America’s first compact car returns to West County
By: Kate Uptergrove
Chevy, Ford, Chrysler, Crosley – all great American cars. But you’ve never heard of Crosley, have you?
This “little car that could” was America’s first compact car. Built in Indiana from 1939 to 1952, Crosley cars could get up to 50 miles on a single gallon, be purchased for less than $1,000 and fit in the appliance aisle of a department store.
That last piece of information is key because Crosley cars were sold in Macy’s along with refrigerators and wash machines. Now, for a limited time, Crosley has returned to its roots – with a car on display at Macy’s in Chesterfield.
Nestled alongside designer fashions, the car seems slightly out of place, but it’s not until you realize that it’s sitting on the second floor of the store that you really do a double take.
Although the car is only 9 feet long and 48 inches wide, it still couldn’t maneuver the angles and aisles of today’s modern department store.
“So we brought it in through the only second floor entrance in the mall (the AMC Theatres entrance), and we pushed it down the walkway,” Dyer said.
He admitted that mall security wasn’t too thrilled to have a car “driving” through the mall, but the end result was worth it. Sitting in front of the second floor escalators the pale yellow, 1947 Crosley Sedan slightly resembles a modern Mini Cooper.
A free event at Macy’s Chesterfield on Saturday, Sept. 29 from noon-2 p.m. will allow a close up look at the car. Activities with a 1940s theme will include a photo booth, 40s-era costume packs and props for kids, a fashion show and dance lessons to the swinging tunes of a jukebox.
Nick Nicklin, of Creve Coeur, was a Crosley salesman back in the day. Today, he is a collector and one of his cars is part of a larger Crosley exhibit on display now through Nov. 3 at the Kemp Auto Museum.
Nicklin sold used Crosleys while in high school in Kansas City.
“My commission might be $24,” Nicklin said. “And you didn’t sell that many, but I also worked in a grocery store for 50 cents an hour, so I thought commission was pretty good.”
When he earned enough money, he bought his first car – a Crosley, of course.
“Driving a Crosley was like advertising you were poor,” Nicklin said, laughing. “It was like saying, ‘All we could afford was a Crosley.’”
But his affection for the brand cannot be denied. In fact, he may be one of the leading authorities on the cars and the man who made them.
“Crosley had the first sports car,” Nicklin said. “The Hot Shot. It beat the Corvette to the market by three years.”
Like Nicklin, Bill Bicknell, of Rolla, and his wife, Ina, have a fondness for all things Crosley.
“I think the merchandising was the most interesting thing about these cars,” Bicknell said.
Powell Crosley, the inventor and manufacturer, had a passion for cars Bicknell said, but he was also a successful manufacturer of radios, refrigerators and other appliances.
“He was the one who put shelves in refrigerator doors,” Bicknell explained. “He called it the shelvador. And he was the premier radio producer prior to WWII.”
As the story goes, Crosley’s son wanted a radio but the device was too expensive for Crosley’s liking, so he figured out how to make a cheaper one. Then, to get the most bang for his buck, he built America’s most powerful radio station, WLW.
“It operated on 500,000 watts,” Nicklin said. “KMOX only had 50,000 watts.”
Ina added, “Some of the really big stars of the day got their start on WLW – Rosemary Clooney. She was the Oprah Winfrey of her day.”
Both Nicklin and the Bicknells agree that Crosley was an interesting man and the cars he made are worth a trip to Kemp this fall.
“They’re part of America’s history,” Nicklin said, “one many people know nothing about.”