Talking about Crosley cars brings me again to the idea of specifying exactly what a microcar is. Generally, the agreed upon definition is a three or four-wheeled that has two doors and an engine size of 1000cc or less. And for those of you who are still wondering why I care about microcars, remember: they were some of the first really fuel efficient vehicles.
On to the Crosleys. Really, these cars were the dream of one man: Powel Crosley, Jr., a man born in Ohio in the late nineteenth century. Like so many people, he was obsessed with cars. After dropping out of the University of Cincinnati, he tried to make his first automobile at the age of 21. Crosley didn’t get anywhere with those first attempts, but he never lost his love for vehicles.
After holding down a few odd jobs, marrying a girl named Gwendolyn, and fathering some kids, Crosley found a niche market: auto accessories. He helped to found the American Automobile Accessory Company and, with the help of his business-smart brother, Lewis, sold over a million dollars in parts through World War I.
Crosley, a creative inventor, continued to innovate and sell new products, like tire re-liners. He was the first producer to offer a “money back guarantee” and tried to offer quality, affordable items to his customers. This mindset led Crosley to begin manufacturing radios after expressing dismay at the exorbitant prices of radios in stores. In the 1920s, Crosley became the largest radio manufacturer in the world and soon developed a car radio.
Once he’d figured out the radio manufacturing business, Crosley jumped on to the radio broadcasting scene. His station, WLW, eventually became the most powerful station in America; during World War II, WLW could be heard throughout most of the world. Crosley helped develop some of the first soap operas (with the sponsorship of Ivory Soap, of course).
But Crosley didn’t stop with radios; he kept expanding into other markets. He made refrigerators, creating the first fridge with shelves to hold food. Crosley also developed the first non-electric refrigerator, too.
By the end of the 1930s, Crosley finally returned to his dream of making automobiles. “I believe that every American who can afford any car should have an opportunity to buy a brand new, truly fine car,” Crosley said. The first Crosley cars, built from 1939 to 1942, came in three colors and had a mere 80 inch wheelbase. You could buy a brand new Crosley for $250 to $350, depending on the model. Crosleys were pretty basic cars; they featured six gallon gas tanks, a hand-powered windshield wiper, three interior gauges (speedometer, water gauge, and fuel gauge), and a prominent hood with freestanding headlights. While Crosley stopped its production during the Second World War, people still liked driving the microcars because they regularly got 50 miles per gallon.
Of course, Crosley didn’t sit idle during the war. He became the largest manufacturer of the proximity fuze, which “won the Battle of the Bulge for us,” according to George S. Patton.
After the war, Crosley continued producing cars with the same pre-war goals. He made some larger cars, but still focused on fuel efficiency and affordability, with price tags of most cars below $1,000. Crosley kept up his innovative spirit (can you see a pattern in his life?) and introduced the following “firsts” into the auto market:
- Disc brakes
- Mass marketed overhead camshaft
- All steel-bodied wagon
- American sports car
While Crosley sold about 25,000 cars altogether, Americans were moving into an era of “bigger is better” which I think we are only now coming out of. Gas rationing didn’t matter anymore and Crosleys began diminishing in popularity, despite some impressive enthusiasts like Dwight D. Eisenhower, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Humphrey Bogart. In 1952, Crosley closed his car operations and sold them to General Tire and Rubber Company. Crosley sold off the rest of his businesses and his name ceased to be its own brand in 1956. Crosley passed away in 1961 from a heart attack; he is remembered for his many inventions and entrepreneurship. Both he and his cars are remembered for embodying the American dream.