By Daniel Strohl:
Today’s Crosley restorer may occasionally complain about how difficult a time they may have in sourcing parts for their cars. In comparison to restorers of other collector cars, they may have a point, but in comparison to Orson Benedict of Norwalk, Connecticut, today’s Crosley restorers have it made.
“We didn’t have computers or cell phones when I first got into Crosleys,” Orson said. “In fact, we weren’t far away from the crank telephone!”
Though Orson recalls the local insurance salesman driving a Crosley when he was young, Orson’s youth was more focused on the Studebaker-Packard dealership across the street from his childhood home and the cars constantly coming and going from that place. Not until he was grown, married and a father, however, did he purchase his first Crosley, a 1949 station wagon in either 1969 or 1970.
“It was sitting beside the Shell station here in town after the kid who owned it burned the engine up, so I picked it up for $25,” Orson said. “It caught my eye because it was cheap, and then it became our daily runner after I got it going.”
While Crosleys are an unusual sight anywhere, Orson noted that they have always been particular rarities in the southern Berkshire Mountains around Norfolk, where – unlike in flatter areas nearer the coasts, in Florida and in the Midwest – the hilly country roads made driving difficult for Crosley owners. By the time he bought that station wagon, any Crosley dealers in the vicinity had long ago liquidated their parts inventories, so he had to rely on word of mouth to find the parts to keep the wagon going, which he did until he sold it three years later. Not long after came another wagon, then a sedan. The latter came through some good old-fashioned New England horse-trading: A guy from a couple towns over traded the sedan and a collection of used parts for a cordwood saw that Orson built for him.
Most of the cars Orson picked up at the time, however, cost him about $20 or $25. “With five kids, we watched our pennies,” he said. “Fifty dollars was a lot of money for a used car then. Of course, the cars I bought probably all should have been $10 cars instead of the $25 I paid for ’em.”
Orson said that most of the Crosleys he picked up then were beyond driving condition, but they were all worth picking up for parts. At times, he found that he had to travel as far as New Jersey or Pennsylvania to find certain Crosley parts because he knew of nobody in his vicinity who shared his passion for these quirky, slow little cars from Cincinnati.
In about 1981, a friend of Orson’s had the itch to restore his 1937 Plymouth, so he and Orson split the cost of renting a sandblaster; Orson spent his time with it restoring his first Crosley. “We weren’t restoring them to put ’em in shows,” Orson said. “We were restoring them to drive ’em. Half the fun is fixing them and the other half of the fun is driving them, so why short yourself on half the fun?” Thus, for instance, when he needed to replace the floors in a car – as was often the case with the cars he found – he’d buy the hood or deck lid off a larger car, cut out the middle of it and weld it into place in the Crosley.
“You had to be innovative if you wanted to restore them,” he said. “With the engines, you didn’t just go out and buy a set of pistons and rings and bearings. What you did, is you took all the best pistons and rings and bearings you had, you’d lay ’em out on a bench, and you’d pick the absolute best ones to use to rebuild the engine. I found that most of the engines out there don’t have a lot of miles on ’em – you won’t find one with 20,000 miles, so the engine parts aren’t all worn out.”
Over the years, as Orson continued to restore more Crosleys and continued to fill his three barns with Crosley parts, people began to tell him about more and more Crosleys tucked into barns and garages around the state. He became so well-known in the area, in fact, that when people from outside the area called the Norfolk post office asking for the Crosley guy in town, the post office employees knew just who to direct them to. One Crosley in particular, another station wagon, he figures he sold it three times.
“It came out of Northfield, where a friend saw it at a garage with $500 written on the windshield. I ended up getting it for $150, but I didn’t want to do over another one, so I stripped it, took out the glass to keep, and sold the radio at the Crosley Nationals for $250. I still had it when I went to another show and a guy tapped me on the shoulder wanting to know where he could buy a Crosley. I showed him the pictures I had of it, and he asked me if I could do better on the price. Well, I hadn’t told him a price yet, but I saw that he was looking at the first picture I took of it, with $500 still on the windshield. So I told him I could go down to $450, that’s it. Well, the guy, he bought it, took it home and collected a bunch of parts for it, even had new glass made for it, but never got started on it before he passed away. His wife called me up to sell it back, so I went down there just intending to get the glass, but ended up bringing it all home, new glass included, for $80. Later on, I separated the body from the frame, sold the frame, and swapped the body to a guy for a ’54 Oldsmobile.”
“So, yeah, I’ve wheeled and dealed a lot of stuff.”
It’s for that tendency of his, to find a good deal and swoop in to snatch it before anybody else can, that other Crosley enthusiasts Orson has come to know over the years nicknamed him “Shark.”
“I probably made more money off that one car than I have on some of my resto jobs,” he said.
Though Orson has restored a few cars – both Crosleys and bigger cars – for paying customers, he tended to restore Crosleys “just for ha-has” and not for profit. Thus, he had as many as 14 restored Crosleys in his collection at one time in the early 1990s, right before a serious bout with cancer forced him to reconsider messing with cars for the rest of his life. He sold all of his parts and all but two of the Crosleys, holding on to a 1951 Super Sports and a 1952 pickup, figuring that they’re two of the three most valuable types of Crosleys, aside from the FarmORoad.
Orson did end up beating the cancer, and for a time afterward he considered getting back into restoring Crosleys, perhaps even turning his hobby into a full-time post-retirement job. However, the chemotherapy and other cancer treatments left his heart weak, so nowadays he contents himself with his two Crosleys and with collecting Crosley radios and other appliances.
“It’s amazing how, once you get away from the hobby for a little while and stop hearing from people, you realize how much people told you about Crosleys,” Orson said. “It seemed everywhere I went, people were telling me where they knew of a Crosley.”
Fortunately, Orson, at age 71, still gets out and drives his two Crosleys whenever possible, plying the backroads of hilly northwestern Connecticut. “Stuff starts to deteriorate quick once you take the cars off the road,” he said.
“Besides, if you’re paying taxes and for the upkeep on the cars, you might as well use ’em.”