CINCINNATI (TDB) -- When Mitt Romney jumped into the Republican presidential contest, he tried to get some mileage out his dad's role in the U.S. automobile industry. He recalled that George Romney, the former Michigan governor who ran American Motors, pioneered the concept of high-mileage cars. That statement is not quite correct, a bit shifty like saying a little old lady only drove this baby on Sundays.
Still, it was not a total "Would you buy a used car from this man?" blunder. But one has to wonder: How could Romney be so in error about the history of the U.S. automobile industry, an industry he grew up in?
Here's what the candidate said in his speech upon entering the '08 GOP contest: "The Rambler automobile he [George Romney] championed was the first American car designed and marketed for economy and mileage. He dubbed it a compact car, a car that would slay the gas-guzzling dinosaurs. It transformed the industry."
But historians know that Powel Crosley, an Ohioan who once owned the Cincinnati Reds and became wealthy manufacturing radios in the early 20th Century, was way ahead of George Romney. The Crosley Automobile Co. started building small, lightweight cars in the late 1930s and they cost less than $400. The mileage: Reportedly anywhere from 35 mpg to 50 mpg. Although never wildly popular, the cars were said to be in demand during World War II when gasoline was rationed.
The Crosley never caught on and the company ceased production around 1952. Americans loved bigger vehicles, as George Romney himself learned at American Motors, a company eventually swallowed up by a financially healthier Chrysler Corp. Crosley built less than 100,000 cars.
A collectors' Web site is HERE and there is plenty more available on this INDIANA HISTORY portal that describes the sad fate of the nation's first economy cars. Crosley tried to sell the vehicles through department stores like Macy's. And there are those who suggest he was copying the Volkswagen, which was growing popular in Germany as a mass-produced form of cheap transportation.
Mitt Romney's presidential announcement says George Romney used to teach him about automotive history. "Dad and I loved cars. Most kids read the sports box scores. Dad and I read Automotive News. We came here together, him teaching me about cars that we built before my time."
Wonder how he missed the lesson about the Crosley?