- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 2, 2004

Powell Crosley envisioned a tiny, lightweight economy car unlike anything Detroit was manufacturing. However, by 1951 even he knew the end was near for the diminutive car he had created just before World War II.

Because civilian automobile production had ceased in February 1942, car-starved Americans after the war would buy virtually anything on wheels with an engine attached. Crosleys sold fairly well for a few years until supply caught up with demand.

In 1951 a 1,370-pound Super Sedan 2nd had a base price of $1,033 and a 26.5-horsepower, four-cylinder engine. A full-size 3,043-pound 1951 Ford had a base price of $1,417 and had a 100-horsepower V-8 engine. A 1951 Cadillac, by contrast, weighed 4,062 pounds, had a base price of $3,528 and had a 160-horsepower V-8 engine under the hood.

Is it any wonder that Crosley failed?

A total of 6,614 Crosleys were built in 1951 before the end came the following year.

In the late 1950s John Van Sickle’s father operated an Amoco service station in New Philadelphia, Ohio, across the state from Cincinnati, where Crosleys were manufactured. Mr. Van Sickle often helped out around his father’s station. The station’s service “truck” was an old Crosley on which a couple of big batteries had been mounted. More often than not, when a customer’s car wouldn’t start, a visit from the Crosley and a pair of jumper cables fixed the problem.

A decade later, in the late 1960s, Mr. Van Sickle realized he missed the old Crosley and began looking for one to buy.

Because Crosleys are near the bottom of the automotive food chain, they usually are junked after their useful life — which makes finding a nice one more than difficult.

After about 10 years of checking out countless disappointing Crosleys, Mr. Van Sickle began advertising nationally. In February 1977 a junkyard owner in Basking Ridge, N.J., telephoned to ask, “You the guy looking for a Crosley?”

Mr. Van Sickle answered in the affirmative. He was told that the car was a 1951 sedan that was more or less complete. “There’s a rod through the pan and the top is smashed down from kids jumping on it,” he was informed.

If he wanted it, he’d better hurry. Otherwise, it was going to the crusher.

Mr. Van Sickle quickly enlisted the aid of a friend and the two drove a pickup truck to New Jersey to inspect the junkyard Crosley.

Where others saw worn-out junk Mr. Van Sickle saw a diamond in the rough and he was the man to restore the sparkle to this gem. The original spare tire was still slung in its cradle under the car.

After purchasing the bedraggled red Crosley, Mr. Van Sickle rented a two-wheel dolly and purchased a pair of boat trailer lights which he attached, via long wires, to the rear of the Crosley to make it legal while being towed.

An ice storm had followed them up to New Jersey and turned all the roads into skating rinks. The 300-mile trip home to Manassas took 20 hours to complete.

“This is an early 1951 model,” Mr. Van Sickle explains. Numbers on the car indicate that it was the 26th Crosley built for 1951.

The first order of business was to return the 44-cubic-inch L-head four-cylinder engine to working condition. A two-blade fan struggles to keep the engine cool while two quarts of oil fill the crankcase with an extra half-quart for the oil filter.

With that task complete, he removed the cardboard headliner and restored the roofline to something resembling the original.

In that condition he drove his Crosley about Manassas on its 80-inch wheelbase for about a year, he recollects.

During a visit when his father saw the car, he first uttered, “Are you insane?” That was quickly followed by “Isn’t that beautiful.”

Mr. Van Sickle began to disassemble his 12-foot-long Crosley in 1978 and in three years had acompletely restored 1951 car that is, in actuality, better than it was originally.

In 1951 the Crosley was delivered as a deluxe model with a chrome propeller affixed to the center of the grille. The propeller would spin as the car was driven.

The car also had two windshield wipers, a heater and a suction-cup ashtray. “I just wish I had a chrome suction cup ashtray,” Mr. Van Sickle laments. To the base price were added extra costs for transportation and a spare tire and tube.

During restoration a few surprises cropped up.

There was no key to the lock securing the spare tire under the car so he sought out a locksmith to see if a key could bemanufactured.

After the locksmith quit laughing, he told Mr. Van Sickle that the lock on his Crosley was the same one that was used on gumball machines. A standard key for a gumball machine lock handily opens the Crosley spare-tire lock.

While stripping off the red paint he discovered that his 4-foot-wide vehicle left the factory with May Green paint and Cantor Cream wheels. The blackwall tires are 4.50x12 inches.

The three-speed floor shift manual transmission is nonsynchronized. “If you don’t double clutch,” Mr. Van Sickle says, “it will leave you.”

At 70 miles per gallon, the 8-gallon gasoline tank provides enough fuel for well over a range of 500-miles.

The backdrop for the speedometer is orange to alert the driver.

“I’ve had it up to 65 mph,” Mr. Van Sickle says. “When a truck goes by, it lifts the car. It’s scary.” When that happens, he tightly grips the three-spoke, 15-inch-diameter steering wheel and swears he’ll never again drive his Crosley on the highway.

By the driver’s left knee, tucked away under the dashboard, is the noncanceling turn signal switch. The seats are upholstered with English broadcloth.

Visibility from inside the car is somewhat limited by the 11-inch-high windows.

Below the rear window, in the middle of the trunk lid — if the car had a trunk lid — is a jewelled red reflector like you used to put on your bicycle. Below that, on a horizontal strip of Chrome in red paint is emblazoned “CROSLEY.” On a vertical strip of chrome below that is Crosley’s motto: “A FINE CAR.”

Mr. Van Sickle did not purchase and restore his car as a garage ornament. For him, it brings back fond memories.

“Wherever I drive it,” he says, “it always makes people smile.”

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