Powel Crosley Jr. began sketching designs for his new car in 1934. It would be an inexpensive, very small car and would retail for under $400 at a time when the average car sold for around $700.
In 1936, he and his brother Lewis chose the Waukesha Engine Company to build a 13.5 horsepower, air-cooled engine. They wanted the engine to average 50 miles to a gallon of gas.
Early on, the car was nicknamed the CRAD, for the Crosley Radio Automobile Division. In fall 1938, The Crosley Radio Corporation officially became The Crosley Corporation to recognize the forthcoming Crosley automobile.
The first Crosley coupes and sedans began rolling off the assembly at the mile-long Crosley building in Richmond, IN, in spring 1939. The Crosley had its first public showing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Friday, April 28, 1939. This was where Powel had previously worked so hard to make his mark in the budding auto industry.
The little auto was a radical departure from the bigger, more powerful, more comfortable cars of the day. The Crosley was about 10 feet long, with 12-inch diameter wheels, the gas tank held four gallons, the crankcase two quarts of oil, and the entire car weighed a little over 900 pounds.
A week after the 1940 New York Auto Show, Cannonball Baker drove a Crosley cross-country and back on only 130 gallons of gas, bearing out the company’s 50 miles per gallon promise. In summer of 1940, Crosley competed in the Army Quartermaster program to develop a prototype reconnaissance vehicle.
Sales in 1940 were 422 cars and in 1941 were 2,289. Sales in 1942 were 1,029 before cessation of manufacture for World War II.
During the war, Crosley purchased the rights to an overhead-camshaft, four-cylinder, “CoBra” (copper-brazed) sheet steel engine. The complete engine weighted 59 pounds and produced 36 h.p. from 44 c.i.d.
Production of the postwar Crosleys began in Marion, Indiana, in May 1946. These offerings consisted of a two-door sedan and a convertible coupe with prices starting at $905. The 1946 Crosley used a modified CoBra engine that produced 26.5 h.p. with a mileage rating of 50 m.p.g. Prices started at $888 in 1947, which was about $300 less than its nearest competitor. For 1948, Crosley added an all steel bodied station wagon. Crosley reached its production peak in 1948 with 27,707 cars produced, with 23,489 of the total being station wagons.
In mid-year 1949, Crosley introduced hydraulic disc brakes on all four wheels. The famous Hotshot sports car debuted in mid-summer. It was America’s first mass produced postwar sports car. It was a sporty proposition with an overhead cam engine and four-wheel hydraulic disc brakes.
Crosley sales overall in 1951 were just over 6,500 units. In the early 1950’s, American motorists expected more than basic transportation in their automobiles. Longer, lower, and more power was the mantra of the Big Three. Crosley’s declining sales came as a direct result of providing an economical, no-frills offering in a market that didn’t value these strengths. Crosley production ground to a halt in July 1952, after a production run of 1,522 cars.
Between 1949 and 1952, Powel Crosley invested more than $3 million of his own money trying to save his venture. Crosley Motors was sold to General Tire and Rubber Company. The car was no more, but the Crosley engine lived on in various applications into the 1970’s.
As it turned out, Powel’s ideas for an economy car may have been 10 years too early for the marketplace. By 1958, the combination of imports and the Nash Rambler accounted for 12 percent of car sales. Studebaker introduced the Lark compact in 1959, with General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler offerings in hot pursuit.
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