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Car of the Week: 1952 Crosley fire truck

Good thing this pint-sized Crosley creation is a fire truck... it's so hot it might catch fire!
Car of the Week 2020
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Jayne and Norm Smith were just a couple of Crosley lovers looking for a way to amuse themselves.

They found the perfect solution, and it was nearly 30 feet long.

That was back in the mid 2000s, and since then the Smiths have become known as the restorers and owners of the nicest surviving example of a rare and wonderful creature: a 1952 Crosley fire truck amusement ride. The couple figured somebody needed to rescue the retired and deteriorating fire rig before it was too late. And even though they had never restored a vehicle themselves, they decided they were the ideal candidates.

“It was just another model of Crosley that we didn’t have,” joked Jayne. “This is the first one [we’ve restored]. We had restored antique phonographs… We figured we could do it, it was just on a bigger scale.”

Crosley connoisseurs who research such things believe that about 100 of the little fire truck conversions were done between 1947 and ’52. The rigs consisted of either a Crosley, or later a Metropolitan, pickup in front, and a custom 20-foot trailer in back. The conversions were most frequently done by Overland Amusement Company of Lexington, Mass., and their customers were generally amusement parks. At least one other company, Fly & Hardwood of Memphis, Tenn., also did such fire truck conversions. The fire trucks were decked out with all the bells and whistles of a real fire truck — ladders, bells, lights — and up to 30 children could climb aboard in two rows on either side of the trailer and get towed around while Mom and Dad waived and took pictures.

A look at the 44cc, 26.5-hp Crosley engine

A look at the 44cc, 26.5-hp Crosley engine

 Idora Park in Youngstown, Ohio and Whalom Park in Lunenburg, Mass., were among the parks who utilized the little fire trucks. 

“This one came from the Catskill Game Farm in New York,” Jane pointed out. “The kids could go in and sit down and they’d drive them around the park. We’ve talked to people at shows that actually drove them when they were kids. When we were in Hershey we had a lot of people from that area that said they drove one of these. There must have been a few of them around that area… There were a few places that had them, they were all over. But the brothers that did the conversions were in Massachusetts."

“We know that it was used in the Catskill Game Farm in New York. We have some original post cards from there… And over the years the Catskill Game Farm had three of them.”

All the "bells and whistles were included... at least the bell that is.

All the "bells and whistles were included... at least the bell that is.

The Smiths, who reside in Poland, Ohio, caught wind of a farm auction that would include one of the amusement trucks through a friend. Jayne decided to attend the auction and check it out —

 “I had to stay home and work. She gets all the fun,” lamented Norm — and not surprisingly, she wanted the Crosley more than any of the other bidders.

“It [belonged] to an auctioneer Binghamton, and he drove it around for 10 years,” continued Norm. “In Binghamton it was just under a little canopy. It had sat there for years. I don’t think they had used it in years. It was in pretty bad shape.”

Added Jane: “It wasn’t running. In fact, I watched them burn up the electrical system. They couldn’t’ get it to start at the auction. So they hooked up a charger up to it. It’s a 6-volt system, and they hooked up 12-volt to it! I saw the smoke and I knew what they had done.”

It took about two months to get the fire truck transported home to Ohio, and another two years before the couple was ready to show it off to the rest of the world. But the results of their efforts are stunning. The amusement trucks is in like-new condition and has wowed spectators and judges wherever it has traveled. 

The interior was crafted to look exactly like the original as well.

The interior was crafted to look exactly like the original as well.

“It’s been to St. Johns, been to Hershey. It has a Senior AACA designation … We took it down the Louisville to the 75th anniversary of the AACA. It went to Glenmoor. It took first place at the Crosley Nationals. We’re working to get the preservation tag on it now, from the AACA,” Jayne says.

Crosley: A short history

Pawel Crosley seemed like an unlikely character to get involved in the car building business. Crosley was an inventor and adventurous businessman who made it big in the radio broadcasting business, and became the owner of the Cincinnati Reds. His name was even on the team’s stadium: Crosley Field.

Crosley’s successes in manufacturing and consumer products were numerous, but most of all he longed build a small air-cooled automobile that the masses could afford. Backed by his own substantial bank account, he started his own company in 1939 building two-cylinder mini-cars. All the Crosby models were tiny body-on-frame designs weighing between 1,100 and 1,400 lbs. They mostly utilized 80-inch-wheelbase chassis, four-wheel disc brakes and leaf springs. The overhead-cam engines introduced in 1946 were a first on an American-built mass-produced vehicle. In 1940, Pawel Crosby added small trucks to his lineup. Early offerings included a Parkway Delivery truck and a station wagon. For 1941, the company was also building pickups, panel trucks and the “Covered Wagon.”

The dashboard is as simple as it could be.

The dashboard is as simple as it could be.

After a break for war-time production, Crosley returned to building cars in 1946, then rolled out a new line of tiny trucks the following year. The bodies were all new, and the trucks featured more conventional water-cooled engines. The models included a pickup, panel wagon and two models (flat face or chassis and cab) that could be customized to meet the needs of the customer. Among the more unique versions was a miniature fire engine — not a children’s ride, but the real thing — that could be used at industrial facilities.

All the Crosley trucks were more suited for urban use or as specialty vehicles than traditional haulers. Their audience was small grocers, flower shops, repair shops and other similar businesses that might find a tiny truck suited their needs better than a traditional pickup from “The Big 3”.

Another restyling was unveiled by Crosley in 1949, when the lineup consisted of a pickup or panel truck. Both had quarter-ton hauling capacities and sold for under $900. A year later, the memorable Farm-O-Road model was launched as a pseudo tractor-cart-truck. It became a fun vehicle for collectors and enthusiasts many years later, but didn’t do a lot for sales, or the company’s bottom line.

No fire truck would be complete without the ladder.

No fire truck would be complete without the ladder.

In 1952, Crosley was sold to General Tire & Rubber, which made the decision not to continue in the car and truck-building business. The final bell tolled on July 3, 1952, when the last Crosley automobile rolled out of the Marion, Ind. plant.

A GLORIOUS RETURN

Norm takes a deep sigh when asked how challenging it is to rebuilt a Crosley fire truck ride as your first auto restoration. 

“Just getting started was the hardest part,” Norm says. “It was a pretty daunting task. When you take everything down the frame, there is nothing left on it.” But the couple did have two things going for them. Norm is really handy, and almost all of the important parts were still with the truck and trailer."

“We had to rebuild the ladders,” Jayne noted. “The seats had been replaced, but we had the other one stored at our house with original seats so we knew that it was teak, so we found the wood to replace the teak, and we made the ladders. All the rest of the stuff — the hardware and all the hoses and ladders, that was all there, which was wonderful. The rail around the front, the half hose nozzles … they were all there, which was great, because how around you going to replace that?”

Norm was an experienced sheet metal fabricator, which he put to good use making his own floorboards that replaced the rotted-out original floor. 

“There is a lot of wood on it. It has a lot of features that are boat-ish,” Jayne said. “All of that has been replaced.”  

The couple said they spent about a year restoring the truck, and another year on the trailer. The modified pickup still has its original 44cc, 26.5-hp Crosley engine. The couple exactly replicated everything on the pickup as best they could, from the lettering on the sides, to the upholstery on the seats. “Nothing on the inside is different from the original,” Norm noted.

To help get things just right, the Smiths traveled to Memphis to look at a truck that had already been finished to check on some of the little details, such as the stenciling. They also checked out another vehicle in New Jersey.

The paint and lettering are authentic as can be.

The paint and lettering are authentic as can be.

“For a year when we were working on ours, we were storing the one from Youngstown in our building,” Jayne said. “So we had it to compare. We wanted to show this one in AACA, so the intent was to make everything as close to original as possible. So we did that with the lettering and the paint scheme.”

The Smiths can joke now about the extremes they went to to get everything correct and looking like new on their amusement truck. They remain modest about the spectacular results, but admit no else has gone to such great lengths. 

“There are some out there,” Jayne says. “A lot of them haven’t been restored, or else they’ve been changed in the restoration. We know there is one fellow out there restoring one now."

“Nobody else has done one quite like this. Not yet.”

Jayne and Norm Smith with their pint-size prized Crosley

Jayne and Norm Smith with their pint-size prized Crosley

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