ALMOST FROM ITS INCEPTION and certainly from the early 1920's, the US motor industry was one of the most tightly sewn up closed shops imaginable, with the 'Big Three' cutting the cake three ways and dropping very few crumbs for smaller manufacturers.
It helped that the American car buyer remained devoutley loyal to their brand of choice, unwilling to deviate from the marques that they knew and trusted. So breaking into the market was never an easy proposition.
If you could figure out a way of convincing the buyer to switch brands, you then had to work out the details of mass production and establishing a comprehensive sales and service network across a large continent.
To start from scratch as a popular car manufacturer in the United States took a special kind of gambling instinct. One man who had that instinct - and almost succeeded with it - was Powel Crosley, a pioneer of wireless in the US, who had built up a nationwide sales network in radio and television sets by the late 1930s.
Crosley's first car appeared in 1939, a tiny vehicle by American standards with an air-cooled, twin-cylinder engine of only 580 cc, but production had hardly started in the firm's factory at Cincinnati, Ohio, when war was declared, and the project was shelved.
The 721cc Cobra Engine
The post-war Crosley abandoned the air-cooled twin motor in favour of the remarkable 721cc Cobra engine, originally developed by the United States Navy as an auxiliary power unit for use on board ship.
With a single overhead camshaft acting directly on the valves through barrel-type followers, the Cobra engine was built up from steel and copper pressings, brazed together in an oven; the cylinder head was fixed. Pistons, pumps, inlet manifold, sump and bell-housing were aluminum; the crankshaft ran in five main bearings, and could rev safely up to 7500 rpm.
Two compression ratios were available: 8:1, which gave 18 bhp, or 10:1, giving a creditable 26 bhp. A three-speed crash gearbox, with direct drive on top, was standard, in conjunction with a racing clutch. The engine/gearbox unit was mounted well back in the simple ladder type frame, giving a fully laden weight distribution of exactly 50 per cent on each axle.
Added rigidity was given to the chassis by the simple two-seater body, to which end doors were optional on the early production models. Crosley was obviously a believer in the fact that a well-set-up rigid suspension was infinitely preferable to a badly laid out independent suspension: the front end was carried on an I-section beam axle on semi-elliptic springs, and the solid rear axle was suspended on coil springs; damping was by telescopic shock absorbers all round, and 12-inch wheels were fitted.
The Cast Iron CIBA Engine
Early models had disc brakes, but these were dropped from later Crosleys, as they tended to become blocked up by mud. The Cobra power unit proving to be expensive to produce, a new engine (the CIBA) with a block of cast iron, cheaper to make and stronger than the Cobra, was introduced. Though the Crosley range included sedans, station wagons and delivery trucks, the marque is best remembered for the Hotshot sports two-seater, which pioneered the 'frog-eyed' look later associated with the first Austin-Healey Sprites.
Powel Crosley holding the heart of his brainchild, the engine of the first US compact.
The Crosley Hotshot
The Hotshot's maximum speed was only around 70 mph, but the car's light weight-just 9.5 cwt- contributed to its lively acceleration. Like its contemporary, the MG TC, the Hotshot could see off any of the current big American saloon cars on twisting roads.
Controls, reported owners, were excellently positioned, falling readily to hand. Crosleys first appeared in competition in 1949; twelve months later a Hotshot Super Sports finished first on index of performance at the Sebring
track. A standard Crosley ran at Le Mans, but was forced out when the cut-out failed and the dynamo burned out.
Although the Hotshot was an ugly little car, it was popular with the post-war American sporting motorists, and the cornering would assure disbelievers just how good the car really was. With 24,871 cars sold, Crosley's best year was 1948. Sales began to slip in 1949, and adding the Crosley Hotshot and a combination farm tractor-Jeep-like vehicle called the Farm-O-Road in 1950, could not stop the decline.
In 1952, only 1522 Crosley vehicles were sold. Production ceased after the July 3rd shift that year, and the plant was sold to the General Tire and Rubber Company. Had the marque's new owners been more patient, and continued making the little cars for another four or five years, they could have reaped a rich financial harvest as the craze for sub-compacts swept America. The faithful, however, still cherished their Hotshots:
Crosley power units formed the basis of many specials during the 1950s, and were also used in some Italian-built SIATAs. In the late 1950s it was credibly reported that some of the original Crosleys were still in use as hunters' cars in the Ozarks, though we doubt Powel Crosley would have thought this use a dignified end to his beloved micro-car.
With its 85-inch wheelbase and 40-inch track, the team at Unique Cars and Parts believe the Crosley puts a compelling case for claiming the title as the very first of the post-war US compacts. The Nash Rambler did not appear until 1950, by which time the Crosley marque was at the peak of its popularity.
Pre-war production with Waukesha air-cooled I2:
1939: Series 1A including convertible Coupe and convertible Sedan
1940: Series 2A including Sedan, Deluxe Sedan, Coupe, Covered Wagon, and Station Wagon
1941: Series CB41 including Sedan, Deluxe Sedan, Coupe, Covered Wagon, and Station Wagon
1942: Series CB42 including Convertible Sedan, Deluxe Sedan, Convertible Coupe, and Station Wagon (all 2-Doors)
Post-war production with COBRA water cooled I4
1946: CC Four including Sedan and Coupe
1947: CC Four including Sedan, Coupe, and Wagon 2-Door
1948: CC Four including Sedan, Sport Utility Sedan, convertible Coupe, and Wagon
Post-war production with CIBA water cooled I4
1949: CD Four including Deluxe Sedan, Coupe, Station Wagon, Pickup Truck and Panel Truck; VC Four including Hotshot Roadster and Super Sports Roadster
1950: CD Four including Sedan, Super Sedan, Coupe, Super Coupe, Station Wagon, Super Station Wagon; VC Four including Hotshot Roadster and Super Sports Roadster; FR Four including Farm-O-Road (in various submodels)
1951: CD Four including Business Coupe, Super Sedan, Station Wagon, Super Station Wagon, Super Coupe; VC Four including Hotshot Roadster and Super Sports Roadster; and FR Four including Farm-O-Road.
1952: CD Four including Standard Business Coupe, Super Sedan, Station Wagon, Super Station Wagon, Super Coupe; VC Four including Hotshot Roadster and Super Sports Roadster; FR Four including Farm-O-Road.