Of Super Sports and COBRAS

by Jan Eyerman

This article first came out in two parts in the Crosley Automobile Club Quarterly in December 1976 and March 1977. I believe this article by Jan Eyerman is one of the most complete general histories to be written in a short article. So with ony minor changes from the oringinal two part article it was repeated in the June 1981 Quarterly. It is now being published on the net for all the web surfing Crosley fans. (JEB)
Four wheel disc brakes, first all steel station wagon, possibly the first "slab sided" car, the first post war U.S. sports car, the first low priced U.S. overhead cam engine ... etc. The list goes on and on. And, not only first in technical achievements, but first in names; Cobra, Super Sports, both nearly twenty years ahead of Shelby and Chevy. What exotic, expensive, low production car was this? The Crosley, of course, one of the most advanced and interesting cars ever to run on American roads, and one of the least expensive too! Like all unique vehicles such as Bugatti, Ferrari, the Edsel Ford's Continental, the Morris Mini and the Model T Ford, the Crosley was really built to please just one man. Powel Crosley. No committees, no Executive Decision board. Just Powel Crosley, his stamp, his character and personality are what made the Crosley interesting and unique.

Powel Crosley was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on September 18, 1886 to Charlotte and Powel Crosley, Senior. He spent his childhood in Cincinnati and developed a great love for his "hometown". It has been claimed that Powel was a chauffeur after school in 1905, and this was at a time when a chauffeur was as much of a mechanic and machinist as a driver. Evidentally he learned a lot about automobiles because two years later at the age of 21 he organized a company with ten thousand borrowed dollars to build the ill-fated "Marathon Six". The price of the new car was to be $1,700 or several hundred dollars lower than any other six on the market. It was also at a time when four cylinder engines dominated the market. Few, if any, Marathon Sixes were built. Possibly because the panic of 1907 did the company in, but the Marathon Six never got beyond the prototype stage. Thus ended the first Crosley car.

After the failure of the Marathon, Crosley moved from Cincinnati to Indianapolis and went to work for the Carl Fisher Company. He didn't stay with Carl Fisher long and left to become the sales manager of the Parry Automobile Company. Parry was not too successful (how many Parry's have you ever seen?) And, so Powel moved on to the National Motor Vehicle Company and from there went to still another auto manufacturer in Muncie, Indiana. All of this moving around was done in the two years between 1908 and 1910! Evidentally Powel didn't like his job as manager or maybe he missed Cincinnati, so in 1910 he moved back to his old hometown and worked for several advertising firms.

Crosley again attempted to set up his own company in 1912 and again met with failure. He tried to get into the short lived cycle-car craze of 1913 and failed for yet a third time. If three strikes weren't enough, Crosley tried still again in 1914, this time with a six cylinder car and met his fourth failure. Failure number four ended Crosley's automotive career for twenty years. Understandably so, four failures in seven years was a very dismal situation.

So Powel shifted his attention from building automobiles to supplying accessories for them. In 1916 he went to work for the American Automobile Accessory Company. Within a year he owned the company and within two years it was a million dollar concern. Crosley's two secrets of success were his ability to invent useful gadgets and the business sense of his brother Lewis.

1924 Pup Radio & Bonzo the dog


With a good growing business in auto accessories, Powel was now a success. Then several chance factors came together to move Powel out of the auto business and into the even newer field of radio. The first chance factor was that Powel's son wanted a radio. Upon discovering that a radio of 1919-1920 cost several hundred dollars, Crosley decided that this would be a good field to try his hand at. The second chance factor was that the "National Label Company" shared a building with Crosley's auto accessory company and Crosley has just purchased it. The National Label Company made phonographs. Initially Crosley just made some radio parts, such as a porcelain tube socket (to withstand wear and high voltages) a tap switch and a variable condensor. The manufacture and sale of these items quickly gave Crosley a reputation of producing high quality radio components at very low prices.

The next step was to build the whole radio and at this point Powel Crosley essentially invented modern mass communications. It is hard to believe that in 1920 the only people who could listen to a radio were either people who had several hundred dollars (more than the price of a Model T!) or build it themselves. But such was the case when Powel Crosley assigned two young engineering students from the University of Cincinnati (where else!?) to design a cheap radio. The project was realized in 1921 when Crosley was able to market the Harko Junior crystal set for an unbelievable twenty dollars. For the first time it was possible for virtually anyone in the U.S. to own a radio. Needless to say, Crosley became a name of importance in the radio field. He followed his success with a radio that incorporated one of the basic aspects of all modern radios and televisions, a radio frequency amplifier. Without going into details, this produced a stronger, clear signal which in turn produced better sound.

Because of the poor reception of radios in those days, very powerful transmitters had to be used. Powel wanted to make extra sure that people who bought his radios had something to listen to, so in 1922 he opened station WLW in Cincinnati. This station eventually grew to be the strongest transmitting station in the country with a 500,000 watt transmitter. This was used for Voice of America broadcasts to Europe during World War II. By comparison, a powerful modern radio station transmits about 50,000 watts - one-tenth of WLW.

In the 1930's Crosley expanded in the electrical field to refrigerators and other electrical appliances. In the process he produced the "Shelvadore" refrigerator which introduced to the world the idea of using the door of the refrigerator to hold food. This idea is incorporated in virtually all modern refrigerators. Crosley products justly earned the reputation of high quality at low prices.

Now in contrast to his early failures. Powel Crosley had two major successes; auto accessories and electrical appliances. His ability as an inventor was proven as excellent as his ability as a salesman. He recognized that there would always be a market for quality products at reasonable prices. He had effectively started a radio industry in the U.S. and now was ready to try the automobile industry again.

Part 2 - The Automotive Years

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