The 1949-1952 Crosley Hotshot and Super Sports history is a fascinating tale that begins with one man. Powel Crosley, Jr., got rich in other industries, but his first love (with apologies to the Cincinnati Reds baseball team) was automobiles. Once he had a distinctive ohc four-cylinder engine and disc brakes, he was able to turn his economical minicar into a winning sports car.
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 Cincinnati, Ohio, industrialist and baseball club owner Powel Crosley, Jr., 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.
For example, in 1950, a stock Hotshot, with its ohc engine and standard four-wheel disc brakes, won the Index of Performance at Sebring. Another won the Grand de la Suisse in 1951. Yet another placed second in that same year's Tokyo Grand Prix. Most amazing of all, a modified Hotshot was on its way to winning its class and the Index of Performance at Le Mans in 1951 when its voltage regulator fried late in the race.
Builders of specials also dropped Crosley engines into everything from Bandinis and Morettis to Siatas. A Siata/Crosley won the 12-hour Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) Vero Beach race in Florida, and a Bandini/Crosley took the six-hour race that started halfway through the 12-hour event.
Crosley specials dominated the SCCA's 750cc H-modified class, In 1958, Chal Hall's Crosley-powered special won 10 of 12 West Coast SCCA events, earning him the season's championship. At Bonneville in 1951, Bob Alberts hit 98.97 mph while qualifying for a two-way Class O record of 80.98 mph in his Crosley bellytanker. And Jack Van Deman's Crosley-powered hydroplane set a record of 52.25 mph.
Many 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.
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Advantages of the 1949-1952 Crosley Hotshot and Super Sports
There were several advantages of the 1949-1952 Crosley Hotshot and Super Sports. One of the Crosley's big pluses was price, especially for budget-minded racers. The factory sold bare chassis for $794, and in 1949 dealers offered complete, street-ready Hotshots for $849.
Prices soon topped the magic $1,000 mark, but even by 1952, a Super Sports, fully equipped, cost only $1,028.72. (The main difference between Hotshots and Super Sports: The latter came with deluxe trim, a folding top instead of take-apart roof bows, and standard doors.)
Engine modifications were just as easy on the wallet. The Braje Company of Los Angeles supplied hot cams for $25, headers for $28.35, and dual intake manifolds with sidedraft Amal motorcycle carburetors for approximately $60.
Braje also offered finned aluminum cam covers for $12-$16. Nick Brajevich, founder of the speed-parts firm, hit 97 mph at the Santa Ana, California, dragstrip in 1953 in a Crosley-powered rail dragster. Now in his eighties, Brajevich still sells Crosley speed equipment from his shop in Southern California.
The cast-iron Crosley block would take a 0.130-inch overbore and, with a Weber stroker crank, displacement went from the stock 44 cubic inches to 53 (and later to 60 in boats). H&C and Vertex both made hot Crosley ignitions, and S.CO.T offered a Roots-type supercharger for $327.50. The blower alone raised horsepower from 26.5 to 55.
The cast-iron Hotshot/Super Sports engine, called CIBA (for Cast Iron Block Assembly) was the successor to an earlier Crosley powerplant that was uniquely made up of stamped steel sheets. This earlier engine, dubbed the Crosley Cobra ("Cobra" for COpper BRAzed), used 125 thin steel stampings brazed together in a 2,060°F furnace. With its nondetachable head, the Cobra block assembly formed a single, lightweight, layered unit.
The Cobra engine's cylinder sleeves were iron and the crankshaft rode in five beefy main bearings. This engine, like its cast-iron CIBA heir, boasted a shaft-driven overhead camshaft and full-pressure lubrication. Bore and stroke being over-square helped keep down friction and wear.
The Crosley Cobra block and integral head tipped the scale at all of 14 pounds. Fully assembled, the engine weighed only 138 pounds. Conceived for the military, the Cobra four was designed to run at a constant rpm. In cars, the varying rev range caused valve-seat inserts to crack, and the block tended to warp if the coolant fell below a certain level. Also, electrolytic action between the steel and copper layers could cause leaks.
So, in 1949, Crosley went to a cast-iron version of the Cobra engine, still with a nondetachable head, five mains, and overhead cam. The iron engine weighed 12 pounds more than the Cobra, but displacement and power stayed the same. The Crosley engine, in both versions, displaced 720cc. Hotshots punched it out to 748cc so it fit neatly into 750cc racing classes.
Cars had always been Powel Crosley's consuming passion. His career started and ended with them. In between, while he pursued those "other projects" -- the ones that brought him all his millions -- he felt he was just marking time until he could get back to automaking.
Crosley became one of Cincinnati's richest citizens -- the richest, said some -- through a series of entrepreneurial successes. He got into mail order early, likewise home radios, refrigerators, television sets, and fax machines. He owned the nation's most powerful radio station, WLW, and the Cincinnati Reds baseball team, but these were mere interludes.
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Powel Crosley, Jr., Owner of Crosley Motors
Powel Crosley, Jr., owner of Crosley Motors, was born in Cincinnati on September 18, 1886. When he was 13, he and his younger brother, Lewis, built an electric go-kart. At 21, he tried to promote an automobile called the Marathon 6, but a Wall Street panic cooled off his backers.
Soon afterward, Crosley became assistant sales manager for the Parry Auto Company, then later went to the National Vehicle Company, both headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana.
By 1914, Crosley was building cycle-cars, a venture that convinced him of the small car's practicality. By training, he was a lawyer, but his natural gifts made him a first-rate practitioner of sales and marketing.
Immediately after World War I, Crosley amassed his first fortune by inventing and selling "Inside Tires" via mail order. Inside Tires were liners that fit between the inner tube and carcass of conventional tires.
In 1920, when his young son asked for a radio, Crosley built him a crystal set. He became fascinated with radios, developed a five-tube receiver, and soon sold millions of them at $19.99 each, this at a time when other radios cost upward of $80.
By 1922, the Crosley Radio Corporation had expanded into one of the world's largest. Powel Crosley himself became a disc jockey on his own radio "super station," which, between 1934 and 1939, with 500,000 watts of power, could be heard as far away as Australia.
When the radio business started getting crowded, Crosley diversified. An inventor came to him one day with an idea for a refrigerator with shelves built into the door. The inventor had been turned down at Frigidaire and Kelvinator, but Crosley liked the idea and offered the man a 25-cent royalty on every "Crosley Shelvador" sold.
The inventor said no, that he'd rather have $15,000 cash. Crosley sold four million Shelvadors, which would have brought the inventor $1,000,000.
Not everything Crosley touched turned to gold, though. Among his flops were the Xervac, a mechanical scalp exerciser; the Koolrest, a bed cooler; plus a low-priced camera, an oil burner, and a coal stove.
Crosley usually wore a sad expression and rarely looked happy. Gregarious and outgoing, his best friend remained his brother, Lewis. Fortune magazine said of Powel Crosley in 1947, "Once the creative phase of the operation was completed, Crosley would preoccupy himself with other interests, usually automobiles. The pursuit of leisure also failed to satisfy him. With country places in four states, he lived an unrelaxing schedule, dashing from one to another. He tried fashionable sports, but polo bored him and his private airplanes quickly became mere conveniences. He won few intimates outside his immediate family. ...
"In the stands at Crosley Field, he is the most inhibited of all fans. Now that he is an automobile manufacturer, however, his associates detect a change in him. He is still restless and lonely, but when, as his own test driver, he jackknifes his 6-foot-3, 205-pound frame through the 45-inch door of a Crosley ... he comes into new focus, a man at peace with his convictions and pleased with his handiwork."
Crosley Motors, Incorporated, began assembling minicars in Richmond, Indiana, in 1939. These prewar models carried air-cooled Waukesha twin-cylinder engines and were stark. Initially, Crosley tried to distribute his minis through department stores, but the idea flopped, so he created a dealer network of sorts. Many Crosley dealerships grew up as extensions of filling stations and auto repair shops.
World War II stopped Crosley car production, but in 1945, after seeing the Cobra engine born for military use, Powel Crosley decided to go back into the business of making small cars, this time in Marion, Indiana, though company headquarters remained in Cincinnati. Crosley sold all his other holdings -- everything except the Reds baseball team -- and gave his full attention to the car business.
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1949-1952 Crosley Hotshot and Super Sports Engine
The development of the 1949-1952 Crosley Hotshot and Super Sport Engine is a story that has its roots in the company's postwar evolution.
Crosley had no trouble selling his automobiles immediately after the war, but as new and late-model used cars became more available generally, Crosley sales slipped.
Powel Crosley pumped millions of his personal fortune into his auto business before selling out in 1952. In all, some 70,000 Crosley automobiles were built, including 2,498 Hotshots and Super Sports between 1949 and 1952.
Despite their modest numbers, Powel Crosley's roadsters probably represented his greatest automotive achievement. He took an avid personal interest in their engineering and styling, and was very pleased with the way they turned out. Crosley and his chief engineer, Paul Klotsch, essentially created the Hotshot around two bulletproof essentials: the ohc engine and a set of disc brakes, both highly unusual at the time.
But let's look a bit more closely at how the Crosley CIBA engine evolved. The earlier sheet-steel Cobra engine was based on designs developed by Lloyd M. Taylor, a San Francisco engineer and inventor who, around 1942, had built a six-cylinder engine using his layered head/block principle and managed to get it tested by the Navy in Annapolis, Maryland.
Klotsch heard about these military tests and went to Annapolis to see how the engine performed. He talked with Taylor and ultimately brought him back to Cincinnati. Taylor then helped develop the Crosley Cobra engine, although he at first wanted to make even the crankcase of pressed steel, with stamped connecting rods and the crankshaft made up of screw-machine parts. Klotsch and Crosley nixed those last innovations but decided to produce engines with layered, integral blocks and heads.
During World War II, Crosley built six four-cylinder Cobra test engines and sent them to Annapolis for Navy evaluation. The Navy was taking bids for a self-contained portable generator that could be airlifted to ground troops. The generator had to weigh no more than 100 pounds complete, and the engine had to run for 50 hours at a constant 5,000 rpm.
The Cobra engine did all that and more, and Crosley won the contract. Later, this engine was used to power all sorts of other things, from military amphibian vehicles, to truck refrigerators, boats, and even Mooney Mite airplanes.
After the war, Crosley based his postwar passenger vehicles on the Cobra ohc four. This engine, he demonstrated, could be frozen solid without the block cracking. But at first, it wasn't built to last any longer than the Navy's specified 50 hours, so certain modifications had to be made, notably on the valve-seat inserts.
Paul Klotsch, who'd retired by the 1970s, explained, "It still wasn't a dependable engine, even in early production. You see, the weak point was between the intake and exhaust valves, and to make that a heavier gauge would have required over $1 million worth of die changes. The [Cobra] engine stood up all right except when it was low on water, and then it burned out. But if it was well serviced, it was good for 60,000 miles."
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1949-1952 Crosley Hotshot and Super Sports
Early in 1949, Crosley switched from pressed steel to the CIBA configuration for his 1949-1952 Crosley Hotshot and Super Sports. Engine design, displacement, and power remained identical, but the CIBA engine weighed a bit more --150 pounds dry.
To complement its advanced engine, Klotsch decided that the Crosley sports car needed a superior braking system. He'd read about spot disc brakes being used on aircraft, and he easily convinced Powel Crosley to adapt them for automotive use. Thus, in late 1949 and 1950, all Crosley cars and trucks, including the Hotshot and Super Sports, came out with Goodyear-Hawley "Hydradisc" discs at all four wheels.
These brakes worked well under most conditions, but they also had some drawbacks. To quote Klotsch: "[They] were developed by Jesse Hawley and originally used on light aircraft. Hawley also had them on a few experimental cars. They were fine brakes, but, unfortunately, Powel and I never 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, and the exposed discs just didn't work. In the South, the disc brakes were marvelous, and for racing, too."
For 1951 and 1952, Crosley reluctantly switched to Bendix drum brakes all around.
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.
Some people believe the Crosley roadster's styling was done by Count Alexis de Sakhnoffsky. Not so. Sakhnoffsky did do advertising illustrations for Crosley, but the styling itself came from the combined efforts of Powel Crosley and Sundberg & Ferar, the industrial design firm in Southfield, Michigan.
Carl W. Sundberg was a friend of Crosley's and had helped him style the first postwar sedans. The first sedans that rolled out of Marion wouldn't fit two abreast inside a railway boxcar, so Crosley unceremoniously sliced two inches off the sides of his cars, which gave them a rather squeezed look, but did allow them to ride side by side when shipped by rail.
The roadster, though, was styled several years later. John Tjaarda, of all people, was paid $5,000 to submit dashboard designs for the Hotshot, but they weren't used. Instead, Sundberg and Crosley again did most of the styling.
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 design turned out as light and simple as possible, even to the elimination of a visible radiator grille. A separate grille, Crosley reasoned, would only have upped the price.
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.
Aerojet-General soon sold all Crosley equipment, tools, dies, and leftover parts (except engines) to a big Cincinnati salvage operation. Replacement parts were resold to various dealers, most of them to Service Motors in New York. Service Motors also got the body dies, which were eventually scrapped.
Meanwhile, Aerojet-General kept building and supplying Crosley engines to the government and at the same time set up the Aerojet Marine Engine Division, which converted Crosley engines for use in boats.
When Aerojet-General got into missiles in the mid-1950s, it sold the marine unit to truck manufacturer Lou Fageol in Kent, Ohio. Fageol then took over Crosley engine production, again supplying powerplants mostly to makers of water-craft, and he also built the Pepco supercharger for Crosleys.
Around 1957, Fageol sold out to Burke Crofton in San Diego, California. The Crofton inventory included 2,000 engines but no manufacturing equipment.
Between 1959 and 1962, Crofton produced an improved version of the Crosley Farm-O-Road mini-Jeep, which he called the Crofton Bug, building some 250 in all. Crofton later sold Crosley marine conversions. Crosley powerplants were then used by Homelite in boats and later as the "Bearcat 55" by a company named Fisher-Pierce.
Powel Crosley, Jr., passed away quietly at age 74 on March 28, 1961, just before the start of a baseball season in which his beloved Reds would wind up as National League champions. (Crosley Field remained the team's home until 1970.) Today, his legacy continues in such institutions as the Crosley Automobile Club and a line of Crosley appliances headquartered in North Carolina.
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