Monday, December 29, 2008

The Ones That Got Away

I try not to obsessively check Craigslist and ebay multiple times a day.  I don't have the time, money or space to properly maintain the small army of Crosleys that I already have, so I certainly don't need any more.   But, it's a losing battle.  I hate the thought of something really neat slipping by, and I delude myself that if i get a new car I'll surely get rid of one of the others to make room.


In the end I do seem to turn up a few cars each year that, in a perfect world, I would own.  This year there were three.

This isn't a photo of the actual 1951 wagon I missed this spring, but I didn't save a picture of that one, and this is pretty close.   When this beautifully fixed up wagon (with rebuilt engine no less) popped up on CL for $3K, less than 100 miles from my house, I sprang.  There was no number in the ad so I sent several emails and waited impatiently, only to have the seller call to say that the car had sold.  Only then did we realize that we'd traded several emails a few years back.  He said that the new owner was a young guy who seemed excited about his purchase and couldn't wait to join the Crosley Club.   He was glad that the car had gone to 'new blood'.

It was less than a week later that I spied the car again, this time on Ebay.  The seller lovingly detailed the car's history and restoration process, evincing sadness that the time had come to part with it as though he'd owned it forever.  No mention that he'd owned it less than a week, and naturally, the minimum bid was way over what he'd paid.  To be a pain in the ass I called the guy and asked lots of questions, waiting for him to mention the real story.   He came across as a complete snake oiler... unsurprising given the snow job he'd given the old owner.  

I mean c'mon- I don't mind somebody getting a deal, but he had to know the guy he bought it from would see it for sale a week later.  "Yes sir, I can't wait to join that Crosley Club."   Lame.    One note: when I talked to the ebay seller, I didn't bother to point out the piles of speed equipment on the motor, and the many other rare parts that he obviously had no clue about.    In the end, somebody else got a deal too.

The next car I missed was one I've been watching for a long long time.  The Art Babin Super Sport emerged about two years ago after 50 years in storage.  I responded to a vague sale posting about a Crosley Hotshot with race history back in early 2007.  A car nut named Steven George had inherited the car (along with a whole batch of race cars) from a car buddy and didn't know too much about it other than it had been raced and it was in some old magazines and even a Crosley ad.  

The mention of the ad rang a bell with me, and i began to wonder if it was the car that I'd seen one photo of and had always thought of as the prototype for my own Super Sport.  That car had tasteful, sensible modifications: opened front wheel wells, scooped doors, lowered windshield-- and a supercharger.   I'd always wondered what had become of that car, and the more I talked to Steven George, the more I thought I'd figured it out.   He soon sent some photos, and confirmed exactly what i'd thought: it was the same car.

Art Babin was a Crosley Distributor from NY who liked racing.  When Crosley introduced  the Hotshot he began to think of competition as a way of promoting his business and boosting sales.  Stock Crosleys were soon outclassed on the tracks of the early 1950s and Babin responded by doing what most did: he modified.   The 1952 Super Sport that he set up for racing had a reworked frame, an Austin 4 Speed trans and the aforementioned Italmeccanica supercharger, resulting in a top speed of 102 mph and several class wins.  Perhaps most historically significant, the car took second in class at Watkins Glen.  Babin hoped to set up shop building Babin Super Sports, but the demise of Crosley put an end to the dream.

The car continued to be raced until it was retired in 1956.  George's friend the sportscar collector bought the car around this time and stored it with his collection of Allards, Porsches and other assorted thoroughbreds.  The car didn't see the light of day again until George inherited it from his friend-- with under 3000 miles on the clock.

Though I really couldn't afford the nine grand Steven was asking for the car, it was the historical significance that kept me from trying too hard to buy it.   Yes, I'm a Crosley nut, and yes, I have spent probably 10 hours staring at that one photo of this very car over the years.  But, in the end I realized that as much as I liked the car, it would be better off in the hands of someone else... someone who didn't want to drive it in street traffic and who probably had a climate controlled garage and who would actually take it out on a race track where it belonged.
Still, that didn't stop me from calling Steve every few months to make sure that it was still there... just in case.  It took the better part of two years, but I did finally see that it recently  sold to someone in Texas, and I hope to someday see photos of it sliding through the curves amidst a hoard of like-vintage sporting machines.

This is the first Crosley I ever saw.

Gordon Becher was a true Crosley man.  Gordon knew more about Crosleys than I will ever learn, even if I spend the next 40 years trying.  He owned about a half dozen Crosleys and had even bought out the parts inventory at the Crosley dealership in his hometown!   The '48 sedan above was his first car.  He bought it in the mid fifties and kept it until the day he died. 

I first saw the car drive past me at an auto swap in the mid nineties.  The strange whirring engine noise made me look, and even though I'd only read abut Crosleys at that point I knew that's what it had to be because, I thought, "nothing else is that ugly."  Gordon drove that car to the auto swap, to work, wherever.  He painted it with a brush in the early sixties and installed a tape deck sometime in the seventies.  It may have looked a bit rough around the edges, but it ran perfectly.

I finally met Gordon when I started looking for a Crosley.  He helped me know what to look for and even gave me some leads on cars with the proviso that if I didn't buy them I couldn't tell anyone else about them.  When I finally dragged home 10 boxes of Super Sport he was the first person I called to come take a look.  Of course he drove up in the '48.

Gordon died of cancer in 1998.  I had known that he was sick, but didn't realize it was as serious as it was until I ran into him at an auto swap.  He was unable to speak, but tried to smile and shook my hand for a long time.  He was gone less than two weeks later.

Gordon's son Keith inherited an unbelievable assortment of Crosley gunk.  Though not initially a Crosley fanatic, he soon became one.  Keith usually brings some of Gordon's collection to the West Coast Club Meet, but lately he's been bringing cars of his own.  Gordon owned a prewar Crosley, and Keith really connected with that two cylinder runabout.  He's acquired a few more of them over the past few years, and has focused most of his Crosleying on those earlier models.

I was pretty surprised when Gordon's sedan showed up for sale on ebay last month.  It just never occurred to me that Keith would part with the car.  Unfortunately, he'd run out of room and  something had to go.  The '48 was it.  

I tried to figure out a way to buy the car, but by the time I'd noticed the auction there wasn't enough time for me to scramble my finances or my storage situation in time.   Even if I had  bought the car I'd have had to put it outside, at least for a while.  Reluctantly, I let it go; I know that I'm really going to regret that one day.

Gordon's sedan sold for $3000.  Somebody got a deal, and I hope they realize that they got more than that too.

All in all, I can' t complain.  Even if I missed these, I did manage to get the one car that I was most excited about this year, but I'll save that for another post.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Speaking of Harry Eyerly...

Another site I check almost every day is Bring a Trailer.  The host profiles interesting cars that he has found available for sale, with a heavy focus on vintage sports cars.

This morning, what should show up on BaT but a vintage Crosley HMod project for sale!  The Unicorn is a 1952 Crosley special, originally built in SF.  I've seen CL postings for this car and tried to contact the owner, but never got a call back.  Probably for the best since I have enough projects (as you may have noticed!)

I'm very jealous that whoever buys this car will have access to all of these gorgeous vintage photos of the car in its heyday... I have almost no provenance for any car that I own.  Of course the first thing I noticed in the photo above (Laguna Seca, 1957) was that the Unicorn is lined up right in front of the Eyerly Special mentioned in the post below.   As cool as the Unicorn is, I'll still bet Eyerly lapped him.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Beginning of a Mystery

I read an online bulletin board about vintage H Modified racecars pretty much every day.   'H Modified' was the racing class designation (500 - 750 cc) that most Crosley-powered sports cars fell into back in the fifties, when racing a Crosley was something much more common than one might suspect.  The Crosley Hotshot and Super Sports models were aimed at the emerging US sports car market, and, despite flaws, did pretty well when first introduced.  A bone stock Crosley Hotshot won the very first internationally sanctioned US sports car race-- the 1950 Sebring Race-- and set in motion the dreams of thousands of American sports car fans who suddenly found a true sports car that was within reach of their finances.  

That moment when a stock Crosley Hotshot was actually competitive on the track lasted all of about ten minutes.  Before long, racers were dumping that heavy steel body in favor of a handmade fiberglass or aluminum one, adding extra carburetors and bigger wheels, and doing everything allowed in the SCCA rulebooks, and then some.  By the mid fifties, homebuilt Crosley 'specials' dominated the H Mod class, wiping up the track with the smallbore Euro machines that they were competing against.   The mid fifties was the heyday of the Crosley homebuilt, with geniuses like Harry Eyerly racking up win after win, often against cars with twice the engine displacement!  Eyerly didn't earn the nickname the Porsche Duster for nothing! 

Successful backyard specials (of all kinds, not just Crosleys) were very common in Class H racing all the way up into the early sixties when racing became much more professionalized. By that time high end small displacement racers like the Osca were making even the best homebuilts obsolete, and many one-time trophy-winning cars were stuck in barns, backyards, garages or junkyards because their value as competition cars was nil.

The H Mod bulletin board I frequent is populated by people who never lost their love for those tiny underhorsed racers of yore.  Some posters were active racers back in the fifties, and are eager to share their knowledge and their memories.  A larger group of posters restore old sportscars and race vintage H Modified cars in historic auto racing events.  I pretty much listen and stay out of the way.  The knowledge that floats by in any given week is astonishing-- absolutely valueless to 99.99% of even the auto-enthusiast world, but absolutely essential to people who are trying to learn as much as possible about these tiny bolides.

As I was lurking last March, a very interesting post showed up with the header, 'Can anyone identify this car?'  A guy was trying to help the widow of an old friend sell a vintage Renault racecar project that had been lingering since at least 1973.  There was a link to a few tantalizing photos and a line that the car had originally been built with a Crosley sheet metal engine....

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

At the Printer!

Along with all of my other projects I also find time to edit the West Coast Crosley Club newsletter, the Tin Block Times.   I'm lucky that several of the other members contribute material as well, and my pal RH does the layout.   The best part of the gig is that I get first dibs on all of the stuff in the classified ads!

The latest issue (emphasis on late) is at the printer now and should be in the mail this weekend.  I ended up with a pile of material about the West Coast's 2008 regional meet, so most of the issue is devoted to coverage of the club's event.  

I'm not a joiner.  I was in the Tennis Club for about two days in high school, and my folks stuck me in Demolay (a Masonic youth group- and no, they didn't tell us the true identity of Jack the Ripper) when I was 13 or so, but that's about it.  For whatever reasons, organized groups never really clicked with me.

Except for the Crosley Club.  I joined way back in 1997 when I met a few local guys who heard about my ads looking for a Crosley.  They were unequivocal:  join the Crosley Club.   I did.... first the national group, and then the West Coast Regional group.   Becoming part of those two clubs opened a whole world to me.  Unlike most car clubs, where there is at least some element of machismo, one-upmanship or class snobbery, the Crosley Club is almost perversely welcoming and supportive of anybody who cares about these cars.  Machismo?  Not with 26 horses under the hood.  One-upmanship?  With what?... another Crosley?  Class snobbery?  With the 'Car for the Forgotten Man'?  

I found myself in a brotherhood of oddballs who had a deep and genuine devotion to an absurdly humble little car that had been forgotten for nearly half a century, and was regarded as a joke by most of those who remembered.    From the moment i joined the club, I was in. People I'd never met offered help, advice, and even rare parts that they'd been hoarding since the Eisenhower adminstration.  I've never met a group of people as sincere, helpful and, well, uh, peculiar as the members of the Crosley Club.   I'm proud to be a member.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Up, up and away

Powell Crosley seemed never to take absurdity into account when greenlighting designs for his line of cars.  "Four feet wide?  Great!" "Door flies open on turns?  Put a good handle on it." "A propeller hood ornament that spins as you drive?  Brilliant!"

And, although Crosley did offer a spinning propeller on his '51 -'52 models, he at least had the sense not to offer an automobile that actually flew.

Moulton Taylor, father of the of AeroCar, was not so timid.  He actually managed to build (and fly!) a half dozen of his flying cars in the late fifties.  The body design shares some similarities with '46-'48 Crosley sedans... perhaps unsurprising since Crosley bodies were popular with drag racers for their aerodynamics.   In other words, the AeroCar was also a mighty funny looking vehicle.  But it worked.

Taylor had a pretty great marketing sense and managed to land one in actor Bob Cumming's possession-- Cummings used the Aerocar on his show, and generated a lot of interest in the car.  A deal was struck to put the Aerocar into production, but the failure to secure 500 dealers for the vehicle cancelled the deal.   The surprising part is that he had well over 200 dealers signed on with $1000 from each.  Like so many dream cars, the dream died aborning.

Ok, so they are rare.  Rarer than rare.  Even historic, perhaps.  But, does that make this one worth 3.5 million dollars?  I'd guess not.  Still, if I had a few billion to burn...

And, this begs the question-- if a flying car with a production run of 6 is worth 3.5 million bucks, what's the value of a flying car with a production run of two?

The ConvAIRCAR was built and flown just after World War II.  Fiberglass-bodied, like the AeroCar, the ConvAIRCAR looked as futuristic as the concept of a flying car actually was.  The car itself weighed under 750 pounds without the wing and prop assembly attached, and got 45 mpg-- in 1947!  The secret to that high mileage lay under the ConvAIRCAR's plastic hood-- Lloyd Taylor's amazing lightweight Crosley CoBra engine, the same motor powering thousands of Crosley cars on the roads of the time. 

Sadly, a long future was not in the cards for the ConvAIRCAR either.  A few days after a highly successful debut flight, an error caused the pilot to run out of fuel midflight, forcing an emergency landing.  The pilot survived, but the ConvAIRCAR prototype was destroyed.  A second car was built, but time had run out.  

How much would a ConvAIRCAR be worth today?  We'll never know-- the only surviving car was destroyed in a fire at the San Diego Air and Space Museum... reduced, like so many dreams, to melted muck and rust.

Friday, December 5, 2008

First Post!

My wife Liv made the short film above just about a year ago.  My wife is not a car geek.  Anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that I spend an inordinate amount of time looking at, thinking about,tinkering with, or talking about old cars.  Given that she gets way more of this than she needs under usual circumstances, she was mildly dreading the idea of spending a weekend surrounded by car nerds in Minden, Nevada.  To give herself a project (and fulfill a needed credit in her grad program) she decided to document the experience.  CrosleyKook is the result. 

My family loves CrosleyKook.  It functions as a sort of rosetta stone to understanding my obsession with one of the most obscure- and ridiculous- auto marques in history.  They still look at each other and shake their heads a lot.

There are a few minor inaccuracies in the film that hardcore Crosley nerds might get.  For one thing, Crosley tires do now cost a little bit more than twelve bucks.  Another minor goof is that I did miss one Crosley meet in the past 10 years-- in 1999, when my band had an offer to tour Europe.  As ridiculous as it might sound, I actually had to weigh missing the Crosley Meet vs. European Tour.  Tour won.  Barely.

And, the biggest inaccuracy is the impression that I still drive a Crosley every day.  The truth is that I haven't even turned the key in months.  I dragged that car out of a barn in 1998, got it running the next day, and drove the snot out of it for several years thereafter.  Other than eventually  rewiring it (keeping the stock 6 volt positive ground, natch), I didn't do anything other than general maintenance.  In 2000 I put the infamous $12 tires on (to replace the 40 year old bias plys that were on it when I bought it) and drove it 700 miles (rt) to the Crosley Meet in Morro Bay.   That whole story is documented on the website my friend RH created for me, the Crosley Report.  We've all forgotten the passwords now, so that site will just exist as is in limbo forever I guess.

the ole '49 (and yes, it's a '49 despite the propeller) is pretty tired.  I've been getting along with scavenging used brake parts for years, and the whole brake system is just junk at this point.  Plus, the rear main seal leaks profusely, and - lucky me- the oil runs back along the frame, down the axle and straight onto the passenger side rear brake shoes.   I did finally order a box of brand new brake stuff... so I need to pull the engine, replace the main seal, swap that bad ring gear you hear in the opening of the movie, put the engine back in, yank brake shoes, springs and cables, replace and readjust all, and then she'll be ready for the road again.   Oh yeah, and the original gas tank is gone and I've got a portable one out of a boat that's been sliding around in the boot for the past 10 years.  That should get fixed too.  It'll just take time, which, along with workshop space, is what I'm shortest on these days. 

So, a blog.  If I can't really spend as much time as I'd like working on the car(s) I can at least fondle them in cyberspace.