By on August 25, 2013

Photos courtesy of Cars In Depth

Foodies start restaurants. Most new restaurants fail. Gearheads’ most common business dream/fantasy may be starting up a new car company. Those usually fail too.  The appeal has attracted diverse entrepreneurs with near addictive quality, and with nearly the same ruinous results as a physical addiction. For every Walter Chrysler, there is at least one Henry J. Kaiser. For every Colin Chapman there has been a least a couple of Malcolm Bricklins. Bricklin’s own attempt to build a safety car was predated by that of Preston Tucker. Bricklin actually sold a lot more cars than Tucker ever did. That’s not even counting the frauds like “Liz Carmichael” and the Dale. Powell Crosley Jr. also caught the car building bug, and was both more successful and more influential than most of those dreamers.

1940 Crosley convertible

1940 Crosley convertible

Crosley had an early interest in automobiles and before 1920 made a number of failed attempts to make cars. He was more successful, though, selling gadgets and accessories in the automotive aftermarket, creating the foundation for his later ventures. In the early 1920s when his son wanted a radio, the latest fad, Crosley discovered how expensive they were and started to apply mass production techniques borrowed from Henry Ford, first to make radio components, and later complete radios. By 1924 Crosley was the largest radio manufacturer in the world. The Crosley brand was so well established that nearly a century later, a modern company selling retro consumer electronics is now using the name.

1951 Crosley Hotshot

Photo courtesy of Cars In Depth

From selling radio receivers, Crosley went on to the content side of what was then modern communications and started a 50 watt radio station, WLW, which would eventually blanket the entire United States, using a signal ranging as high as 700,000 watts. The strength of that signal was one factor in the wide popularity of the Cincinnati Reds baseball team, which by then Crosley had bought. His financial fortunes well established, Powell Crosley returned to his original dream of making a car of his own.

1950 Crosley CD

1950 Crosley CD

Working with his brother Lewis, a graduate engineer, in the late 1930s Crosley developed an inexpensive subcompact car. Production started in 1939 at two Indiana factories and by the time the switch to military production in World War II put an end to most consumer manufacturing, Crosley had sold nearly 5,000 Crosley sedans, coupes, convertibles and station wagons. Much like celebrities today flock to startups like Tesla, Crosley cars had many famous owners including Gen. Omar Bradley, former general Pres. Dwight Eisenhower, famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, politician Nelson Rockefeller and entertainers Gloria Swanson, Humphrey Bogart and Art Linkletter.

Photo courtesy of Cars In Depth

Crosley cars may have been cheap (the first Crosleys cost only $250) but the company was unquestionably a technological and automotive marketing pioneer with many “firsts”. Beside selling the first successful subcompact car in the US, Crosley introduced the first use of the term ‘Sport Utility’, the first mass-market single overhead camshaft  engine in 1946, the first slab-sided postwar car, the first all steel-bodied station wagon in 1947 (earlier wagons used wood framing under the steel panels), and the first American car to be fitted with 4-wheel disc brakes in 1949,  standard on the first American sports car, the Hotshot, introduced in 1949. Crosley even anticipated UTVs like the John Deere Gator with the  Farm-O-Road model, a 63-inch wheelbase utility vehicle. All of this is in addition to the novel COBRA engine which Powell developed during WWII, whose cylinder block was made up of steel stampings, copper brass welded together. It showed promise but reliability issues prompted a switch to cast iron.

1952 Crosley Station Wagon with COBRA engine in foreground

Crosley COBRA engine on display in the Indiana Cars hall of the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum, Auburn, IN

The Hotshot cost half ($900) of what a base Chevy cost then. It’s diminutive size and price did not deter owners from using the little two seater in competition, rather successfully I might add, winning both the Index of Performance and taking overall victory at the first Sebring 6-hour race in 1950. Other notable results included victory in the 1951 Swiss Grand Prix and second in the 1951 Tokyo Grand Prix.

Photo courtesy of Cars In Depth

Crosley engines also powered a number of racing specials, including those built by Bandini, Moretti and Siata. The Crosley powered specials were very successful with a Siata/Crosley winning the 12-hour SCCA race at Vero Beach, while a Bandini/Crosley won the 6-hour event. Crosley specials also led the SCCA H-modified class throughout the late 1950s, and at Bonneville, a Crosley-powered “belly tanker” significantly increased the Class O record to almost 100 miles per hour.

1952 Crosley Station Wagon

1952 Crosley Station Wagon

Crosley’s best year was 1948, during the postwar car sales boom when consumers were buying anything new that was available after years of wartime rationing and most consumer industries switched to military production. Crosley sold almost 25,000 cars that year. As more and more of the established (and startup) automakers introduced all new postwar designs, Crosley sales started to decline even after the Hotshot was introduced in 1949 and the Farm-O-Road the next year. Nash’s introduction of the compact Rambler didn’t help things. By 1952 sales had dropped to only 1,522 cars, with production ending in July of that year.

Famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright's 1952 Crosley Super Roadster, in Taliesin Red, just like his Cord L-29 in the background

Famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1952 Crosley Super Roadster, in Taliesin Red, just like his Cord L-29 in the background

Considering what restored VW Beetles and Buses are getting today, the $15,000-$20,000 that a restored Hotshot or other Crosley will cost you seems to me to be a reasonable price for a unique and very historic automobile.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS


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10 Comments on “Look At What I Found!: 1951 Crosley Hotshot...”

  • avatar

    This was great! I learned so much I thought I was reading “ate up with motor.”

    • 0 avatar

      Thank you, that’s high praise indeed. Unfortunately, in preparing this post I was not able to rely on AUWM since Aaron hasn’t done a history on Crosley yet. Ate Up With Motor is the gold standard for online automotive history. Severson does a better job than some academic auto historians.

      There are sites that are reliable, Hemmings and the Coachbuilt sites are examples, but Aaron is the best as far as I’m concerned.

      Normally I’d also recommend the RM Auctions catalog descriptions but I was disappointed to see that their catalog from the recent St John’s sale has a number of small but significant errors of fact.

  • avatar

    Crosley hotshots are fabulous little cars and fast for their time too. The issue with COBRA was that the brass caused electrolysis and corroded the sleeve inside, it was a carry-over from a marine engine. Very few COBRA motors are left and usually a crosley that claims one has it but uses a CIBA (cast iron variant) for driving. I’ve had the pleasure of riding in a hotshot and it feels about on par with the MGs of that era but the styling was thoroughly modern. Really great cars that I would love to own but just a little too big to make it work.

    • 0 avatar

      The COBRA motor was originally built to power portable gen-sets and pumps for the military.

      I haven’t seen many Crosleys in the metal, but I’ve always been a fan. I remember reading an article about a Crosley-Siata that seemed like the perfect Shelby Cobra alternative at the time, but I’d out-grown it by the time I got my license.

  • avatar

    Saw one of the Hot Shots up close and personal at the 2012 Ault Park Concours in Cincinnati. It was pretty cool, and smaller than almost everything else at the show.

  • avatar

    Hotshot+ OK. Regular Crosleys — OMG! The publisher of the newspaper where my stepdad worked bought one to “save money” when a reporter or my sports reporter stepdad had to go to away games, etc.

    My recollection was a ride and noise both like a cement mixer, and about as fast.

  • avatar
    Greg Locock

    Great article Ronnie

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Crosley was also the first to put shelves in refrigerator doors. Crosley also made TVs for a short while and started his own TV station which still exists today called WLWT channel 5 (NBC affliate) which is now owned by Hearst. Crosley also developed his own airplane and had an airplane engine factory which later became GE Aviation. There is a great documentary that aired on PBS about Crosley narrated by Nick Clooney, who is George Clooney’s father and Rosemary Clooney’s younger brother. The sad thing is Powell Crosley is largely forgotten in his hometown of Cincinnati. Crosley was on the scale of a Thomas Edison.

  • avatar

    Interesting cars , as stated Crosley was an innovator but the vehicles were *so* wretchedly cheap and tinny , I never was enthusiastic about them .


  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Crosley was ahead of his time with these smaller cars. The might have been cheap and tinny but some of the Ramblers were as well. There were some poorly finished cars in the 40’s and 50’s as with the 70’s and 80’s. Many of these were priced lower to appeal to the price conscious consumers.

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