AMONG automaker start-ups, the efforts of Powel Crosley Jr. followed a path taken many times by idealistic industrialists: creating a car for the masses, without much regard for whether the masses wanted one or not. That single-mindedness, together with the practice of naming the car for its originator, often proved a one-way ticket to fiscal and automotive oblivion.
Just before World War II, Crosley, the owner of a Cincinnati-based business empire that included radio and appliance manufacturing, broadcasting and the Cincinnati Reds baseball team, began making a line of tiny, economical vehicles transportation appliances that emphasized utility and practicality over high horsepower and flashy looks.
Years later, that formula worked for Volkswagen, and it may again for the Smart line when those cars arrive next year. But Crosley was virtually alone in the people's car business when he introduced his models, which used an air-cooled 2-cylinder engine in a chassis whose wheelbase was a mere 80 inches, at the 1939 World's Fair.
At first, it seemed that Crosley's timing was perfect. Available as sedans, convertibles, wagons and pickups, the cars became quite desirable when war broke out and gasoline rationing began. At 50 miles a gallon, a Crosley could stretch the era's basic four-gallon-a-week allotment into a reasonable 200 miles of driving.
Both before and after the war, Crosley's cars crossed class lines. The Mini or Prius of their day, Crosleys were embraced by the moneyed and celebrity classes. Pamela Churchill Harriman, then just 19, took delivery of one of the first 1939 models. Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Swanson, Art Linkletter and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower were all owners. But perhaps the most visible supporter was Frank Lloyd Wright.
In the mid-1930s Wright established a second location for his Taliesin design and architecture school, near Scottsdale, Ariz. After the war, he became fond of taking road trips from the original Taliesin, in Spring Green, Wis., to Taliesin West. Wright would generally make the trip in a Bentley, Lincoln, Cadillac or Mercedes. His followers weren't so lucky. They were banished to his fleet of Crosley Hotshots, painted his signature shade of Cherokee Red, a trip about as comfortable as crossing the country in a golf cart.
Bob Lichty, a dealer of collector cars and an automotive historian based in Canton, Ohio, who has owned several Crosleys, has been enamored of them since driving one on his uncle's farm as a child. In Mr. Lichty's opinion, the Crosley was the first postwar compact, and possibly the only real American compact of the '40s and '50s. While other American compacts "where just scaled down big cars, Crosleys were efficiently designed from the ground up as small cars," he said. "Crosleys were just darned interesting little cars."
Against the herd of Detroit behemoths that swilled a seeming endless supply of cheap gasoline, Crosley fielded a line of plain, efficient small sedans, station wagons, pickups and odd designs. The offerings included a slab-sided sports car called the Hotshot, which some enthusiasts cite as the first American sports car, and a jeeplike vehicle known as the FarmOroad.
Crosley's innovations included the early adoption of disc brakes, but some advances proved troublesome. The four-cylinder Cobra engine used in later models, named for its copper-brazed construction, was efficient and ahead of its time with features like an overhead camshaft, but corrosion of the sheet-metal cylinder block resulted in premature engine failures. The design was replaced in 1949 with a more conventional cast-iron block.
Powel Crosley viewed cars as appliances, no different from Shelvador refrigerators or low-cost Crosley Pup radios. He even specified that his cars be no wider than 48 inches the standard size of a retail store's front doors so they could be sold in appliance dealerships. The cars were also narrow enough to fit two abreast in a railroad car.
The Crosley's extreme narrowness also figured into its advertising a 1951 sales brochure boasted that it was "the safest car on the road." The company's reasoning was that Crosley owners were less likely to get sideswiped on a narrow road because they took up less of it.
Crosley Hotshots were frequently raced in the 1950s and are still campaigned today in vintage racing events giving birth to a cottage industry in performance parts to raise the output of the 44-cubic-inch, 26.5-horsepower engine. The patron saint of Crosley hot-rodders was Nick Brajevich, whose parts were sold under the Braje brand.
Bob Austin, general manager for communications of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars in North America, is a Crosley fan of long standing. He bought his first at age 12, convincing his parents that the bodyless car was a large go-kart. Mr. Austin said he thought one reason Powel Crosley failed to establish a lasting auto empire was that he fundamentally misunderstood the psyche of car buyers.
In the 1950s, Americans didn't care to view cars as economical or efficient appliances. Instead, Mr. Austin said, romance, the freedom of travel and the new cross-continent highways were all part of the selling of the automobile. An efficient small automobile marketed with all the passion one musters to sell a refrigerator simply did not excite most Americans.
Because Crosley rejected the towering tailfins and yards of chrome that were the hallmarks of its contemporaries, it is less sought-after by collectors and a relative bargain. At collector-car auctions, a Hotshot in very good condition sells for about $15,000. A more common four-passenger convertible sold in October for just $6,720. But marketing matters: an expertly prepared wagon with faux wood panels brought $27,500 at a Gooding auction in Pebble Beach, Calif., in August 2006.