The Revolutionary 1939 Crosley Convertible Sedan.
A FEATURE ARTICLE from Hemmings Classic Car
An Appliance to Car About
Hemmings Classic Car - SEPTEMBER 1, 2008 - BY DANIEL STROHLThe Revolutionary 1939 Crosley Convertible Sedan
We figure most of you enjoy classic cars because modern ones just lack a certain soul. Perhaps you deride modern cars as appliance-mobiles, designed only as transportation pods to shuttle us from Point A to Point B without regard for the drive in between.
So why, then, do we care about a Crosley?
By all indications, Powel Crosley, Jr. meant his little cars to have all the utility and function of our modern somebody-dropped-the-modeling-clay cars. Whether he ever thought of imbuing the cars with a soul could be contested. Certainly, he never wanted them to have the same personality as the comparative behemoths and models of inefficiency cruising the highways at the time.
But if we don't care about a Crosley, then we shouldn't care about a Model T. Both of their creators not only bucked the status quo, but actively sought out ways to overthrow it. Both promised affordable and economical transportation for the masses. Both emphasized simplicity and function over flash and needless expense. What difference separates the two other than the fact that one succeeded wildly and the other plain didn't?
Perhaps their creators' experiences accounted for the largest difference between the two. Powel Crosley had much more of an opportunity to study 20th-century consumerism--heck, he had a hand in inventing the phenomenon with his radios and his low-cost Shelvador refrigerators. In fact, in a cunning move that any modern cardinal of consumerism should hold in high regard, Crosley founded a radio station (700 WLW-AM), for the sole purpose of offering something to listen to on Crosley radios.
Crosley had learned to navigate the waters of the retail world. Department stores and his own network of retail outlets sold his radios and refrigerators, but even before that, he co-founded the American Automobile Accessory Company, which sold a tire re-liner through Sears.
Of course, Crosley failed just as often as--and maybe more often than--he succeeded. Notable among the failures: an air-conditioned bed, a washer-ironer combination and the Xervac, a hair-growth device that used vacuum power to suck the hair to the surface of a bald head. He often claimed to have had 50 jobs in 50 years and told the Saturday Evening Post in 1939 (at the age of 52) that he never earned more than $20 a week until he turned 30. "If I've batted .300, that's lucky," he told the Post, using his favored baseball terminology. "They didn't keep score on the times I didn't get a hit."
Some of those misses include early attempts at building an automobile. He dropped out of the University of Cincinnati in 1907, inspired by Henry Ford's production techniques, to build the Marathon Six, his vision of an inexpensive car. He finished one prototype on a 114-inch wheelbase and took six orders, but the company formed to build the car soon went bankrupt. Over the next few years, he moved between Indianapolis and Muncie, Indiana, working for Parry, National and the Fisher Automobile Company, before he returned to Cincinnati in 1913 to try to cash in on the cyclecar craze with the DeCross, which got as far as the Marathon Six.
The Henry Ford inspiration did serve Crosley well when he entered the radio business in the early 1920s; he found that he could mass-produce radios and sell them for $20, at a time when the vast majority of radios sold for more than $100. By the late 1930s, and with the help of his brother Lewis, Crosley presided over a $9 million corporation back home in Cincinnati, Ohio, and decided once again to build an automobile.
Crosley began sketching the idea for the car as early as 1934, and with the help of engineers L.C. Oswald and Stanley Clifton, at least one car appeared as early as 1937, in the form of the CRAD (Crosley Radio Automobile Division) prototype. From a side profile, it looked like a three-wheeler, but actually it used a very short rear axle that eliminated the need for a differential. The approximate design and size of the car already seemed nailed down by Crosley and his engineers.
Over the next couple of years, Crosley went to work assembling the various components of the car, set on an 80-inch wheelbase. He arranged for Spicer to build the rear axle (extended in width from about 18 inches to about 40 for the production version), Ross to supply the steering, Hawley to build the brakes, Warner to build the transmission, Autolite to supply the electrics and BFGoodrich the little 12-inch tires.
For an engine, Crosley chose a horizontally opposed air-cooled L-head 38.9-cu.in. two-cylinder that incorporated a flywheel that doubled as a suction fan to pull cool air over the fins on the heads. The design used gears rather than belts to drive accessories. Whether Crosley's engineers or Waukesha's engineers designed the engine seems to be up for debate, but Crosley did finalize the engine's design for use in his automobile with Ed Wall, an engineer for Waukesha Engine in Waukesha, Wisconsin, which would build all of Crosley's two-cylinder engines.
Crosley arranged to have Murray build the bodies in two different styles. The cheaper of the two styles, the convertible coupe, used a gravity-feed gas tank above the engine and had an optional back seat and a top without side windows, all to make the car as inexpensive as possible.
By now used to the economics of large numbers, Crosley expected to sell 50,000 of his tiny cars in their first year of production--optimistic, considering the fact that Bantam couldn't break a tenth of that figure at the time. According to Ken Gross's article on Crosley in Special Interest Autos #37, Crosley figured he could do it by using his extensive radio and appliance sales network (25,000 stores strong at the time) and by placing the cars in department stores such as Macy's and Bamberger's. Crosley converted part of his Richmond, Indiana, facility--then dedicated to Shelvador production--into an automobile factory.
Go figure--we deride modern cars as appliances, but the earliest Crosleys were built and sold alongside appliances. Powel Crosley changed the name of his company to reflect the new product, and introduced the Crosley car at the Indianapolis Speedway on April 28, 1939. The convertible coupe came with a price tag of $325, while the four-passenger convertible sedan cost $350. Probably just as attractive was the promised--and delivered--50 miles per gallon, obtained both through the minuscule 13.5hp engine and the sub-1,000-pound weight of the car.
Imagine if Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, suddenly decided to offer a car today. That's the same sort of press that Crosley received. However, Crosley came about 48,000 sales short of his initial goal in that first year, selling just 2,017 cars. In light of Bantam's 3,015 total sales in 1939, though, Crosley didn't make a bad showing.
However, Crosley soon found that he'd overlooked one critical detail in his distribution plan. While he offered a 90-day/4,000-mile warranty, his retail outlets were not dealerships, and cars could not be sold like appliances.
"Small as it was, a Crosley simply wasn't a shelf item," Lewis Crosley told Gross years later. "An appliance or department store couldn't offer [service]. The idea of selling our cars through stores never went over big."
And the cars would need servicing rather quickly. The initial production design of the car eliminated universal joints in the driveshaft for the sake of simplicity--removing the engine was as simple as disconnecting the torque tube and the two engine mounts. However, the two rubber engine mounts had to absorb all drivetrain movement, which soon led to a rash of cracked bellhousings.
Crosley brought in engineer Paul Klotsch to solve the problem, which simply involved the insertion of universal joints in the drivetrain. Klotsch also noted that the engine ran hot and burned valves, so around 1941 he made some significant changes to the little two-cylinder, including a reduction in displacement to 35.3 cubic inches (decreasing horsepower to 12) and an increase in rod bearing diameter.
Jean Allan's 1939 Crosley, our feature car, had none of those problems when she bought it about a decade ago. Somebody had replaced the engine with a later 1941 two-cylinder and installed universal joints in the driveshaft. "But the original rear axle is still there," she said. "It has a clip to solid-mount the tailpipe, which would have only been on a car without universal joints. Of course, my tailpipe hangs free of the rear axle now."
Instead of the typical mechanical problems, Jean said her Crosley suffered from a poor restoration effort. The paint looked nice, as did the interior, but the top did not fit well and the front mechanical brakes had been reassembled without shoes.
Still, she could drive the Crosley around. "And they all require some work," she said. Jean said she considers herself handy with a wrench, but no mechanic by far, so she at least installed brake shoes and sent the top off to a nearby top shop for fitment.
As for the dark gray color, Jean said 1939 Crosleys came from the factory in two standard colors--dark gray like this and dark blue--though customers could choose an optional cream or specify a color of their own.
Jean said she doesn't drive any of her Crosleys (she also has a 1952 Super Sport and a 1951 station wagon) on the road, just at Crosley Automobile Club meets. "I got tired of paying for all the plates and then just running them around my subdivision," she said. "I know some guys who drive theirs on the street, but I'm chicken. To me, it's like driving your lawnmower on the street.
"They ride pretty awful, and they're far less comfortable than the post-war Crosleys. I don't know if it's the short wheelbase and the way they designed them, or if it's just age that contributes to that.
"But on the other hand, they're pretty peppy little cars. I went to one show at the bottom of a hill and made it down the hill just fine, but when the show was over, I had my friends watch me go back up the hill. I figured I'd get stuck about halfway up and they'd all have to come and push, but the Crosley just scooted right up like the hill wasn't there."
It would be nice to leave that anecdote as a metaphor for the life of the Crosley automobile. Indeed, production continued up to and after World War II, peaking in 1948 with 31,570 Crosleys built. But after 1952, the doors to the factory were shuttered. The cars never quite caught on as Powel Crosley anticipated, owing mostly to the fact that the very suburbanites he targeted just couldn't be seen in anything less than the newest (and increasingly, largest) car to come out of Detroit.
Of course, Crosley wasn't the only one to try a small car--a microcar, if you will--in the United States. Scores of other small companies have all tried to follow in his footsteps, spurred either by economy, environmentalism or avant-garde ideas in urban planning. Each has failed, if for nothing else than for the same reasons Crosley did. Powel Crosley, at least, came the closest to success.
Jean Allan, of Indianapolis, Indiana, said she wouldn't have such an interest in Crosleys today if her father hadn't bought one from the Richmond factory in 1941.
"That was the first car I ever remember riding in," she said. "He was nothing if not Scottish, and he even wrote a four-page letter to the factory detailing exactly how the car leaked oil."
Her interest in the cars has led her not only to join the Crosley Automobile Club, but to eventually become elected to the club's board of directors and serve as the club's publicity chairman. "I already owned a few other Crosleys when this one came for sale through a club member. The '39 is so rare, so I just couldn't pass it up.
"I find that it's a lot more fun to take my pre-war Crosley to shows than my post-war Crosleys. Half the people seem to think it's foreign. And I can take my Crosleys to any car show and get way more attention than any of the big, expensive cars."
What to Pay
Low Average High $4,000 $8,000 $12,000
Draws a crowd wherever it goes
Incredibly simple to maintain and repair
Better mileage than a Geo Metro
Draws a crowd wherever it goes
Build quality necessitated much maintenance and many repairs
Mileage means nothing if you can't drive it on the highway
Base price: $325
Type: Waukesha air-cooled L-head H-2, cast iron block
Bore x Stroke: 3.00 x 2.75 inches
Displacement: 38.9 cubic inches
Compression ratio: 5.6:1
Horsepower @ rpm: 13.5 @ 4,200
Torque @ rpm: 24-lbs.ft. @ 2,400
Main bearings: 2
Fuel system: Single downdraft Tillotson one-barrel carburetor, gravity feed
Lubrication system: Pressure, gear-type pump
Electrical system: 6-volt
Exhaust system: Single exhaust
Type: Warner three-speed manual with synchronized second and third gears, mechanically actuated
Rockford six-inch dry plate clutch
Ratios: 1st 3.29:1
Type: Spicer spiral bevel gears; torque-tube drive
Type: Ross cam and lever
Turns, lock to lock: 2.5
Turning circle: 34.0 feet
Type: Hawley cable-activated four-wheel mechanical drum with floating 350-degree brake shoes
CHASSIS & BODY
Construction: Perimeter frame with all-steel Murray-built body
Frame: Channel-section steel with three crossmembers
Body style: Two-door, four-passenger convertible coupe
Layout: Front engine, rear-wheel drive
Front: Solid, I-beam axle; parallel semi-elliptic leaf springs hydraulic lever shock absorbers
Rear: Solid axle; parallel quarter-elliptic leaf springs; hydraulic lever shock absorbers
WHEELS & TIRES
Wheels: Pressed steel, drop-center rims
Front/Rear: 12 x 2.5 inches
Tires: Carlisle tube-type
WEIGHTS & MEASURES
Wheelbase: 80 inches
Overall length: 120.0 inches
Overall width: 47.0 inches
Overall height: 56.0 inches
Front track: 40.0 inches
Rear track: 40.0 inches
Curb weight: 975 pounds
Crankcase: 3 quarts
Cooling system: N/A
Fuel tank: 4 gallons
Bhp per c.i.d.: 0.34
Weight per bhp: 81.25 pounds
Weight per c.i.d.: 27.62 pounds
1939 models: 2,017
Top speed: 40-50 mph
Fuel mileage: 48-50 mpg