The Crosley Sportscars

1949 - 1952 CROSLEY Sports Cars

The 1949-1952 Crosley Hotshot and Super Sports history is a fascinating tale that begins with one man, Powel Crosley, Jr., who got rich in other industries, but his first love was always automobiles. He entered the car business in 1939 with dreams of an American Volkswagen: a small, cheap economy model that would make every family a two-car family. Prewar Crosleys were cute but crude little boxes with two-cylinder engines, mechanical brakes, very basic equipment, and prices as low as $299. Powel even sold them in his appliance stores as well as through auto dealerships.

Postwar Crosleys tried to be more like "real" cars: 28 inches longer, more impressively styled, somewhat better equipped, and more powerful, with an overhead-cam four derived from the copper-brazed "CoBra" unit that had been developed for wartime helicopters and was made of sheetmetal. Despite this engine's near-predictable durability problems, Crosley did relatively well in the postwar seller's market, building some 5000 cars for 1946 and over 19,000 for '47. Production did climb for 1948 -- to 28,374 units -- but would go no higher. The very next year, Crosley volume plunged nearly 75 percent in the face of a sated market and newly designed models from larger, more prosperous rivals.

Seeking salvation, Crosley turned to of all things, a sports car. Aptly named the Crosley Hot Shot, this bare-bones two-seat roadster spanned a four-inch-longer wheelbase than Crosley's other cars but shared their chassis and beefier drivetrain. Since Powel designed his own engines, once he had developed a distinctive ohc four-cylinder engine and disk brakes, he was able to turn his economical minicar into a winning sports car. He took an avid personal interest in their engineering and styling, and was very pleased with the way they turned out.

In 1949, Crosley introduced their Hot Shot model. A trim level above the Hot Shot was added the following year called the Super Sport. Besides having better trim, the Super Sport also had a folding top. The 1951 and 1952 Super Sports were distinguishable from the Hot Shots by having full doors, while the Hot Shots had cut-down sides with either no doors or removable half doors.

What made it interesting was the racy, uniquely styled body featuring cut-away sides, a bulbous nose flanked by freestanding headlamps, and a spare tire jauntily carried on a stubby, trunkless tail.

Though blessed with only 26 horses, the Crosley Hot Shot lived up to its name with surprisingly good performance, due largely to its bantamweight build and sparse equipment. It was no race car in stock tune but, all things considered, it was a good goer. The typical example could do 0-60 mph in 20 seconds, the standing quarter-mile in 25 seconds at 66 mph, and 77 mph top speed. Being a Crosley, it was dirt cheap: just $849.

Around this time, Crosley had abandoned the trouble-prone CoBra engine for a sturdier CIBA (Cast-Iron Block Assembly) version. With five main bearings, full-pressure lubrication, and a safe 10,000-rpm limit, it looked a natural for souping up. Accessory houses soon obliged with a slew of low-cost bolt-ons that halved the stock model's 0-60 mph time and upped top speed to a genuine 100 mph. Happily, the CIBA engine was well up to such muscle-building.

Before the Chevrolet Corvette finally entered racing in 1956, America's only true postwar sports car was the tiny Crosley Hotshot. Despite almost no factory support, no team, and no organized competition program, a handful of private owners took to the tracks in 1949, secure in the knowledge that Powel built the best darn production sports cars in America. And while their racing rivals might have snickered, this brave band of independent drivers managed to rack up a surprising number of victories.

Many of these Crosley roadsters were driven daily and then raced on weekends. Stock, a Hotshot or Super Sports weighed a bit less than 1,200 pounds. For racing, most owners removed the bumpers, windshield, headlights, spare tire, and one seat. This brought weight down to 996 pounds. Some Crosley specials weighed as little as 750 pounds. With its stock CIBA engine, a Hotshot or Super Sports topped out at around 77 mph. Stripped down for road racing and with a higher axle ratio, it would do 90 mph on the straights. Its unorthodox suspension -- which consisted of a solid front axle with two semi-elliptic leaf springs; coils at the rear plus single-leaf quarter-elliptics for location -- gave amazing road-holding. And the Crosley suspension could easily be jacked around to suit particular race courses. With an 85-inch wheelbase, the roadsters got a five-inch-longer stretch than the passenger line (though overall length was from eight to 11.25 inches shorter), and most of its body components -- headlights, hood, seats, windshield -- unbolted for racing.

The Crosley's finest hour came in 1950 when one of that year's new Super Sports, basically a Crosley Hot Shot with accessory doors, won the Index of Performance at the inaugural Sebring 12-hour race. A similar car entered by American sportsman Briggs Cunningham might have repeated the feat at the prestigious Le Mans 24 Hours in '51, but retired with electrical problems.

There were some bumps in the road for the little sportscar however. Those disk brakes that had helped them so much in racing worked well under most conditions, but they also had some drawbacks. Having been developed and originally used on light aircraft, only a few experiments had been performed on cars. They were fine brakes, but, unfortunately, who would have guessed that in Detroit around 1949, in winter, the city would start salting the streets! And those brakes just froze up when the salt hit them. Then next they salted Chicago and eventually all the northern cities took up the practice. In the South, the disc brakes were marvelous, and for racing but the exposed discs just didn't work well in cold weather so they had to be dropped. For 1951 and 1952, Crosley reluctantly switched to Bendix drum brakes all around.

During its final four years of production, Powel Crosley poured $3-5 million of his personal bank account into his auto company. It had been losing steadily since its peak sales year of 1948. On July 3, 1952, production stopped. Ten days later, Crosley sold out to General Tire Corporation, which subsequently became Aerojet-General. Powel Crosley, Jr., passed away quietly at age 74 on March 28, 1961. Today, his legacy continues in such institutions as the Crosley Automobile Club and a line of Crosley appliances headquartered in North Carolina. Despite their modest numbers, Powel's little sportscars represented his greatest automotive achievement. Considering the cars' performance potential, low price and high "fun quotient." they should have sold like hotcakes. And they might have had they been built by one of the Big Three