(From Autos & Motorcycles, August 27, 2009)
By: Sean Devlin
Car & Truck Enthusiasts newsletter
Fuel efficiency is not a "new" topic, in fact it has been on the mind's of independent automakers for decades. Independent automakers were the driving force of innovation. In a contemporary time they were rejected, but as time passed many ideas were adopted.
A notable example was Powel Crosley. By a classic definition Crosley was a industrialist. He was successful in many ventures including home appliances and the early years of radio. However, Crosley had a single passion, a passion that burned within him for many years. A car for the masses with low upkeep and minimal waste. A brand new car for people who might be relegated to used car lots. He did not believe in bulky inefficient cars with excess. However, this thinking ran counter to American thinking of "bigger is better," ultimately this would be one of several factors that doomed his cars and automotive venture.
The Crosley auto was launched in 1939 and was "alternative transportation" even back at that time. It had a basic exterior style even for the 1930's. It was the complete opposite of anything else on the road. Most cars were heavy, bulky and had either large 4,6 or 8 cyl engines. Some ultra expensive cars even had 12 and even 16 cyl engines.
It was a feather light micro-car powered by a very small air cooled 2 cylinder engine, smaller than the air-cooled engines found in old VW Beetles. Owners shifted via a 3 speed stick that was unsynchronized. There wasn't any luxury, owners got seats, minimal gauges, sliding instead of roll down windows and a hand operated windshield wiper. Options were minimal, though a customer could order a radio. What owners did get was astounding fuel economy, the company claimed in the 35-50 mpg range but speed was limited to a top speed of around 40 or so miles per hour. One must remember there was a niche carved in the market even though gasoline cost very little back then. The Great Depression was still a issue and frugality was still the norm for many people.
At first customers did not purchase the cars at a traditional car dealership but rather appliance stores or even department stores. In fact, the Crosley first appeared for sale in NYC at Macy's. In time this practice changed, customer confidence preferred traditional dealers.
Some quality control issues plagued the Ohio based company early on but the problems were rectified by the time The United States entered World War II. A few thousand were sold and were popular choices when the population learned there was going to be fuel rationing for the duration of the war.
Crosley like the other automakers received government contracts for various wartime projects and was poised and eager to enter the postwar car market with gusto.