1951 Crosley LeMans Race Car

Powel Crosley Jr’s impact on the American automobile business is far more significant than his diminutive cars might suggest. Crosley cars were decades ahead of their time, and Powel led his eponymous car company to many notable industry “firsts,” including the first mass-produced overhead-cam engine, the first post-war American sports car, and the first production car with four-wheel disc brakes. Despite domestic buyers’ general indifference toward compact cars, Crosley persevered long enough to peak at nearly 30,000 units per year in the late 1940s. High-revving Crosley engines were surprisingly powerful for their size and dominated several 750cc sports and Formula Junior categories throughout the 1950s.

In 1950, the SCCA sanctioned the first racing event at an abandoned airbase in Sebring, Florida. The inaugural Sam Collier Memorial Sebring Grand Prix of Endurance was a six-hour event, based on a complex handicap system meant to balance the field regardless of engine size, called the “Index of Performance.” Vic Sharpe was in attendance with his new 726 cc Crosley Hotshot, which was a last-minute entry after his friends suggested the handicap could favor its tiny displacement. With Fritz Koster and Ralph Deshon sharing the driving duties, the Hotshot ran a steady, consistent race, screaming down the back straight at 7,500 RPM but not missing a beat for the entire six hours. After the calculations, the tiny Crosley won overall, scoring a surprise victory against a field of Ferraris, Aston Martins, and Allards.

Crosley’s upset win caused more than a few raised eyebrows in racing circles, including two friends, Phil Stiles and George Schrafft. Stiles was the first race chairman and course designer at Sebring, and he worked with Schrafft in the imported car business. Over a couple of what Stiles described as “pretty violent” martinis, the two joked about the Crosley upsetting the might of the Allards and Cunninghams. During their chat, Stiles’ wife suggested they could contest the Index of Performance at the 24 Hours of Le Mans as a Works effort - only she wasn’t joking. In a brief and likely sobering moment, Schrafft and Stiles figured they could indeed bring a humble little Crosley to the most famous and grueling motor race in the world, and this remarkable racing car would soon be born.

Stiles and Schrafft faced two obvious barriers from the get-go. They not only needed a car, but they also required official entry into the race. Stiles put his French language skills to good use and crafted a letter to the Automobile Club de l’Ouest claiming to represent Crosley Motors. Concurrently, they sent a letter to Crosley stating they’d secured a slot at Le Mans for a works entry, and all that was needed was the factory’s blessing. Somehow, both sides of the scheme worked. French organizers were eager for another American team and welcomed their entry, and Lewis M. Crosley appointed Schrafft and Stiles as official representatives of Crosley Motors for the Le Mans 24 hour race. Now all they needed was a car.

Unlike the relatively standard Sebring car, the Le Mans Crosley is a considerably more sophisticated, purpose-built racing car. Stiles and Schrafft hired legendary Indy car and midget builder Floyd “Pop” Dreyer of Indianapolis to create lightweight bodywork and revised suspension. Fresh from Dreyer’s shop, the pair hauled the car to Cincinnati, where Crosley installed a new, high-performance engine. According to Stiles, Powel Crosley told them they could run it to 7,500 rpm for 24 hours with confidence, but suggested they don’t shift gears since he had little faith in the Borg-Warner 3-speed gearbox!

Arriving in France, the Crosley team must have felt more than a bit under-prepared compared to the highly professional Cunningham squad. After all, aside from their car, Stiles and Schrafft had only their female companions, a suitcase full of spares and tools, and one friend to help with wrenching duties. During scrutineering, they overheard a spectator with an American accent in the crowd and hired him on the spot to help crew the car. While testing, Stiles deemed the headlights woefully underpowered, so they added a pair of powerful Marchal units, but the Marchal generator was not up to the task. At the last minute, Schrafft arranged for his girlfriend to go to Paris to collect a more robust American generator. But she ran into a bit of trouble after spending all the train fare he gave her and getting stranded – with the desperately needed new generator – at a Paris station.

With the race underway, the Jaguar C-Types, Ferrari 166s, and Cunningham C2Rs sped off into the distance, but much to the surprise and delight of the French fans, the tiny, slightly awkward little Crosley managed to lap consistently at an impressive 73mph. Phil and George took Powel Crosley’s advice to heart, leaving the car in top gear and chucking it around corners, dirt-track style. The midget-racer rear tires – chosen for their larger diameter to raise the final drive –suited the sideways driving style. After six hours of trouble-free running, entertaining the crowds, and challenging for the class lead, disaster struck. The bearings on the worrisome Marchal generator seized in spectacular fashion, causing the bracket to snap and the whole unit to twist on itself, crossing wires and starting a fire. Using the passenger seat cushion as a shield, Stiles limped back to the pits for service. Unfortunately, the generator shaft of the Crosley CIBA engine also drove the water pump, and it had snapped. The crew hastily bypassed the pump, hoping that gravity and airflow would keep it running, but their efforts were in vain, and at 9 PM, the little Crosley ground to a halt for the final time, with the French fans letting out an audible sigh of disappointment.

While this could have easily been the end of the story of this extraordinary little car, the ever-determined Phil Stiles wasn’t ready to head home. After the race, he repaired the water pump and generator and set off on a cross-continental adventure with his wife. A hand-written note in the history file tracks their incredible journey across France, Switzerland, Italy, and back again – all in the open cockpit, 55-horsepower Crosley racer. On their way back through France, they stumbled upon the Alpine Rally, and cheekily “competed” in a few stages, no doubt confusing the organizers in the process! Despite plans to return to Le Mans, the spirited Crosley team never returned to the French Classic. In a January 1952 letter, Powel Crosley admitted sales were down, and the automobile division was losing money, so the resources to support a race team were no longer available.

After a couple of appearances in regional events in the 1950s, the Crosley quietly retired but stayed on the radar of dedicated enthusiasts, including the previous owner. He founded the Crosley Automobile Club in 1969 and, in the late 1980s, finally acquired the Crosley racer he chased for so many years. As he found it, the Pops Dreyer body was untouched (his badge is still on the cowl), and the drivetrain was in 1952 spec, shortly after being converted to a 4-speed Fiat gearbox. With some minor preparation, the new caretaker raced it extensively in VSCCA events in the East. It retains its official logbook, with entries spanning from 1986 to 2007. He reported the car to be delightful to drive, with exceptional handling, particularly on tight circuits like the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix. Minor modifications include a twin-choke Weber downdraught carburetor, although period single-choke carbs are included. Aside from a few concessions for safety, the car is remarkably original condition – down to the Crosley hubcaps and Marchal headlamps fitted in France.

Accompanying this delightful and extraordinary little Crosley is a fascinating history file complete with personal notes and transcripts from Phil Stiles, copies of letters from Crosley Motors, correspondence with the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, period photos of the car on the grid and in action at Le Mans, and period news clippings. This is a one-off opportunity to acquire one of the most fascinating and entertaining machines from the golden age of American sports car racing.


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