World's Greatest Cars - Crosley Hotshot.
- World's Greatest Cars - Crosley Hotshot
by Jack Nerad for Driving Today.
Sometimes childhood dreams die hard. Just ask Jay Gatsby. Or Powel
Gatsby you might have heard of, but who was Powel Crosley? Well,
these days the name is largely forgotten, but in the mid-1900s,
Crosley was one of a unique breed of American businessmen that
included Errett Lobban Cord and Preston Tucker. He was an
entrepreneur, a mover-and-shaker, a man who pursued his dreams while
at the same time engaging in commerce that enhanced the lives of his
Crosley was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1886, the same year that
Gottleib Daimler and Karl Benz first drove their motorwagens, and it
seemed from the beginning he was bitten by the car bug. At the tender
age of 21 he was not only a car enthusiast, he had also launched his
first assault into the field of automotive manufacturing. He scraped
together $10,000 and formed a company to build a car he called the
Marathon Six. With a suggested price of $1,700, it would have been
significantly cheaper than any other six-cylinder-powered car on the
market, but it seemed that 10 grand wasn't enough money to start a
car company even in 1907. Recession hit the economy, and the Marathon
Six was stillborn.
Disappointed but still hopeful, Crosley moved from Cincinnati to
Indianapolis and took a series of positions with several of the
budding car companies that were trying to make their way in the
market like so many dot-coms. Back in Cincinnati two years later,
Crosley branched out into the advertising business, but still the
automobile industry was close to his heart. In 1912 he attempted to
start a second car company, only to see it fail. Then he tried to hop
on the short-lived "cycle-car" fad with a third start-up car company,
and it, too, went down the drain. Abandoning the small-car side of
the business, Crosley next moved to the manufacture of a six-cylinder
model, but by 1916 he had abandoned all plans to become an automobile
mogul. He took a job with the American Automobile Accessory Company
and before long he owned it.
Many men might have been satisfied. After more than a decade, Powel
Crosley was a certified success story. But simple success wasn't
enough for Crosley. Like the gentleman who met his end in a Long
Island swimming pool, he still had his childhood dreams to pursue.
Before long, his pursuit of those dreams would take a strange detour -
- all because his son wanted to buy a radio. First, it was a bit
surprising that anybody wanted a radio in 1919, because there were
precious few things to hear on the radio. But the younger Crosley was
insistent, and the elder Crosley soon found out that the commercially
available radios of those days cost more than a hundred dollars.
Other millionaires might have simply bought their son a radio, but
Crosley saw a business opportunity. He dove into the business of
manufacturing radios with his usual exuberance, and by 1921 he had
introduced the Harko Junior crystal set, a radio that retailed for
The crystal set was just the first step in Crosley's all-out
onslaught to establish radio as a commercial medium. On the hardware
side, he introduced a radio with a built-in radio frequency amplifier
so listeners could hear it without an earplug, essentially making the
radio a viable consumer product that would soon become ubiquitous.
And on the software side, he reasoned that people who bought his
radios would want something to listen to, so he established radio
station WLW (not WKRP) in Cincinnati and bestowed it with 500,000-
watt transmitting power. (Today the norm for a big-market radio
station is 50,000 watts.) He even went to the extreme of buying the
Cincinnati Redlegs baseball team, so there would be something to
broadcast on his station and something for the buyers of his radios
to tune in for.
The incredibly inventive approach to exploiting a new industry made
Crosley an extremely wealthy man, and he quickly followed his success
in the radio business with an excursion into the budding home
appliance market. An inventor came to him with the idea of building
storage shelves into the doors of refrigerators. Always one to
recognize a brainstorm, Crosley bought the idea on the spot, and the
resulting "Shelvadore" refrigerator proved to be an immediate
sensation, and so, by the late 1930's Crosley was an even wealthier
But he still had that childhood dream in the back of his head -- he
wanted to build cars. And by the time the Thirties were coming to a
close he had the wherewithal to make that dream a reality.
But the dream had a stumbling start. In April 1939 a Crosley Company
press release confirmed the rumors that there would be a Crosley
automobile, but the release inexplicably described the car
incorrectly, claiming, among other errors, that it would have a rear
track of only 18 inches. (Crosley engineers had actually contemplated
such a vehicle, but wisely turned their backs on it in favor of a
more conventional approach.)
The car Crosley introduced to the public a month later at the
Indianapolis Motor Speedway was strange enough even without the ultra-
narrow rear track. It had a wheelbase of just 80 inches; it was
powered by a Waukesha air-cooled, opposed, two-cylinder engine; and
it lacked conventional universal joints. Priced at $325 for the
convertible coupe and $350 for the convertible sedan, the cars
weighed in at significantly less than 1,000 pounds.
Sadly, they weren't very good. The air-cooled engine didn't produce
enough power and the lack of u-joints was an immediate problem. Just
2,000 were sold -- mainly through Crosley-affiliated appliance
stores -- in 1939, and fewer than 500 in 1940. Major improvements
were made to the 1941 models, but production in 1941-42 hovered at
less than 4,000. Certainly General Motors wasn't worried.
When World War II ended, the American market was starved for cars,
but Crosley decided to take another left turn. Powel Crosley became
enamored of a unique little engine designed by an inventor named
Lloyd Taylor. In a quest for high compression without knock, Taylor
drew up an engine made of steel stampings (yes, stampings) that were
then hydrogen brazed to form a single unit. The engine, complete with
an overhead camshaft, weighed only 133 pounds and was said to produce
36 horsepower at 5,600 rpm from only 44 cubic inches. Of course, that
horsepower came on 100-octane "av-gas," but even when de-tuned to run
on regular gasoline the engine still produced more than 26 horsepower
or about twice what the Waukesha was putting out.
The problem was, the engine didn't hold together too well. Oil and
water leaks plus corrosion were big problems, so even as Crosley
sales reached new levels in the buying boom after the war, Crosley
cars got a renewed reputation as "trouble." Production reached 19,344
for 1947 and an all-time peak of 27,707 in 1948, and but Crosley was
in a desperate situation when production plummeted to a mere 8,939
cars and trucks in 1949, even as the company introduced new models.
Radical measures were needed, and they took two forms. First, Crosley
ditched the stamped steel "CoBra" engine for a more
conventional "cast-iron block assembly" or "CIBA" engine. (Customers
stuck with CoBra engine could exchange them for just a hundred
bucks.) Second, Crosley decided to go the sports car route with the
introduction of the Hotshot on July 14, 1949.
One thing the Hotshot wasn't was beautiful. Designed by Carl
Sundberg, a Detroit-area industrial designer, the vehicle had a
kiddie-car look about it, as if it might be powered by foot-pedals.
It rode on an 85-inch wheelbase, and it was equipped with 12-inch-
diameter wheels. Weighing in at 1,175 pounds, the 26.5-horsepower car
was about as responsive as a contemporary MG, but it cost less than
half as much. It even was equipped with disc brakes, though the
Goodyear-Hawley "Hydradiscs" proved troublesome in real-world use,
because salt would cause them to lock up. The Hotshot's light weight
compensated for its rudimentary suspension layout -- solid front axle
with two semi-elliptic leaf springs and solid rear axle with both
coil springs and single-leaf quarter-elliptic springs for location.
Amazingly, the Hotshots responded well to hot-rodding. With two
carburetors and a high-lift cam, the engines could produce as much as
75 horsepower, which made the little cars into speed demons on the
budding American road race circuit. A Hotshot driven by Fritz Koster
and Ralph Deshow competed at the very first race at Sebring
International Raceway in 1950, and it topped the Index of
Performance. The following year a Crosley Hotshot was leading its
class at the Le Mans 24-Hour and could well have won the Index of
Performance when its voltage regulator failed late in the race.
But though the Hotshot had some on-track successes, it didn't take
hold as a consumer vehicle. During its three-year production run
product of the Hotshot and the closely related Super Sports fell far
short of 3,000 cars, and Crosley sales overall were hemorrhaging, so
in July 1952 Powel Crosley halted all production of Crosley
automobiles. And like one Jay Gatsby, he discovered that his future
was already behind him.