Small and cheap with lots of class.
by Tom Brownell
Powel Crosley Jr. built pint-sized cars because he believed that American manufacturers were forcing their customers to buy more automobile than they needed. "Have you ever stopped to think how ridiculous it is that one to four people require a ton-and-a-half motorcar to carry them a mile or so to a picture show?, he once asked.
In a lot of ways, small size - not only for passenger cars but also for delivery vehicles - made sense. Some of our readers will remember a time when many retail businesses, neighborhood grocers in particular, delivered goods free of charge to their customers' homes. Which made more sense, a grocery or floral shop sending an armful of packages to a customer in a full-sized delivery truck, or in a half-sized Crosley? To Powel Crosley, Jr. the choice was clear.
A man of many interests, Powel Crosley, Jr. found special fascination in the automobile. While still a teenager he attempted to build an electric car and a few years later tried again with the Marathon, a small car to be powered by a six-cylinder engine. Finally, having built a fortune in radios and refrigerators, Crosley set out to manufacture the smallest vehicles built in America. That first Crosley car, introduced in 1939, was a tiny convertible; then, in 1940, the Crosley line expanded to include several car and commercial models, including the Parkway Delivery. Crosley styled the Parkway Delivery to resemble a miniature town car, making it a vehicle any retail business could operate with pride and use to deliver modest packages even in the swankiest neighborhoods.
Along with low cost Crosleys were built for economy of operation. On September 9, 1939, the famous racing driver Erwin "Cannon Ball" Baker drove a Crosley Covered Wagon (a pickup with a canvas-covered bed) from Cincinnati to Los Angeles, then back across the country by way of New Orleans and Jacksonville to New York City. Covering a distance of 6,517.3 miles, Cannon Ball's Crosley averaged 50.40 mpg - as the ad copy put it, " ... through pouring rain, all without a stop for service or a tire change."
Though Crosley cars had many virtues, including small size, frugal operating economy, and unique design, they also had some severe flaws. Like Henry Ford, Powel Crosley, Jr. had a passion for simplicity, but unlike Ford who designed simplicity into his cars, Crosley achieved simplicity by leaving things out. Some of the engineering shortcuts were downright crude. As an example, the introductory 1939 models omitted universal joints from the drive train - on the idea that driveline "flex" would compensate for any misalignment. The resulting driveline failures, compounded by poorly designed motor mounts, created a consumer outcry which was aggravated by the lack of a dealer network (the first Crosleys were sold by appliance stores).
Although their small size placed them in a class by themselves, early Crosleys were built largely from off-the-shelf parts - all selected with an eye to bottom line cost. The steering mechanism was a familiar Ross cam-and-lever mechanism also used in small tractors. The non-synchromesh, three-speed transmission came from Warner Gear. (Apart from Crosley, in 1939 tractors were the only vehicles being equipped with non-synchromesh gearboxes.) Also, in 1939 only Crosley, of all American automotive manufacturers, used mechanical brakes. The Hawley cable-operated brakes were unique for yet another reason. Designed for aircraft, Hawley brakes featured "full-floating" linings that rotated around the drum, giving a double lining surface. Since the linings weren't riveted to the brake shoes, they rubbed against the shoes as well as the drums. The two-cylinder, air-cooled engine was built by Waukesha and used principally in farm machinery. This tiny huffer displaced only 38.87 cubic inches and fed the drivetrain a scant 15 hp @ 4200 rpm. (One might ask what speeds "Cannon Ball" Baker drove in achieving the 50-plus mpg fuel economy on his crosscountry run.) Both engine size and power rating were reduced in 1940 to 35.3 cid and 12 hp @ 4000 rpm to increase durability.
With combined production of its 1939-'42 car and truck models totaling a mere 5,757, prewar Crosleys are unusual indeed.
(Reprinted with corrections and additions from Old Cars Weekly News and Marketplace, September 29, 1994.)