by Doug Mitchel
Built to carry heavy loads to the front line
Crosley’s brand is best known for the line of tiny cars that began production in 1939. Powel Crosley Jr. produced his first car at the turn of the century while still in his teens. The tiny craft was more of a hobby – he didn’t have plans to produce in mass numbers. Later in life, he turned his attentions towards the electronics and appliance world and earned a reputation as a maker of radios and refrigerators for home use. The success he attained in that realm allowed him the luxury of moving closer to his dreams of building his line of self-named cars for the masses.
While busy conquering the appliance and radio arena, he still carried thoughts of building automobiles. His concept of building an American version of a Volkswagen propelled him into the manufacturing of a vehicle based on an 80-inch wheelbase. A two-cylinder engine powered the new design, and as an added bonus, the cars would sell for an estimated $325-$350 each. By comparison the lowest price Harley-Davidson motorcycle of 1939 sold for $355 and obviously offered no protection from the elements.
Crosley’s diminutive creation measured less than ten feet in length and weighed less than one thousand pounds. Buyers made their purchase at hardware and appliance shops and only a few more than 2000 were sold in the first year of production. Only about 5,000 Crosley cars were sold before 1942 when the embargo on the manufacture of civilian vehicles was halted by the Second World War.
Prior to the sales of his production cars began, Crosley had assembled several prototype vehicles for the automotive field as well as a few that would geared towards military and commercial applications. Among them, two- and three-wheeled motorcycles were included along with a snowmobile and tractor with four wheel drive and steering. Powel saw the war as an awful scenario but designed a prototype he hoped would aid the soldiers fighting at the front lines.
Crosley’s tracked “mule” and was intended for use as a carrier of heavy ammo crates and anything else needing to be delivered into the thick of battle. To ensure that the Mule could reach soldiers regardless of the terrain, he chose to apply tracks in place of the typical four-wheeled layout seen on many other wartime machines. A two-cylinder powerplant by Waukesha Engines with its opposed-cylinder layout would be used to motivate the new craft and the only other parts from the Crosley parts bin would be the wheels and brake drums, all else being designed exclusively for use on the Mule.
Beginning with its chassis built using heavy gauge steel, the engine was coupled to a three forward and single reverse gear transmission. The motor was air cooled and delivered 12 horsepower and a top speed of 12 mph. A six-volt system brought the engine to life and a roller chain was used to deliver the power to the rear axle.
Once started and underway the Mule was steered using the two vertical handles at the front and sides of the front seat. Each lever sent power to the track on the same side. Pushing forward moved the vehicle ahead, while pulling back stopped the Mule in its tracks. Turning was achieved by pulling back on one lever and pushing the other forward to the degree required for the turn.
The tracks were Bombardier-type and constructed using a steel skeleton wrapped with heavy gauge rubber suitable for use on a variety of surfaces and terrain. The four bogie tires measured 400 x 12 inches and sported heavy ribs to gain purchase with the tracks. The smaller (400 x 4 inch) idler wheels found at the bottom of each track provided pressure and permitted easier steering, even when loaded to its 1,650-lb. gross weight. The track design also helped to spread the weight distribution around more evenly and it achieved 2.1 pounds per square inch when fully laden with pilot and ammo cases.
The Mule was listed as having a 300-lb. payload capacity, allowing for three crates of the 105mm rounds to be carried per trip. For additional capacity, a matching tracked trailer was also shown as an option, but the resistance caused by the drag of the treads proved to be a drawback when facing rugged terrain.
A single headlamp mounted on the front could be removed and used as a spotlight giving the driver greater ability to locate his drop point when the darkness had fallen. The two-piece saddle used a back pad filled with horse hair material, while the seat portion used springs and cotton material for a modicum of comfort. The small, rectangular instrument panel located behind the driver’s pillion included the starter switch and power switch for the headlamp along with two basic gauges.
Early examples of the Mule wore canvas panels over the steel frame to save weight, but only the spring-loaded fenders up front still carried the stretched canvas when the model shown here was completed. Being one of the later prototypes, the bed on this model has steel sheets welded to the steel frame for added strength, albeit with a higher weight.
This example is one of five Crosley prototypes. It measures eight feet in length and is forty inches wide. It endured its testing at the Aberdeen Proving Ground facilities but succumbed to the high cost of construction and mechanical failures.
A price of just over $9,300 to build simply added insult to the injury caused by the Mule failing the rigors of testing. Because it was designed for use at the front lines, durability was a critical factor. Even with the heavy duty construction, it did not pass the guidelines demanded for use.
Despite ongoing efforts to continue the Crosley vehicle line, it ceased production in July of 1952 regardless of the $3 million that Powel Crosley spent on the hopes of continuing his dreams of manufacturing vehicles for the civilian market. General Tire and Rubber acquired Crosley at the end of its life and pulled the plug on vehicle production.
About the owner
Paul Gorrell of Burlington, Iowa, owns this – and enough additional Crosley vehicles to be the world’s largest collector of the brand. At age of 14, he acquired his first car – a Crosley. It ignited his passion for the brand that has yet to let him go.
His collection includes a vast array of Crosley vehicles, including every example of pre-war cars produced and seven pre-war prototypes that include this T-37 Mule. He found the set of bogie wheels fourteen years before locating the Mule. He knew what they were at first glance and quickly snapped them up to add to his cache of parts.
He was alerted to the existence of the Mule by someone knowing of his undying passion and was told to get there in a hurry because interest from others was growing. It had been pressed into duty pulling a manure spreader on a farm, so Paul’s rescue saved it from more years of that useful, yet humiliating, function.
The tires and original tracks had been exposed to all manners of the abuse and were rotted almost beyond repair before Paul turned his attention to their recreation. It was not a rapid process to rebuild the Mule to its former glory, but Paul’s determination and worldwide contacts made locating the required bits and pieces a bit easier than most.
The Crosley name may not ring true as a classic American made vehicle but Paul is doing more than his fair share to keep the history of the quirky marque alive by restoring as many examples of the vehicles as his storage facility can hold. From what I saw he will soon need more space as his quest to bring home more samples of Crosley history to roost.