By now I think most regular Autopian readers are fans of who we’ve been calling The Bishop, our Daydreaming Designer, a man who went to auto design school briefly decades ago but switched career paths, but now gets to at least partially live out his automotive design dreams here, by coming up with alternate-reality cars that never were, and likely never will be. One of my favorite parts about working with The Bishop is that I can come up with some truly absurd concepts, as in absolutely idiotic automotive fever dreams, and then ask him to, somehow, extrapolate them out and draw lots of pictures and, you know, do the hard part. And that’s exactly what I did this time. I was thinking about what if hybrid cars became mainstream about 20 years earlier than they actually did, and, if so, how could that have happened? What if a major 1980s consumer electronics powerhouse like Sony was involved? What if they partnered with noted maker of lawnmower and go-kart engines Briggs and Stratton? And, what if to do all of this, they decided to resurrect a legendary dead American brand like Crosley? What, then, Bishop? Better get on that!
Part of what inspired this idea was a real car I’d written about years ago, Briggs and Stratton’s 1980 six-wheeled hybrid car experiment. This bizarre three-axle beast used an 18 hp Briggs and Stratton air-cooled flat-twin motor and a dozen heavy lead-acid batteries with an electric motor, shoved them in a fastback body with Volkswagen Scirocco doors, and ended up with an interesting early hybrid concept car.
I’d actually managed to hunt the car down and convince Briggs and Stratton to get it drivable again when I was doing some production work for Jay Leno’s Garage, the result of which was Jay getting this wonderful and bizarre science project back on the road:
So, that’s what started me thinking: Briggs and Stratton did demonstrate and interest and ability to make a hybrid car, but the result was a bit too clunky and cumbersome, likely because B&S core competency is not in electronics. To develop this idea into something actually feasible in the 1980s, they’d need a partner with real electronics expertise and deep pockets. And that made me think of Sony.
I’m not sure that those of you who didn’t live through the 1980s realize just how big and pervasive Sony was. Sure, we all know about the Walkman, but that’s just the flashy, showy part. Sony stuff was seemingly everywhere: TVs, Betamaxes, stereos, portable radios and tape recorders, and tons more, all with bewildering alphanumeric model names. I think literally every single person I knew had one or more Sony clock radio alarm clock things, sometimes branded as a Dream Machine, and I think a conservative guess would be that Sony made about five to seven fucktillion different models of these things.
Sony was huge, and they were everywhere. They’d be an ideal partner for this kind of endeavor, with the electronics know-how and resources to make it happen. And why shouldn’t they branch out into automotive? They’re 1980s Sony, they can do anything.
I was thinking that neither Briggs and Stratton nor Sony really had much of a name in the mainstream automotive space, so I thought they might be interested in getting the rights to something people might already know and associate with cars. Here’s where I went a bit off the rails, I’ll admit. Assuming they were targeting the US market, and assuming their hybrids would need to be smaller cars to achieve their efficiency goals, maybe Sony and B&S would look to that former icon of American small cars, Crosley?
Crosley was one of the very few builders of genuinely small, inexpensive cars in America, along with companies like American Bantam and King Midget, and Nash’s Austin-built Metropolitan. Crosley started building cars in 1939 after having established themselves building radios, and with the coming of WWII, the little cars’ impressive fuel economy in an era of fuel rationing gave them a burst in popularity.
They built all kinds of war-effort stuff, including a little Jeep-like vehicle called the Pup, and after the war came out with new models, with sales peaking in 1948, with totals between about 25,000 and 27,000 cars or so. They added a true sports car, the Hot Shot, and a little utility jeep-like vehicle called the Farm-O-Road. Oh, and if you look at those ads up there, you can see that Crosley was the first company to refer to a car as a “sports-utility” vehicle.
But, with postwar prosperity and cheap gas, Americans wanted big, gadget-and-chrome-laden mobile living rooms, and Crosleys were very much not that. There were also reputation-harming issues with the company’s unusual engines that used sheet-metal engine blocks, and all of these things conspired to make the last Crosley trundle off the line in 1952.
All of this is to say that the Crosley marque for cars had at least some history in America, and that I think it would have made an interesting choice to brand this Sony-Briggs and Stratton joint venture, even if maybe no one else, in our reality or the imagined one we’re exploring here, would agree. The point is I demanded of The Bishop that these cars would be sold as Crosleys, and this was his take:
So a never-happened electric and a failed microcar? What’s the alternate reality here? During the diesel-fueled doldrums of the Last True Gas Crunch (1979-1982) there was an effort to get compact ‘commuter cars’ and non-gas powered vehicles to market, and the Big 3 were locked into designs finalized half a decade before. What if a Tesla-like outsider came in to give people the little car they didn’t know they wanted?
Maybe a group of investors revived the Crosley for the 80s as a tiny hybrid commuter? There’s no way this could be done alone by a pure startup, but what if Briggs & Stratton had been contracted for the engine work and the all-important battery development done by….SONY?!? Big, international players with skin in the game now…no need to sell cocaine to fund this venture, right? What if the factory was near where the original Crosley was made (an hour outside of Fort Wayne, Indiana)? It could have used some of the thousands of laid-off International Scout workers!!
The New Crosley for 1984 would have been marketed as an almost cult-like fun car first and economy car second. It would be small, a CRX/Geo Metro sized two seater with available tiny rear seat.
Like the original Crosley, the body would be configurable in many different ways. The design would be uber-cute and toy-like with a ‘face’ (headlights poke above the cut line for the clamshell hood) and a grey ‘belt’ band wrapping around the center of the car that would help to create an obvious break point for the various different rear roof configurations.
The car in the picture above is finished in Crayola Jungle Green. Note that the four or five paint colors available would match Crayola crayon colors, so at the dealership you could have a coloring book pages of the car that potential buyers could color in with the crayon in the Crayola shade of their choice to see what it looks like. You can even give ‘em a T shirt with the color they choose. So… fucking….. CUTE!
Are you done vomiting? Good…here’s a full sized removable sunroof over the driver/passenger but the area in back you have the choice of a soft or hard top in ‘wagon’ form or ‘fastback’ shape, or just a vertical wall behind to create a tiny pickup truck. I am envisioning that in the Pulsar NX way you would not be locked into one bodystyle for life (like you could have a soft top for six months of the year and then bust out the hardtop for winter, or just add a fastback ‘cuz you feel like it).
I asked The Bishop for a rundown of how he saw the new Hybrid Crosley working tech-wise, and got this extremely plausible explanation:
The 1980 Briggs & Stratton car was very innovative, but I think to make this thing more marketable we would want less batteries and bigger gas engine than that car. I’m thinking half the batteries (half the weight so no extra axle…I bet Sony could do some magic here), which would still theoretically give a 30 mile all-electric range (not a big a deal since gas motor can get you home), but a more powerful (say 30hp) gas motor. B&S was never a major liquid-cooled motor maker, but they have done it, and I would say they should do it here. SORRY JASON!! I know you love air cooling but Americans want a heater and quiet..gotta give ‘em what they want.
Like the B&S car, the electric motor mounted in line with the gas one could operate simultaneously or alone, except here it would pump power to the front wheels via a Daihatsu-sourced 5 speed manual. I also don’t see why you couldn’t have a slow, crude battery charger available to plug in at night and get a full 10 hour charge (charge port behind the flip down license plate).
The interior would be important to convey the tone and feel of the car, advanced yet friendly, and The Bishop has given this a lot of thought:
Stylish but very simple inside. Not a lot of gauges..just the basics…why scare people with complexity? Yes, the warning lights are in the shape of the smile face in the logo when illuminated with turn signal indicator for eyes….even hazard flashers are fun….just go with it, Jason. Lights above gas and electric gauges illuminate based upon what mode of power is used (both illuminate for hybrid mode), controlled by selection buttons behind the gearshift.
You just KNEW that with the Sony name on the car that I wasn’t gonna let a portable, modular sound system get away, right? In the lower center of the dash is a Mega Bass box with speakers that aim at the floorboard when it is in place. Unlike the one in the Pao, it’s self contained so you don’t need the separate add-on speaker box….you can stop the car, yank the whole boom box from the dash, throw it on the sidewalk with a flattened cardboard box from the cargo area, pop in a Newcleus cassette and settle any difference with a break dance battle! WIKIWIKIWIKIWIKI…
The car could possibly charge the 15 D Cells or whatever when it’s in place, or at least power illumination to the controls for night use. Optionally it could sync up with extra speakers in the cargo area when in place in the dash.
This is all good alternate-universe Sony-B&S-Crosley content, sure, arguably the best of its kind you’ll find online, but if you think The Bishop is done here, boy are you wrong. Keep reading.
Yeah, that’s all good, but let’s take it to the NEXT LEVEL. How about an all wheel drive version? You know, Fiat Panda did it, as well as Citroen (even Crosley had a pseudo-Jeep thing called the Farm-O-Road).
The name Safari is already taken, so let’s call it the Jungle. The Jungle takes the electric motor that is usually adjacent to the B&S gas motor on FWD models and puts it alone in back under the batteries (likely requiring a suspension lift..and I’m good with that) to power the rear wheels. This would require a rheostat throttle control connected to the gas pedal (which would also be mechanically connected to the front motor) that would apply power to the electric motor any time the gas is pressed (unless the clutch pedal is depressed at all) and a one-way clutch instead of a direct link of the electric motor to the wheels to make the front and back work in the least herky-jerky way possible (here I KNOW that DT is gonna step in and say this won’t work, and he’s probably right…but there has to be some Automatic Stickshift-level way of doing this).
Here’s one in Crayola Indigo Blue:
Note that the Jungle model has a special raised rear roof with skylights and roof bars like a Matra Rancho. BTW, Daihatsu would also throw some 1980-1983 Charade taillights into the shipping carton with the transmissions to be sent to the Indiana factory- that’s what you’re seeing in those recesses on the back fascia.
WAIT…could this qualify as a truck/MPV and therefore be immune from 2.5MPH bumper regs??
From here, The Bishop really spirals off, envisioning contests and musical pop-cultural tie-ins (though for this to work I think Sony Records would need to buy out Morris Day’s contract from Warner Bros.):
Also, doesn’t the Jungle name sound like a song from The Time (jungle love….oh wee oh wee oh…)?
There could be a contest to win one like Hall & Oates did with a Trans Am (note that Canada Dry called the prize car a ‘Music Machine’ because it featured a lame ass standard Delco radio), but our contest would have BETTER prizes and involve Morris Day and the muthafukkin Time!!! That shit is the mad notes!!
Obviously, if successful Crosley would need to see additional options like a bigger 3 cylinder motor (Daihatsu sourced if B&S can’t provide) to allow for A/C and automatic, and also a longer wheelbase model with extra space behind the grey band for a real back seat.
Think that’s all that you can squeeze out of this ’80s hybrid-Crosley-Sony-Briggs and Stratton thought-experiment? Boy are you wrong, friend:
We’re almost done..but not yet!!!
If you look at the history, there was a sportscar version of the Crosley that used the same mechanicals but stripped down to a more enthusiast-oriented minimal body called the Hotshot.
Do we really want to make a sportscar out of what would have been a decidedly slow car? Of course we do!!
The new Hotshot would take the whole FWD business and put it behind the seats Fiero style in the chubby looking little sports/GT/thing you see below, complete with flying buttress rear styling.
I just don’t know if all of the batteries would fit in the front of the car…you’d lose all luggage space….maybe it would just have a small pack or we would just say fuck it and put the 3 cylinder in back and chuck the whole electric thing for this version…and add a turbo to justify why it’s parked at a racetrack.
Here it is in Crayola Scarlet Red with my silly ‘gunsight’ logo:
Again, Crosley is about fun first…economy is just a happy byproduct!
There you go. This has to be the most comprehensive re-imagining of any dead American microcar maker resurrected by an electronics powerhouse from Japan and a company best known for mulcher and generator motors.