BIG DREAMS, SMALL CAR
- Big Dreams, small car.
Cincinnati's Powel Crosley created an automobile whose legion of admirers included Frank Lloyd Wright.
This was the era of the Crosley car, a time in the 1930s, '40s and '50s when one small Cincinnati company took on the assembly lines of Detroit's Big 3 automakers. Long before the VW bug, the Crosley offered an inexpensive alternative to the gas-guzzlers, as a series of compact sedans and wagons that promised - and delivered - 50 miles to the gallon.
Sure, some of the vehicles had a canvas roof held on by snap-buttons. Sure, some of the parts were made out of reinforced cardboard. And sure, the base tracked only 80 inches between its 12-inch wheels.
The chubby Crosley, in short, was short. Mechanics were known to tip the diminutive 12-foot-long car on its side to work at the underbelly. No rack lifts need apply.
"The shape of the car was actually influenced by how many could fit sideways on a railcar," notes Rick Kennedy of Cincinnati, who has immersed himself in the culture of Crosley as a writer and fan. He notes that certain cars came with attachments that would benefit drivers in certain jobs (such as the farmer model which came equipped with plowing and post-hole-digging attachments).
The first Crosley, offered in 1939 for $325, featured a two-cylinder engine and came available in shades of gray, yellow or blue (all with red wheels). Later on the models sold for anywhere from $600 to $1,000. (Today on eBay you can find used Crosleys for under $10,000 on a good day.) Collectors covet these gems and still steer them across back-country roads.
Certainly the most famous of Crosley collectors was architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The ultimate guru of American design, in fact, purchased his first Cherokee Red Super Sport in 1949 and developed a lifelong love for the vehicle, buying one annually to add to his private fleet.
What attracts collectors to these now-antique autos? "First and foremost, it would have to be the design of the four-cylinder engine," says Deane Sherman of Liberty Center, near Toledo. The "Mighty Tin," as it was dubbed, is a lightweight tin block, copper hydrogen brazed engine, patented exclusively by Crosley. Once, to prove the durability of the engine, the car manufacturer filled it with water and froze it, all without cracking the block.
"The other reason I collect is the fact they were an Ohio company," notes Sherman, who prizes his 1952 Super Sport and a 1952 ice cream truck among the seven in his collection. "I am currently doing a restoration on a 1950 Hot Shot."
Sherman came to become a fan of the cars. "The way [my passion for] Crosleys started was in my family. My brother bought his first in 1959. I ultimately inherited it and have been involved with Crosleys ever since."
Same story for collector Tim Freshley of Randolph, near Akron: it was a family affair.
"I have a total of nine Crosleys," says Freshley. "My first was a '48 station wagon. My dad painted cars in the garage at night after work. He said he'd give me the car and helped me get it cleaned up."
Freshley now owns a 1950 Crosley pickup truck, a Silver Arrow, a Hot Shot convertible, and red Super Sport, among others.
The line of cars was developed by Powel Crosley Jr., a ground-breaking Cincinnati entrepreneur (the Jeff Bridges character in the movie "Tucker: The Man and His Dream" could have been modeled on industrialist Crosley as much as Preston Tucker). Born in Cincinnati in 1886, Crosley grew up in the city's College Hill neighborhood and attended the University of Cincinnati for two years. While Crosley never earned more than $50 a week in his 20s, by age 33 he'd made himself a multi-millionaire by selling auto parts through a brand-new distribution system he called "direct mail."
Crosley then developed a bargain radio set that was a hit with the masses selling for $20, a fraction of the cost of other sets on the market. Later, the business maverick would venture into radio programming to help sell even more of his bargain sets. His radio station WLW - "The Nation's Station" - did indeed broadcast to the entire country, on an unheard of 500,000 watts of power. His baseball team, the Cincinnati Reds, played at Crosley Field and served as proving ground for the concept of airing games on radio. His television station at Crosley Square, WLWT, became the first Cincinnati TV station and the first NBC affiliate.
Crosley and his far-ranging companies produced refrigerators, stoves, washing machines, phonographs, television sets, even airplanes. At the height of business in 1947-48, when 31,000 wagons and sedans were sold, Crosley Manufacturing Co. was Cincinnati's largest employer.
"Powel was a visionary marketer who could wordsmith a new product into a saleable sound-bite - something he did over and over again: the inner-liner tire, the Shelvador refrigerator, the Harko radio, ... the SUV [Crosley build the first sport utility vehicle in 1947] and many more," observes Rusty McClure, a Dublin resident and co-author of 'Crosley: Two Brothers and a Business Empire That Transformed a Nation' (Cleristy Press, Cincinnati). McClure should know: He's the grandson of Powel's brother and business partner, Lewis Crosley and is himself the proud owner of a 1951 yellow Hot Shot convertible.
"Powel was a risk taker," continues McClure. "What Powel was not was a hands-on micro-manager. My grandfather was the consummate graduate engineer [and] trusted brother. Lewis managed the dozens of products and dozens of buildings and the 10,000 employees, and in so doing, Lewis allowed his older brother to think and experiment and to deploy his grasshopper mind on the next new thing."
Despite his varied enterprises and inventions, Powel Crosley's true passion was building cars. When he died at his Cincinnati estate in 1961 of a heart attack, one obituary noted that all his life Crosley had been called "the Henry Ford of radio," yet "he would have been happier with just the first half of that tag."
1921: Powel and Lewis Crosley introduce an affordable crystal radio set, the Harko, selling for $20.
1922: Powel goes on the air with WLW, broadcast from his Crosley Manufacturing Co. plant. His plan: Produce great radio programming to help sell his radio sets.
1923: WLW increases its watt capacity 10-fold and becomes the world's most powerful broadcaster, the Nation's Station. WLW introduces quiz shows and soap operas to the world, as well as city residents Doris Day, Andy Williams, Red Skelton, Rosemary Clooney and Red Barber.
1929: Crosley co-founds what will become American Airlines.
1930: Crosley introduces the Roamio, the first popular car radio.
1933: Crosley introduces the Shelvador, the first refrigerator with shelves in the door.
1934: Crosley buys the Cincinnati Reds baseball team.
1935: Crosley Field turns on the lights for the first night game in Major League history, which is - of course - broadcast on prime-time radio.
1939: America's first compact car, the Crosley, is unveiled at the Crosley Pavilion at the New York World's Fair. It weighs 925 pounds and achieves a top speed of 40 to 55 mph.
1946: The '46 line of Crosley cars comprises the only new models on the American market that year.
1948: The Crosley wagon outsells all other wagons, three to one.
1949: The Crosley is the first car equipped with disc brakes.
1952: The last Crosley chugs off the line. Destined to fall victim to America's infatuation with a new interstate highway system, roadways that are best suited for sturdy high-speed vehicles, the Crosley is also fatally injured by bargain gas prices.
Source: Crosley: Two Brothers and a Business Empire That Transformed a Nation by Rusty McClure (Cleristy Press, Cincinnati)
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