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  • Ped Watt, photography by Ped Watt

1951 Crosley Le Mans Special

LeMans--The clock ticked to 3:59:58 PM. As the rising humidity caused sweat to drip off his brow, George Schraft found himself readying to race against some of the greatest names in motorsports. Juan Fangio in his Talbot Lago, Sidney Allard in his Allard J2, Maurice Trintignant in his Simca Gordini T1, and Stirling Moss in his Jaguar XK-120C. Time slowed. A year was lived in each second. The clock ticked 3:59:59PM, and Schraft looked across the Circuit de la Sarthe. On the other side of the macadam sat his small, quirky, one-off Crosley. It was surrounded by Renault 4 CV’s, Panhard Dyna X’s, a DB Panhard and an Aero Minor, its direct competitors in the 750cc class. Time seemed to stand still. After what seemed an eternity, 4:00 arrived with a flurry of excitement. The silk tricolor dropped. Schraft sprinted to the Crosley, sharing a look with his teammate Phil Stiles. As Schraft jumped into the cockpit of the tiny racer, the world exploded with sound of 100,000 screaming fans. The two Allards led the grid onto the maiden lap of 19th Grand Prix of Endurance, a legendary race that came to be known as the 24 Hours of LeMans.

Schraft spent the first two hours of his initial driving stint gaining ground in his class. Thanks to suspension and body design genius of Floyd “Pop” Dreyer, the car was able to lap the entire track in third gear, protecting the fragile Borg-Warner Transmission. Powell Crosley had warned the trans would fail if they changed gears too frequently. The French spectators enjoyed Schraft’s aggressive corning. At the end of Schraft’s stint, teammate Phil Stiles took command of the Crosley. When Stiles turned on the headlights, the amperemeter started sounding an alarm. The low amps alarm could be overcome by the driving full out, but this seized the Marchel generator, ripping it from the mounting brackets, disabling the water pump and cutting the ignition wiring. The Marchel generator had been fitted to accommodate brighter headlights. With some barnyard engineering, they were able to get “Le Biplace Torpedo” back on to the track. However, their adventure didn’t last long, as the little car was retired from the race after completing only 40 laps.

How did this modified Crosley Hot Shot make it to the most prestigious automotive endurance race? To understand that we step back in time a year to the first running of the 6 hours of Sebring. The usual fare of Ferraris, Porsches, Allards, and Cunninghams contended for the top spot on the podium. There was also Crosley Hot Shot chasing the “index of performance” trophy. While the Crosley lost the race by a good margin, when the distance traveled was calculated against the engine displacement, it won the “Index” by a full 12 laps. At dinner that night, Schraft and Stiles were joking about how funny it was that a Crosley ‘beat’ Ferrari. They were dreaming of racing at Le Mans when Scraft’s wife suggested the pair have Crosley build a car to campaign for the “Index” at Grand Prix of Endurance. After a couple Martinis, it seemed like brilliant plan. They set to work the next morning, writing two letters. The letters were mailed the same day. The first letter was to ACO, announcing they had Crosley factory backing and an entry for the race. The second letter went to Crosley, declaring they had been awarded a spot at Le Mans for a Crosley works car. The letters worked; Crosley agreed to back the team, and the ACO sent a race invitation.

Legendary Indy and Midget car builder Floyd “Pops” Dreyer was hired to build the body and tweak the suspension. Crosley provided the 44 horsepower 9:1 compression engine, with parts from the R&D department, a Borg Warner 3-speed transmission, and rolling chassis. Crosley was confident in the engine, but he implored the transmission be shifted as rarely as possible. Upon arriving in Indianapolis, it became evident Pops was running behind on the body, as he was focused on getting the suspension perfect. This led to many 14-to-16-hour days as Schraft and Stiles helped hand-hammer the body, under Floyd’s guidance. They scarcely finished in time. The pair were forced to load the Hot Shot onto Powell Crosley’s modified boat trailer, driving east. They pulled the trailer behind Schraft’s Aston Martin DB2, as both cars were due to be loaded on a transport ship. The team consisted of Phil Stiles, George Schraft, their wives, and Chief Mechanic Paul Klotsch. After a couple conversations with Ohio State Patrol, they made it to western Pennsylvania. They had never done any run testing with the Crosley. The car was unloaded and driven to New York. Some comfort upgrades were done, and the little racer was loaded on the ship, along with the Aston Martin, still pulling the boat trailer.

When Schraft and Stiles arrived in France, they wanted to do more testing. They drove the Crosley toward Le Mans. As night fell, they were forced to stop in a small town as the headlights “were about as effective as pair of whale oil lamps”. They made it to Le Mans the next morning. To fix the lighting issue, larger lights were installed. While doing ‘pre-practice’ practice, it was discovered the generator was too small. A larger Marchel generator was installed in its place. While completing that upgrade, the Cunningham team helped source and install a larger gas tank.

Some would assume after the LeMans race this unique car would have been shipped back to Crosley, and when Crosley was shuttered, it would have been junked. This was not to be. A larger generator arrived in France two days after the race. Stiles and his wife drove to Switzerland, clipped through Italy, and decided to make the run back to France in time to watch the Alpine Rallye. When they arrived, they decided to join the race behind an Allard J2. They easily passed the Allard in the corners and overtook some very confused officials in a Citroen 2CV. After the race, the car was returned to the U.S.

The next year, Crosley motors fell into fiscal dire straits. The car was raced domestically, but never returned to France. In February of 1958, Phil Stiles wrote an article for Road and Track telling of his adventure with Schraft. Then 16-year-old John Aibel read the story. It sparked a lifetime love for the car. About 1969, I re-read that article. I said to myself, “I am going to try and find that car”. He wrote Road and Track to see if anyone knew the location of the Le Mans Crosley. To his surprise, Road and Track published his letter. He got about 20 responses. Most of the information was rumors, conjecture, dead ends, and wild goose chases. The response and passion he saw from people led him to start the Crosley Automobile Club. The club celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2019. Shortly thereafter, Aibel received an application from a gentleman in Lake Worth, FL. The Crosley LeMans was listed as one of his cars. The gentleman had restored it, and the car was sitting in a museum. Over the coming years, John met the owner multiple times at Hershey. Aibel could never get him to sell the car. The final time John met the owner, the owner said he had sold the car to finance an RV. Five years later, John again decided he wanted to buy the car. John’s brother had kept the new owner’s name and number. Don Snyder of Synder Antique Auto Parts of New Springfield, OH, wanted to sell all his race cars, and offered the car to John. A deal was struck. After more than two decades of dreaming, John got to bring home the LeMans Crosley.

The car spent 30-plus years being raced at the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix and various VSCCA events across the northeast. Over the years, the Crosley was stabled with John’s Allard J2, and a plethora of other cars. In December 2019, at the age 78, John decided it was time for the Allard and the Crosley to find a new home. They were sold to Paul Hyman of Hyman LTD. When asked, “What was that special moment for you and the car?”, he replied, “Oh my. Anytime I have driven that car was a special moment. At the first event at Pocono. I realized I had something truly special when the Lotus 7’s couldn’t go away from me in the turns”. The car is now headed to a new home after being sold on Bring a Trailer for $53,000. There seems a good chance we will see this car on the grid at the LeMans Classic, as it is on the new owner’s “bucket list” to race there.

Special thanks to Hyman Ltd for access to this historic automobile.

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