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Want some help impressing the ladies?  Get yourself a microcar!  Rodney from the BBC show Only Fools and Horses shows you how it’s done with his Reliant Regal van.  Microcars just get more useful every day!

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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.

Crosley Pup

Powel Crosley, Jr. and his radio brand "mascot" listen to a Crosley Pup receiver

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.

Pre-war Crosley

Made in 1941, this simple car exemplified Crosley's dream for domestic autos.

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.

Crosley Hotshot

A 1949 Crosley Hotshot - America's first sports car

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.

The story of the Velorex Oskar began in 1938 with two brothers, Mojmír and František Stránský.  The two men owned a bicycle repair shop in Northwestern Czechoslovakia called Moto-Velo-sport, which means motor-bike-sport.  They were inspired to build three-wheeled vehicles by a British manufacturer, Morgan Motor Company, and spent several years designing a vehicle.

In 1943, they finally built the first Velorex Oskar, which mean “cart on axle” in Czechoslovakian.  The car was built out of steel tubing wrapped in dural sheet metal and it sported quite a few bicycle parts.  Their goal was to create a sort of hybrid motorbike/automobile that would be an affordable means of transportation for those with less money.

Velorex Oskar

'59 Velorex Oskar

By 1945 the brothers produced the first batch of cars, then using leather cloth instead of metal for the body.  They experimented with different types and sizes of motorcycle engines for their cars, trying to determine what would be the best fit. Because the war had just ended, both money and cars were hard to come by and there was demand for the Stránský brothers’ vehicles.  A Velorex Oskar was only a quarter of the cost of a normal car.

During this time, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia was restructuring many of its country’s businesses.  As such, the Stránský brothers had to move their shop in 1950 to a cooperative facility that housed five other companies in Hradec Králové.  Moto-Velo-Sport was renamed Velo, which was later changed to Velorex to reflect the exportation of their cars.

The early 1950s was a successful period for Velorex.  The vehicles were especially popular in the Soviet Union, where motorcycle/car combinations were desired and money was tight for many families.

Tragedy struck the Stránský brothers early in 1954.  František was killed when a test Velorex prototype crashed.  Devastated by the loss of his older brother, Mojmír refused to become a Communist Party member and was fired by the government from his own company.  Velorex was then completely taken over by the Czech government.

Despite the loss of the brothers from the company, Velorex continued to thrive with production peaking at 120 cars per month in 1959.  The different Velorex models were improved year after year with bigger wheels, bigger engines, hydraulic clutches, and rubber-mounted engines.

Velorex

"Frankie, I think we have to put the car down if we want to win this race." "Mo, the government only gave us so many gas coupons for the week. If we use them up now, how will I go to the grocery store on Thursday?" "Just forget about the groceries and put the car down so we can drive the damn thing! I can't even see Johnny anymore!"

However, the Communist government was not very happy with the three-wheeler’s success, apparently believing that normal cars should satisfy needs that motorcycles could not.  So eventually only the disabled could by the Velorex, and sales continued that way until Oskar’s production was stopped in 1971.  Velorex then tried to market its four-wheeled cars.  However, problems in the four-wheeler’s manufacturing and design, as well as tough competition with popular autos like Trabants, caused Velorex to quit making automobiles in 1973.  Overall, Velorex ultimately produced five different models, four of them three-wheelers.

A company in the Czech Republic is planning on unveiling the “New Velorex” microcar in 2010, although its designs are not in alignment with the original Velorex plans.

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