Last month, we ran an article commemorating the Corvette’s birthday, in which we mentioned that it was not America’s first sports car—suggesting instead that title should go to a lesser-known vehicle called the Hotshot.
You’ll notice that we hedged a bit in the article title, calling it the first “postwar” sports car. That’s basically because, in the early years of the automobile, codifying what defines a mass-produced “sports car” is a tad difficult, so we started at 1945 simply to make it easier.
And, considering that the first production Hotshot rolled off the Crosley Motors assembly line in July of 1949, we felt that this would be a good time to talk about this plucky little (and we do mean little) coupe. But first a bit of history…
Meet Powel Crosley
Part engineer, part entrepreneur, part salesman, Powel Crosley got bitten by the automobile bug early, and some of his first inventions were car related. For instance, Crosley’s “Insyde Tyres” were essentially inner tire linings that protected the tire against punctures—and they were a huge hit with car owners.
His early success allowed Crosley to diversify into things like home appliances and record players.
And when Crosley developed a simplified (and much more affordable) radio, his business skyrocketed. The Cincinnati, Ohio native soon became one of the fathers of modern broadcasting, earning the nickname “The Henry Ford of Radio.”
A Fine Car!
But yet, he was still fascinated by the automobile and, by the mid 1930s, Crosley decided to create his own marque.
He took the same approach as he did when designing his first radios, setting his sights on producing a line of affordable small cars for the masses. These early Crosley automobiles were spartan, employing basic steel panels, no-frills interiors, and small two-cylinder engines.
Crosley Motors Inc. had several factories located in and around the Cincinnati area making various automobile components. And despite being launched in 1939, Crosley Motors was still able to crank out a few thousand cars, panel vans, and pickup trucks before shifting to help the war effort.
And help it did. During the war, Crosley assisted in the development and production of a radio-triggered proximity fuse for anti-aircraft shells that many military officers credit with helping win the war.
Enter The Hotshot (& Later, the Super Sports)
After World War II ended, Crosley Motors returned to making cars.
While early sales were promising, by the end of the 1940s Powel Crosley could sense that the market was shifting. The Great Depression was long gone and the postwar economy was about to hit its stride, which meant that interest in small, budget-friendly cars waned. And it was evident in the bottom line too: Crosley automobile sales began to slow—thanks in part to some issues related to Crosley’s innovative, yet finicky, copper-brazed COBRA engine (more on that in a sec).
Much like Harley Earl in the Corvette origin story, Crosley felt that prospective customers would welcome the thrill of a nimble, two-seat roadster. And so, eager to shake-off its image of cheap and dull transportation, Crosley Motors put the featherweight Hotshot sports car into production.
With some cost-cutting measures (like cutouts instead of actual doors), Hotshots were designed to be as affordable as their other Crosley stablemates. The body was basic, jokingly referred to as an upside-down bathtub, yet attractive all the same. And while its new CIBA engine made less than 30 horsepower, Hotshots were regarded as quick, likely thanks to a curb weight around 1,100 pounds.
The Hotshots were a bit longer than the other Crosleys, but they were still really small. Hotshots had an 85 inch wheelbase and were a scant 137 inches from stem-to-stern. They were low too, with the body riding on a dropped frame.
Original Hotshot models went on sale in 1949, and Crosley added the slightly upscale “Super Sports” models a year later, featuring amenities like real, opening doors and a more practical folding top.
Hotshots were front engine, rear wheel drive and boasted a few innovations—like hydraulic disc brakes at all four(!) wheels, long before most other mainstream manufacturers.
Though groundbreaking, the disc brake setup was borrowed from the aviation sector and suffered some reliability issues when used in automobile applications. Crosley soon reverted back to traditional brakes.
Heck, Crosley even adopted the name “Super Sports” (with the extra “s”) long before you’d see it attached to a Chevy, and was the first automaker to use the term “Sports Utility.”
And despite its frugal origins, the Hotshot was about to earn some real street cred.
Crosley Heads to the Track
Go ahead, look up the winner of the inaugural endurance race at Sebring.
Yup. It’s not a Ferrari, not a Jaguar, not a Porsche. It’s a Hotshot. (Though to be fair, the Hotshot was undoubtedly helped by the race’s performance index system that took into account things like engine size—but a win’s a win!)
In fighting trim, the Hotshot was slimmed down to under 1,000 pounds, which helped the 26 hp roadster maintain a 52 mph average speed around the then-new Sebring course.
But the Hotshot’s Sebring victory wasn’t the only line on Crosley’s racing resume. Crosley bodies were often used for altered dragsters and even a land speed racer or two. Crosley engines powered many cars to victory in SCCA competition throughout the 1950s as well. Later on, Crosley engines became the go-to powerplant for many race boats too, thanks to their excellent power-to-weight ratios.
From Two-Pot, to COBRA, to CIBA
After the war, Crosley Motors shifted away from the two-cylinder engines that powered its earlier, prewar models to focus on an all-new, innovative engine
Dubbed the “COBRA,” this radical motor was designed by Lloyd Taylor and featured a block made from stamped steel components. In fact, the engine block began as dozens of distinct parts that were copper brazed together (hence, CO-BRA) to create a single unit.
Efficient, relatively powerful, and extraordinarily lightweight, Powel Crosley was impressed with the design and felt it would be a perfect powerplant for his new cars. The engine was soon licensed to Crosley Motors and mass production began.
Beyond its innovative construction, the engine featured a gear-driven overhead camshaft, which made it a technological marvel for the time. It displaced 44 cubic inches and, depending on the application, produced between 26 and 36 horsepower.
Did we mention it was light? Publicity photos showed Powel Crosley himself carrying the block in his hands.
The engine was originally pressed into service during World War II, where it proved reliable when used in electrical generators.
Problem was, when it started being used in automobiles, the engine saw a much wider rev range. Couple that with some precise maintenance demands, and it wasn’t uncommon for COBRA engines to overheat and distort, resulting in leaks and (eventually) engine failure.
After a few years of customer complaints and slowing sales, Crosley Motors switched to a more traditional cast iron block (CIBA) and those earlier problems were largely mitigated, at the expense of a heavier engine.
Hotshots and Super Sports were powered by the newer iron block CIBA engine, but the COBRA was definitely worth mentioning here, simply as a fascinating engineering sidebar.
The End of Crosley Motors Inc.
As the American economy grew in the postwar era, the automotive buying public began to favor larger, better appointed cars. Demand for small, spartan automobiles ebbed early in the 1950s around the time that the Big Three’s new, modern cars started to hit dealerships.
And this market shift didn’t just impact Crosley—small cars targeted to budget-minded consumers like the Kaiser Henry J, Willys Aero, and Nash Rambler had limited success as well.
Unfortunately, Powel Crosley had all of his proverbial eggs in the economy car basket, and his automobile company couldn’t retool quick enough to revamp its lineup. After years of falling sales, Crosley Motors Inc. was shuttered for good in 1952. All told, it had produced over 80,000 automobiles, including the Hotshot and Super Sports models.
Yet the Crosley chapter in the book of automotive history remains an interesting one, packed with innovations, clever marketing…
…and America’s first postwar sports car.
If you found any of this interesting, check out the official website of the Crosley Automobile Club. It’s got a wealth of information on this oft-overlooked automaker.