was the inspiration for the first Crosley automobile to see production.
The Crosley Series 1A was unveiled on April 28, 1939 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the city where a quarter century earlier, Powel Crosley got his start in the auto business. The A1 weighed less than 900lbs and measured just 10 feet in length. At $325, the Crosley was the lowest priced car in America, undercutting the equally tiny American Bantam by $62. The Bantam, itself had been inspired by the Austin Seven. The A1 was powered by an air-cooled Waukesha 2-cylinder engine and was offered as either a convertible coupe or a ¼-ton truck.
Immediately after the Indy introduction, the little Crosley’s were shipped off to the New York World’s Fair where they were promoted as “The Car of Tomorrow for the World of Tomorrow.” Crosley did not use traditional car dealers to sell his cars, not with a ready-made network of 25,000 appliance retailers to do the job. The little 1As could be rolled right through the store doors and placed in the showroom next to Shelvador refrigerators and Magna-tune radios.
The car was updated in 1940. The new A2 offered two additional versions, a “deluxe” sedan and a maple-bodied station wagon. In one of Powell’s many promotional events, racecar driver Cannonball Baker drover a Crosley A2 cross-country and back on just 130 gallons of fuel. With only 12hp on tap, it is not known how long the journey took.
With its superb fuel economy and minimal usage of raw materials, the A2 would have been just the sort of car America needed as wartime rationing came into effect. So it must have been galling to the Crosleys that the production quotas on automobiles put in place by the government’s War Production Board dictated that they could build just 5757 cars before world war halted all automobile production.
A few months prior to Pearl Harbor, Lewis Crosley received a call from the Naval Bureau of Ordinance. Crosley Radio had a reputation for the high quality, low cost manufacturing. The Navy sought those attributes in the development and production of a top-secret device called the proximity fuse. With conventional aerial artillery, detonation had to be induced one of three ways: direct contact, a timer set at launch, or by altimeter. Each method required tremendous luck in order to down its target. The proximity fuse employed radio signals to tell the ordinance that it is close to its objective and detonate. Referred to as a “force multiplier”, it was said to increase artillery accuracy by eight-fold. Crosley fuses saw their first action off Guadacanal in January 1943 and throughout the Pacific theater. The proximity fuse played such an important role in the ultimate Allied victory, it is considered by war historians to be the 3rd most significant development of the war, after radar and the A-Bomb.
The Post-War Boom…
Separate from Crosley Industries, little Crosley Motors did its share for the war effort, too, building a variety of less mission-critical items. This included a unique engine that was manufactured from inexpensive and readily available copper-brazed sheet metal. The army, with its love for the acronym, called it the CO-BRA. They were used in a variety machines; generators, pumps, refrigeration units, even a small scout airplane called the Mooney Mite. In Navy tests, the engine ran continuously for 1200 hours without a fault. Once in service, it was proven in combat situations to be extremely reliable.
As an end to hostilities came into sight, Crosley’s post-war attack on the U.S. automobile market began. It began with plans for an all-new low-priced car designed around the 4-cylinder COBRA engine. Called the CC, the new car was a bit larger and much more modern than the pre-war A2. The engine’s sheet metal construction made it lightweight and very inexpensive to produce. The overhead cam 26.5hp unit weighted only 133lbs, versus 188lbs for the prewar 12-hp Waukesha.
Despite the COBRA’s advantages, Younger brother Lewis Crosley was not convinced. Originally trained as an engineer, Lewis immediately saw the problems inherent to the COBRA’s design. In time, the water that cooled the steel and copper block would cause oxidation and corrosion. He also felt that it might not be up to the stress of automotive use. Powel, on the other hand, saw the engine as the key to his car’s success. He argued that engine had proved itself durable in a variety of combat situations. Guess who won the argument.
Powel proceeded to go all-in on Crosley Motors. He sold his entire business empire to AVCO, a conglomerate that made everything from kitchen ranges to aircraft carriers. Electronics, appliances, the WLW radio station… everything but the Cincinnati Reds; he sold it all to concentrate on cars. His reservations noted, the dutiful, and now very wealthy, Lewis Crosley set about finding a way to make Crosley Motors work.
With hostilities over, the race was on to restart civilian production. Starved of new cars for nearly four years, Americans were ravenous. Manufacturers were keen to respond. However, the bureaucrats at the War Production Board where reluctant to yield control of the supply of steel, rubber and other key components. Officials worked out a scheme of allocation based on each auto company’s prewar output. Powel Crosley argued that he should receive a much higher allocation because each of his cars contained far less of the rationed materials than other manufactures. Moreover, they used far less fuel, which was also still rationed. With all the logic and foresight the bureaucratic mind could muster, they turned him down. Thus Crosley was limited to selling less than 5000 cars in 1946 when it could have sold many times that number.
For the first few years after automobile production resumed most manufacturers peddled warmed over 1942 models. The Crosley was all new and truly different. The CC was a foot shorter than the Volkswagen Beetle that would storm our shores in a few years, and it was half the size of the typical American car. Despite its diminutive demensions, the Crosley was a masterpiece of space utilization, easily accommodating a pair of 6-footers in front. The 6’4” Powel Crosley insisted upon this. The CC was not only short; it was narrow. This was by design, so that two Crosleys could ride side by side on a standard rail car, thus reducing shipping costs. And speaking of trains, in the July 1947 issue of Mechanics Illustrated, while giving the car overall praise in its review, it was pointed out that the only comfortable way to do 50mph in a Crosley was if it was loaded on a fast moving train.