By Brian Earnest
When Dave Anspach gets wound up recounting the unlikely tale of his 1951 Crosley Hot Shot, it’s hard not to interrupt him. At various points in the amazing rags-to-riches tale of his happy little roadster, he is sure to get stopped with reactions like “No Way!”, “Are you serious?” and “Get outta here!”
It’s simply hard to imagine that Anspach, a rookie in the old car hobby at the time, bought a super-cheap make and model of car he had never even seen before, dragged it across the country to his home, found a bunch of other guys who knew something about the car, and somehow magically morphed the little Crosley into a beautiful show car. These days, his little red gem regularly lines up with cars 100 times more valuable — literally — and often leaves with best-in-class concours hardware.
It’s a story with a happy ending that just keeps going. But the way Anspach figures it, if a story involves a Crosley, it has to be a happy tale. “We have a saying in the Crosley Club that Crosleys make you smile,” Anspach chuckles. “Well, I expand on that: ‘I’m not sure if you’re laughing at me or laughing with me, but I know you’re laughing.’ Crosleys do make you smile.”
Anspach is grinning a lot these days as president of the Crosley Automobile Club Inc. and the owner of 12 Crosleys himself. He says his fascination with the cars began, unwittingly, back in the 1970s when he was in college. “I had heard of Crosleys at the time, I guess,” he recalled, “but I had a friend who raced English sports cars and I tooled around with him a lot, and I remember saying one day, ‘It’s a shame no American company made sports cars.’ And he said, ‘They did. The Crosley Hot Shot won at Sebring.’
“So I put that away in the back of my mind and figured some day I’d come back to it. Well, 20 years later, I went looking for one. I told my wife one day that I’m going looking for a toy. At that point, I had never even seen one!”
Anspach, a resident of tiny Blandon, Pa., soon began what would be a long-time kinship with members of the Crosley Club and it wasn’t long before he was told about a Hot Shot for sale in Gilbert, Ariz. Anspach didn’t care much what the car looked like, or what kind of shape it was in. He wanted it, and that was that.
“My son-in-law was working in Arizona at the time and he swung by and picked it up. I talked to the guy who was selling the car and I arranged to buy a small open trailer that was for sale just down the street … The whole thing was $1,250. My son-in-law picked it up and hauled it to their home in Des Moines, Iowa. I flew out there, rented a tow vehicle and towed it home. My wife looked at it and said, ‘What are you gonna do with that piece of junk?’ I said, ‘I’m going to rebuild it,’ and she said, ‘Yeah, right.’ I honestly don’t think she saw it again until two years later when I almost had it done.”
Every Crosley needs a fun story behind it, and Anspach’s little Hot Shot had one. “It had actually seen its last usage as a service car at a drive-in movie theater in Gilbert, Ariz.!” he said. Today, such a task would probably be reserved for an electric golf cart or ATV, but back then, “It was apparently small enough to get in between the rows,” Anspach reckons. “But then, after the movie screen had stopped operating, it sat outside behind the screen for about 30 years, when the next generation of the family that owned it hauled it into a shed. They had the intention of doing something with it, but it sat there another three years. They had a son that wanted to make a street rod out of it, but the dad said that if he could get a certain price for it, he’d give the kid the money and somebody else gets to restore it. It went up for sale in the morning and I wound up buying it that same day in the afternoon.”
Anspach still isn’t totally sure what prompted him to latch onto the Crosley as his hobby car of choice, but some things are just meant to be. One Crosley after another has made it into his garage and his fleet, and all because that first one made such a permanent impression. Even though the Hot Shot was originally in terrible shape and needed almost everything, it was so much fun to patch up and put back together that Anspach was hooked for good. A big part of the appeal turned out to be the friendships he made with other Crosley owners from far and wide.
“I spent about two years of evenings and weekends restoring it … No, I didn’t have a clue when I started,” he recalled. “If it wasn’t for the Crosley Automobile Club I wouldn’t have had any idea what direction I was going … I was extremely fortunate that the premier Crosley engine mechanic in the world lives just up the road from me here — Barry Seel. He and Chuck Koehler are both excellent Crosley mechanics and both are more than happy to share guidance, etc. I can’t tell you how instrumental they were. And the Crosley website — I can’t say I ever posted something in there and waited more than 24 hours for an answer.
“I mean this sincerely: they are the greatest bunch of people I’ve ever been associated with. If they’ve got it and they can spare it, it’s OK for you to get it. I know guys that go to our national show and probably spend 75 percent of their time working on somebody else’s car.”
The Chevrolet Corvette has always been known as the “great American sports car,” but the tiny, no-frills Hot Shot was actually the first real postwar sports car to be assembled on U.S. soil. From 1949 to 1952, a total of 2,498 of the roadsters were built in what was a fairly radical departure from the company’s strategy of building bare-bones mini-sedans. Crosley stepped out of character with the Hot Shot with its cut-out door openings, two seats, MG-like profile and decidedly European personality.
It rode on an 85-inch-wheelbase chassis, which was five inches longer than the other Crosleys. At the corners were little 4.5 x 12 tires with a spare mounted above the back bumper due to lack of a trunk. Freestanding headlamps peered out from a rounded front end. The small hood lid concealed a 26-hp, 44-cubic-inch four-cylinder with a cast-iron block. The driver and passenger each rode in low-back bucket seats and looked through a slanted, once-piece rectangular windshield. To really spruce things up, buyers could add a heater and defroster, radio, antenna, bumper guards, seat covers and turn signals.
The Hot Shots had no doors in 1949, but in 1950, for the model’s second year, a Super Hot Shot was introduced that featured small doors on either side and script on the body sides. The Super Hot Shots were renamed Super Sports in 1951 and ’52.
Overall, the cars changed very little during their four-year run. Even Crosley geeks such as Anspach have a hard time telling one year from another. “If you parked a ’49 next to a ’52, unless you knew a few minor details to look for, you really couldn’t see a difference,” he said. “They got the doors in 1950, then in ’51-’52 they had drum brakes … but there were very few changes.”
The Hot Shots never made much of a splash on the new-car market, and they were gone after four model years, but they certainly deserve to be more than footnotes in history. The cars were among the most nimble performers on the road and were a lot of fun for the money — at $849 new, they were insanely cheap! Not only that, but the Hot Shots have a lasting claim to fame after winning the 1950 Sebring endurance race, an event that used a formula to measure cars against each other based on engine displacement.
Crosley wasn’t able to keep the Hot Shot afloat after 1952. The company wasn’t able to keep anything afloat, for that matter, finally pulling the plug on all operations after building just 2,075 cars for the model year. Anspach found his first Crosley to be very easy to work on, all things considered, but the Hot Shot’s short lifespan made parts hunting a definite challenge.
“It was a lot of hand labor, but not real difficult,” he said. “Crosleys are relatively simple vehicles. I learned a lot about the engine. I learned a lot about the interior, about welding, about bodywork. I learned a lot about a lot things hands-on. Again, I’m blessed to have a lot of people who mentored me and advised me along the way … Tim Freshley, from Ohio, advised me on bodywork and supplied me with two body panels that he had actually made for his car. The original engine was in it, but it was rusted and laying in the sand. The transmission was gone. The family story was somebody had borrowed it to use in a horse walker — you know, one of those motorized walkers that goes in a circle…. There was no windshield, no interior, the gauges in the gauge panel were unrecognizable as gauges.
“It had its advantages in that the floor was solid … I guess that’s about it,” he added with a laugh.
Anspach eventually bought a second Hot Shot as a parts car and was able to turn two cars into one. The end result was even better than he had planned. “A gentleman who lives near me did the painting, and did just a beautiful job,” he said. “The idea was to take it back to original. I tried to use as many parts as I could salvage off the original car. That’s because, number one, I wanted it to be as original as I could, and number two, I’m cheap.”
Anspach showed the car at various events for several years before he took an unexpected step up in class in 2008, when he was asked to help find some cars for the Hilton Head Concours event. He offered to show his Hot Shot and “lo and behold, I got invited and wound up winning the orphan car class. That kind of got me started showing concours events with the Hot Shot.”
Anspach says the wives’ tale that Crosleys somehow multiply on their own if they are not being supervised is definitely true. He now has 11 other Crosleys, including a Farm-O-Road and a Super Sport, which he drives regularly. “In a two-car garage, you can fit eight Crosleys and still have room for the lawn mower!” he insists. The show-winning Hot Shot doesn’t get to do much cruising these days, but Anspach said he’ll have it back in action eventually, after he finishes making the rounds of the concours circuit.
“The Super Sport I drive a little more now because I don’t worry about putting a scratch on it like I do the Hot Shot,” he said. “That’s kind of been an unfortunate result of showing at concours-level shows. I don’t drive it near as much as I used to. My most fun driver now is a ’41 convertible coupe. I really enjoy driving the two-cylinder. It’s just a lot of fun driving a 12-hp car around … But no matter what, you are going to feel inadequate in traffic in a Crosley. I don’t care if the rest of traffic is Volkswagens, you’re still going to feel small. And they’re not the most reliable 1950s cars you’ll find. They’re built to be in-town cars. They are not built for the highway.
“You’re not going 0 to 60 in 6 seconds with a Crosley. They are not extremely high-powered, but they are tremendously fun cars. You don’t go anywhere without turning heads in a Crosley … We have a local ice cream shop, and when we were driving the Hot Shot a lot a few years back, we would pull into the shop and by the time we got to the counter, they’d have what we wanted. They knew us!”
Anspach can’t help but get a little giddy every time he rolls into a show field and parks next to a high-dollar Classic or exotic. He knows his little forgotten drive-in movie car will get more than its share of attention, no matter where it shows up.
“I show up at concours with Duesenbergs and Auburns and Cords all around and here I am with my little $10,000 Crosley!” he says. “I’ve parked next to guy who said he had $18,000 in his paint job, and people were standing there talking about the Crosley all day… I had one guy I parked next to who had just spent $10,000 on his steering wheel. I told him his steering wheel cost more than my whole car!”
Crosley Farm-O-Road was a unique mighty mite
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Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975
This revised 4th Edition is the most thorough post-WWII automobile reference ever assembled. This huge reference book includes complete model information for every American-made car manufactured from 1946-1975.