Let’s Talk Rusty Iron: Powel Crosley Jr’s Crosley Farm-O-Road was ahead of its time
Does anyone remember the Crosley Farm-O-Road? At the Indianapolis Speedway in April 1939, Powel Crosley Jr. introduced a new line of cars to the press. The tiny economy car made its public debut at the New York World’s Fair in June that year and was billed as “The Car of Tomorrow.”
Born in 1886, Powel Crosley Jr. had been fascinated by cars since he was a boy in Cincinnati. He tried to build cars, but his 6-cylinder Marathon never made it past the prototype stage in 1909, and the DeCross Cycle-Car of 1913 also failed.
Crosley then dreamed up and manufactured a tire re-liner to help solve the problems motorists were having with the tires of the day. The re-liners sold like hot cakes and Crosley enjoyed moderate success.
By 1919, tires had much improved and the sale of re-liners dropped. Crosley’s younger brother, Lewis, a graduate engineer who could get things done, joined Crosley after service in World War I. They made a good team, one that would last until the end: Powel dreamed up the ideas and, if they were at all practical, Lewis made them work.
To diversify, the brothers started making phonographs, which were all the rage at the time. Then, around 1920, the newfangled medium of radio began to sweep America. In February 1921, Powel’s 9-year-old son asked for a radio, or “wireless set,” as they were then called. Powel was outraged at the price of the cheapest sets, which, he observed, cost one-third as much as a Model T car.
Always one to sense an opportunity, Powel declared he could build a radio for half the price and jumped into the infant radio business. Before long, Crosley was cranking out inexpensive radios “for the masses, not the classes.” But for radios to sell, folks needed something to listen to, so Powel started a broadcasting station in Cincinnati and his sets flew off the shelves.
By the end of 1922, Powel Crosley was the largest manufacturer of radios in the world, owned radio station WLW in Cincinnati, and had become a multi-millionaire, with mansions, cars, yachts and his own airplane.
Branching out, Crosley got into refrigeration. His factories built millions of refrigerators, the most famous of which was the “Shelvador.” Long an avid baseball fan, in 1934, he became owner of the bankrupt Cincinnati Reds baseball team, which he still owned when he died in 1961. In spite of these accomplishments, Crosley was obsessed with the idea of giving America a small, inexpensive car and as early as 1934, he and his engineers began design work on a compact car that was 20 years ahead of its time.
The 1939 Crosley was powered by a Waukesha 2-cylinder, air-cooled engine of 35.3-cubic inch displacement. It had an 80-inch wheelbase, weighed just less than 1,000 pounds and rode on 4.25x12 inch tires. Initially available only as a convertible coupe for $350 ($5,688 today), a sedan, station wagon and pickup truck were offered starting in 1940. The soft-topped station wagon was driven across the U.S. and back by Cannonball Baker, averaging 50.4 mpg over 6,517.3 miles.
By then known as “The Car for the Forgotten Man,” Crosleys were sold by the same stores that handled Crosley appliances, including Macy’s in New York. Mrs. Averell Harriman was supposedly the first Macy’s customer to buy a Crosley. By the time production was halted after the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, only about 4,000 cars had been sold.
Shortly after the war, Crosley announced a new 4-cylinder, overhead-valve automobile engine that weighed only 59 pounds and produced 26 hp. The “COpper-BRAzed,” or “Cobra” engine was made of thin sheet-steel stampings, with the cylinder walls only 1/16-inch thick. The thin sheet-metal stampings and tubes were crimped together and brazed into a single piece by melting pure copper into all the joints and baking for an hour in a furnace.
Crosleys came in several models: convertible coupe, sedan, station wagon, panel and pickup truck, all equipped with the Cobra engine. But the sheet metal engine rusted out from inside and, in 1949, was replaced with a cast iron version. A sports model, the Hotshot, enjoyed a lot of success in sports car circles for a number of years, but generally Crosley cars sold poorly. During the late 1940s and ’50s, the American motoring public was interested only in bigger, more powerful and fancier cars, and the very practical, no frills but inexpensive Crosley held no appeal.
In August 1950, Crosley introduced the Crosley Farm-O-Road, designed “To do big jobs on small farms, and smaller jobs on big farms.” Created for rural customers who wanted a cheap, easy way to do the chores and go to town, the little utility vehicle looked like a baby brother to the Jeep, although the Crosley wasn’t four-wheel drive. With a wheelbase of only 63 inches, the Farm-O-Road was short! It had the standard 26.5 hp, 4-cylinder, overhead-valve engine that drove the rear wheels through a 4:1 auxiliary gearbox. Either rear wheel could be locked for short turns or to assist traction. It got almost 40 mpg and was said to be capable of 60 mph with two passengers, which probably seemed a lot faster in the tiny open car.
Base price of the Farm-O-Road was $795, while options included dual rear wheels, a pickup bed with or without hydraulic dump, front and rear PTO, hydraulic drawbar, top and side curtains, and a rear seat. Attachments (10-inch plow, spike tooth and disk harrows, planter, seeder and cultivator) were available, along with a sickle bar mower and a 3-gang reel mower.
The Crosley Farm-O-Road remained in the line from August 1950 until Crosley Motors Inc. went out of business in July 1952. Crofton Marine Engineering, San Diego, acquired the rights to build the vehicle and reproduced the Farm-O-Road as the Crofton Bug and the Crofton Brawny Bug from about 1959 until 1963. No one knows how many Farm-O-Roads were sold, but it’s estimated that between 200 and 250 Crofton Bugs were built.
With his tiny farm vehicle as with his compact cars, Powel Crosley was ahead of his time. Nowadays, many farmers use small, all-terrain vehicles to pull light loads and do chores, jobs for which the Crosley Farm-O-Road would have been ideal, especially if it had been upgraded with all-wheel drive. FC
Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email firstname.lastname@example.org.