Sometimes childhood dreams die hard. Just ask Jay Gatsby. Or Powel Crosley.
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 fellow Americans.
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 just $20.
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 man.
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.