The Chevrolet Corvette holds the title of America’s Sports Car, but it wasn’t America’s first postwar sports car. That honor belongs to the humble Crosley Hotshot of 1949.
Powel Crosley Jr. (1886-1961) made his vast fortune as a radio and appliance manufacturer, but in his heart he was always a car guy. Between 1939 and 1952 he drained a fair portion of his formidable bank account into the Crosley Motor Company, marketers of tiny but cleverly engineered passenger cars. Taking notice of the small but enthusiastic market after World War II for European-style sports cars, in 1949 Crosley introduced his own two-place roadster. The Hotshot is generally credited as the first American postwar sports car.
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The Hotshot was based on the standard Crosley passenger-car engine, suspension, and running gear, but sported a dedicated frame with a slightly longer 85-inch wheelbase. The pure and simple exterior sheet metal—no doors or deck lid, note—was reportedly designed by Crosley himself, with guidance from the famed industrial design firm of Sundberg Ferar, where Carl Sundberg was a personal friend. Interior appointments and instrument panel were equally spartan.
With a list price of only $849, the Hotshot was less than half the cost of a new MGTC, and with a curb weight of only 1175 lbs, performance was surprisingly perky, in spite of the dinky 44 cubic-inch engine. Stripped down for competition, with the windshield, bumpers, and other unnecessaries removed, racing weight dipped below 850 lbs. Early models sported aircraft-style Goodyear-Hawley caliper disc brakes, another industry first. But the primitive discs were incompatible with road salt and were soon replaced with conventional Bendix drum stoppers.
Tom McCahill, the dean of American automotive writers, road tested the Hotshot for the October 1949 issue of Mechanix Illustrated (above). Good old Uncle Tom gave the Hotshot a qualified but enthusiastic review, poor-mouthing the inadequate 12-inch wheels but naming the Crosley one of the 10 best sports cars on the market. “This new car is something to have fun with and enjoy, definitely not a vehicle to carry crepe at your grandmother’s funeral,” declared the loquacious McCahill. “It’s the poor man’s MG and zings along like a Mixmaster version of a Mercedes.”
Extra-cost options for the Hotshot included a radio and bolt-on door panels, and for 1950 a variant of the Hotshot with fully functional doors, called the Super Sports, was introduced. Somewhere close to 2,500 Hotshots and Super Sports were manufactured between 1949 and 1952, when the Marion, Indiana factory closed its doors and all car production ceased.
Of course, the beating heart of the Hotshot was its tiny but mighty engine. Shown above in this famous photo with Powel Crosley Jr. himself, the big man who loved small cars, the engine sported a 2.5-inch bore and 2.0-inch stroke, with a single overhead camshaft driven by a shaft and bevel gears. Early versions of the powerplant, originally developed as an auxiliary tender for PT boats and B-17 bombers, employed an integral block and head built up from furnace-brazed sheet-metal stampings. But when durability problems arose in civilian automotive use, a cast-iron block/head was substituted. Rated output was 26.5 horsepower, but for smallbore sports car enthusiasts, the potential seemed unlimited.
Perhaps the Hotshot’s proudest moment in production form was in the inaugural race at Sebring in 1950, then six hours rather than the traditional 12. There, a stock Hotshot owned by Tampa Crosley dealer Vic Sharp and driven by Bob Deshon and Fritz Koster (below) won an unlikely overall victory, which was based on an Index of Performance formula. But the Crosley performance legend doesn’t end there. All through the 1950s, Crosley ruled the H Modified, 750 cc category in SCCA sports car racing, supplying the engines and drivetrains for countless Crosley-based homebuilts. At vintage road racing events to this day, it’s rare not to see a Crosley special or two.