A Look Back: Crosley Sub-Compact And World War Two Era Vehicles

Greg Zyla
Q: Greg I enjoyed your “First Compact Cars” feature and I owned two Crosleys in my day. On Christmas day many years ago, when I was only nine-years-old, I was given a 1948 Crosley station wagon that my father and I then restored. It was only a 26-horsepower engine at the time. My second car was a 1950 Crosley roadster and it went through another restoration. I drove that car for many years. Can you tell us more about the American built Crosley and the military vehicles they built during World War II? Sincerely, Don Smith, email.
A: Don thanks for the kind comments. Let’s revisit some of the Crosley inventions and that great bunch of little Crosley vehicles, including military efforts.
The Crosley cars actually preceded the VW Beetle (1949) and the early Nash Rambler (1951) that I gave credit to as first compacts, foreign and domestic, respectively. Because I always considered Crosley vehicles as sub-compact in layout I did not give them a mention in the compact car column. However, as you read on, you’ll see that after the war effort, where Crosley built many “Pups” and “Mules,” the small car and truck company enjoyed some success against the other car manufacturers of the era.
Founded in 1939 by Powel Crosley Jr. in Cincinnati, Ohio, Crosley Motors was a subsidiary of the large and successful Crosley Corporation. As a respected industrialist and entrepreneur, Crosley Jr. was responsible for many innovations in consumer products including small and large appliances, its famed radios and TV broadcasting.
The very first Crosley motorcar appeared in 1939 as a tiny, two-seater convertible and weighed just 925 pounds. The two-cylinder engine was an air-cooled 39 cu. in. Waukesha built design. The car started at just $299 and met with Crosley’s philosophy of “every American who can afford a car should have an opportunity to buy a brand new, truly fine car.”
The first Crosley only came in three colors of yellow, gray or blue. By 1942, Crosley expanded its line to offer a panel truck, sedan, pickup and other styles. When World War II began, Crosley had sold nearly 6,000 cars and was the last American manufacturer to finally stop civilian car production ala a government mandate in 1942 because the Crosley delivered near 50-mpg.
The United States government then had Crosley concentrate on small military vehicles, radio transceivers, trailers, field kitchen units, gun turrets (gun bases/steeples) for boats and aircraft, and explosive proximity fuses during the war effort. Vehicles included a small military “4x4 Pup” which looked like an early Jeep and was powered by the two-cylinder engine. A go-kart style “Mule” also was produced for light duty work.
When the war ended, Crosley resumed civilian car production and utilized larger four-cylinder water-cooled engines. Included were new models including a “Hotshot” sports car roadster featuring a front head lamp “bugeye” motif long before Austin Healey introduced its Bugeye Sprite in 1958.
Although Mr. Crosley was highly successful in everything he did, his cars never really caught on with the consumer as post war America was in a “bigger buying mood.” The 1951 Crosley Wagon owned be reader Don Smith came closest to being an actual compact size car but still rode on a very small wheelbase of 80-inches and was very light with small tires. Popular was its Crosley Farm-O-Road, a small vehicle that did work around the farm and was legal to drive on the highway. It was promoted as “twice the work of a farm horse and twice the speed of a race horse.”
Sadly, Crosley’s “small car” ideology would later prove successful as many American and foreign small cars appeared through the 1950s decade and into the 1960s. Today, just about every manufacturer produces a sub-compact vehicle that is popular with consumers of all ages.
Notable are some of Crosley’s industry firsts: the push-button radio, early television productions (including soap operas), first refrigerator with shelves in the door, most powerful commercial radio station ever (WLW Cincinnati), complete lighting for the first baseball night game in 1935 at Crosley Field (Reds versus Phillies), first to use disc brakes on American cars, first to use the term Sport Utility, and first post war sports car, the aforementioned 1949 Hotshot. (Crosley appliances and radios are still available to this day, including a nice retro AM/FM Radio with the original Crosley logo).
In summary, Crosley Jr. indeed was a true industrial genius as his Crosley vehicles totaled near 77,000 sold when he ceased production in mid-1952. Popular in many business and social circles, Crosley Jr. passed away at age 74 in 1961. The current Cincinnati Reds street-level main entrance at “Great American Ball Park” is named “Crosley Terrace” in his honor.
Thanks much for your letter Don and for reminding car lovers that the Crosley vehicles are still very popular and admired at car shows everywhere as we speed toward the year 2020.
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