Industrial Darwinism: The Crosley

1950 Crosley convertible

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Almost every species that ever existed on earth is now extinct and it is true of automobiles as well.  For every make of car on the market today, scores of others have come and gone, victims of industrial Darwinism.  Some brands went under because of poor management while others weren’t sufficiently capitalized to survive economic downturns.

Others were so uniquely suited to a particular economic environment that they were destined to survive for just a short time, flaming out when conditions changed, never to be seen again.  Count the Crosley among those species.

Crosley Hotshot (with doors)

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Powel Crosley’s first automotive venture was the 1907 Marathon Six, a low-priced six cylinder which never got beyond the prototype stage.  He then bounced around from job to job in the nascent auto industry in Indiana and Ohio before settling in with an auto parts company, the American Automobile Accessory Company.  In a year he owned the company and proceeded to turn it into a very successful operation.

Crosley founded the company that bore his name in 1920.  Discouraged by the high price of the typical radio set of his day, Crosley set out to build a high quality, low cost radio for the masses.  The next year he began experimenting with broadcasting from a 20-watt system in his home and in 1922 was granted a license to operate radio station WLW in Cincinnati, Ohio.  The station quickly became one of the most powerful in the business and Crosley Radio Corporation became the largest radio manufacturer in the world, earning Powel Crosley the nickname “The Henry Ford of Radio”.  Later, Crosley would branch out into other household appliances such as refrigerators and televisions.*

Frank Lloyd Wright's Crosley Super Sport

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In 1939, with the country still in the throes of the Great Depression, Crosley focused his marketing and manufacturing talents on a new venture, the Crosley automobile.  With his brother Lewis, Crosley built two production lines to assemble the tiny cars.

At around 1000 pounds and with an 80 inch wheelbase, the cars were tiny, indeed.  The first model, a convertible coupe, was introduced at the Indianapolis Speedway in 1939 with a sticker price of just $325.  The car wasn’t exactly an instant hit but sales grew steadily after the company expanded the model line in 1940 and 1941 to include a coupe, a sedan and a station wagon.

Crosley was determined to reinvent the way cars were marketed and sold.  Instead of establishing a dealer network, Crosley initially sold his cars through department stores such as Macy’s and later opened his own factory showroom in New York.

Crosley all-steel wagon

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Early Crosleys were powered by a 580cc, air-cooled, two cylinder L-head engine supplied by Waukesha Engines of Waukesha, Wis.  Crosley later switched to a 724cc OHC four cylinder CoBra – Copper Brazed – engine that was manufactured from sheet metal rather than castings.  That engine was later replaced by the CIBA – Crosley Cast Iron Block Assembly – that would live on in other applications after the Crosley Corporation folded in 1952.  (Crosley engines dominated the 750cc class in SCCA racing through much of the 1950s.)

Crosley’s timing proved to be prescient – for a while.  Entering the market at the end of the Depression with a price tag hundreds of dollars lower than any other car, the Crosley was bound to get noticed and when gas rationing was implemented during World War II, the Crosley’s excellent fuel economy would prove very attractive.

Crosley "Mighty Tin" CoBra engines

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When civilian production resumed after the war, Crosley expanded its line even further by adding a small truck,  a “Sports Utility” and a panel van.  Again, Crosley was at the right place at the right time with a diverse and unique product line to help satisfy America’s pent-up demand for cars and other consumer goods in the aftermath of the war.

Because of the company’s small size – and Powel Crosley’s ingenuity – the company was able to come out with several new post-war models in rapid succession.  Probably the most interesting was the Hotshot, a two-seat roadster introduced in 1949.  The Hotshot was far more modern looking than the MGs and Triumphs of the day and reportedly handled quite well.  Unfortunately, it failed to capture the imagination of buyers and only 752 were built.

Crosley Super Sports roadster

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While Crosley never posed a threat to its much larger rivals, it sold in fairly respectable numbers, reaching a high-water mark of nearly 25,000 cars in 1948.  Sales would fall off rather sharply after that, however, and by 1952, the company’s last year, it sold just over 1500 cars.  With gasoline cheap and flowing freely, with Americans craving V-8 power, with a network of high-speed highways about to be built and with Ford and Chevy engaged in a price war, Crosley no longer could make a case for its tiny, underpowered cars.  Subtracting the years of non-production during World War II, Crosley built cars for just ten years but during those years it offered cars with characteristics that uniquely matched what many buyers were looking for.  Unable (or unwilling) to adapt to the changing conditions of the early to mid-1950s,  Crosley quickly faded away – its time on earth was done.

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 *Two different companies market Crosley labelled products today, Crosley Radio which sells retro styled radios and similar products, and Crosley Appliances which markets major appliances. As far as I can tell, neither has direct ties to the company which Powel Crosley founded.

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