Willys built passenger cars for nearly 35 years before it ever built a Jeep -- and for some years afterward, too. It started when John North Willys, an Elmira, New York, car dealer, bought ailing Overland of Indianapolis in 1907.
A year later he renamed the firm Willys-Overland, moved into the old Pope plant in Toledo, Ohio, and began rebuilding the firm's fortunes. He did that in spectacular fashion. For most of the Teens, the four-cylinder Overland was second in sales only to the Model T Ford. By 1918, J.N. Willys owned the world's second-largest auto company.
Willys-Overland entered the 1920s offering four-, six-, and eight-cylinder models spanning the low- and medium-price ranges. Sixes and Eights were temporarily dropped after 1921, the company concentrating on four-cylinder models.
Sixes returned in 1925, and fours were dropped the following year to appear under a new Whippet nameplate. Whippet flourished at first, but died after 1931 when Willys elected to concentrate all its dwindling resources on its own four-cylinder model. Meanwhile, an Eight joined the Willys line in mid-1930 carrying a 245.4-cid 75-bhp Continental engine.
An association with visionary engineer Charles Yale Knight led to the Willys-Knight. Knight's engines replaced conventional valves with two sleeves (between the piston and the bore) that moved up and down in the cylinders.
When slots in the two sleeves aligned either an exhaust or intake port was opened. The Knight's sleeve-valve engine had a great advantage in smoothness and silence of operation compared to conventional engines of the teens and '20s. As an added bonus carbon buildup made sleeve-valve engines run better, while other engines of the time required frequent "carbon and valve jobs" to remove carbon.
Knight engines were offered by European luxury makes such as Daimler in England, Voisin in France, and even Mercedes in Germany. Willys sold more sleeve-valve engines than anyone.
Early '30s Willys-Knights were sixes offered in two series. Smaller models had 178 cid, 53-60 bhp, and wheelbases of 113 or 115 inches; the larger ones used a 255-cid engine with 72-87 bhp in 120- and 121-inch chassis. Prices were rather stiff -- $975 to around $1900 -- so demand tailed off quickly as the Depression took hold. Also by that time conventional engines were as smooth and quiet as the more expensive Knight engines.
Willys' production withered to only some 27,000 for '32. With that, J.N. Willys, who had held the largely honorary post of board chairman since 1929, resigned his recent appointment as U.S. ambassador to Poland and returned to rescue his company, something he'd done twice before.
J.N. chipped in $2 million of his own money and personally assured dealers and creditors that all would be well, but Willys-Overland was forced to declare bankruptcy. The company was reorganized and resumed production, but managed only about 13,000 units in 1934. It would not emerge from receivership until 1935, days after John North Willys succumbed to heart troubles.
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Willys in the 1930s: Willys 77, Overland Model 39, Series 440
Willys-Overland decided to bet its dwindling bank on a new low-priced small car, which it managed to develop for next to nothing. Called the Willys 77, it was unveiled in June 1932 with a 100-inch wheelbase and an ultrathrifty four-cylinder engine making 48 bhp from 134.2 cid. It was the only car Willys would sell from early 1933 through 1936.
The 1933 reorganization ushered in a new chairman, the bespectacled Ward Canaday. A pillar of the Toledo business community with a strong sense of loyalty to his employees, Canaday ached to get things moving again. His first real chance came with the 1937 line, for which he ordered a full restyle.
The result was less than ideal, with lumpy looking rounded bodies carrying pontoon fenders and a bizarre bulging front not unlike that of Graham's forthcoming "sharknose." The new sheetmetal increased overall length by over a foot to 175.5 inches.
Again, only a coupe and sedan were tried, albeit in standard and DeLuxe variations. Priced from $500 to near $600, these new Model 37s met with some success despite their odd looks, and model-year volume shot up to 63,467. But 1937 was a recovery year for most of the industry, so despite building twice the number of cars it had in '36, Willys only improved from 15th to 14th in the overall standings.
The 1938 recession resulted in dramatically lower sales, pushing Willys back to 16th. Changes for that year's Model 38 were few, but offerings expanded with a pair of two-door sedans called Clipper.
A sharper prow announced "Slip-Stream" styling for 1939, and the lineup again included Overlands: standard, DeLuxe, and Speedway Special sedans and coupes with two extra inches of wheelbase ahead of the cowl. Designated Model 39, Overlands differed from that year's Model 38/48 in having standard hydraulic brakes, larger tires, headlamps carried in fender-top pods rather than within the fenders, and 62 bhp. Overlands cost an average of $100 more than other Willys models, but the extra money bought markedly better performance.
Former Studebaker engineer Barney Roos had coaxed extra power out of the old four via higher compression, an improved carburetor, and a new camshaft. Dubbed the "Go-Devil," this engine would impress the Army and power wartime Jeeps. At $596-$689, the Overlands were still some $32 below the cheapest Chevys. As a result, Overland's model-year production was fairly respectable. But total Willys output was only 17,839 -- a worrisome decline in a year when most automakers did better than the year before.
It was in 1939 that Joseph W. Frazer, the dynamic sales manager of Chrysler Corporation, went to Toledo and W-O as president and general manager; Canaday remained board chairman. Frazer knew how to cut losses, and decreed more orthodox styling for 1940. Still, it's doubtful even he could have saved Willys' passenger cars.
Designated Series 440 -- for four cylinders, 1940 -- Frazer's revised models were essentially '39 Overlands with sealed-beam headlamps and a vertical prow (instead of undercut). Model-year production improved to nearly 27,000.
Frazer and company made further improvements for the following year's Series 441. All models were dubbed "Americar," providing patriotic appeal, and gained two more horsepower and two more inches in wheelbase. Models expanded to seven with the addition of a new Plainsman coupe and sedan. Frontal styling was now quite Ford-like, with an even shapelier nose above a small vertical-bar grille. Prices were hiked nearly $100, now ranging from $634 to $916.
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Willys in Wartime: Series 442, Jeepster, Aero-Willys
Willys had started building military Jeeps by now, so its 1942 model year was even shorter than for most other U.S. automakers. That year's Series 442 Americars were the same as the '41s save a prominent vertical grille bar (carrying a line down from the hood trim) and slightly higher prices. Just under 29,000 of the '41 and '42 models combined were built before W-O shifted entirely to war production. Frazer would leave Toledo in 1943, ultimately to take over Graham-Paige. Taking over as W-O president was Charles E. Sorensen, the famed former production boss at Ford. "Cast-Iron Charlie" then stepped aside in 1946 for James D. Mooney.
Willys postponed returning to passenger cars, resuming peacetime production with Jeep-based vehicles instead. These included the inevitable civilian version of the military Jeep, plus two hybrids. The first was a station wagon introduced in 1946 and destined to live on for 20 years. Though usually considered a truck and not a car, it arguably qualifies as the first modern all-steel wagon. In any case, it was W-O's main civilian product through 1947.
More directly automotive was the Jeepster, a jaunty open tourer designed during the war by Brooks Stevens, who also did the wagon. Announced in 1948, the Jeepster offered seating for four on the 104-inch wagon wheelbase, plus a manual soft top and clip-in side curtains. Initial power was provided by the "Go-Devil" four. A six with 148.5 cid and 72 bhp was added for 1949. Both engines were converted from L-head to F-head configuration during 1950. F-heads had side exhaust valves with overhead intake valves for better breathing and increased power. That year's Jeepsters sported an eggcrate grille (replacing vertical slats), somewhat less-deluxe appointments, and a six enlarged to 161 cid and 75 bhp.
Priced in the $1400-$1800 range, the Jeepster was relatively popular for such a specialized product. First-year sales were strong at 10,326. But this evidently satisfied demand, for 1949 production was just 2960. The 1950 figure was a healthier 5844, but some were unsold at year's end and registered as '51 models. Today, all Jeepsters are avidly sought collectibles.
Willys could likely have lived just fine on Jeeps, Jeep wagons, trucks, and military vehicles. But the high optimism and booming seller's market of the early postwar years made returning to the passenger-car business seem like a no-lose proposition. Ward Canaday, who had taken over as president in 1950, entertained numerous ideas. His final choice was a trim 108-inch-wheelbase unitized proposal engineered by the distinguished Clyde Paton and inventively styled by Phil Wright. It was ready for the road by 1952, when it was trumpeted as "The Revolutionary New Aero-Willys."
It was a fine effort. Fashionably square and slabsided, the Aero was relatively light (2500-2600 pounds), roomy, and blessed with good handling. There were four models at first: Aero-Eagle hardtop coupe and three two-door sedans. The Aero-Lark used the 75-bhp, 161-cid six-cylinder engine from late Jeepsters; Eagle and the Aero-Wing and Aero-Ace sedans ran an F-head version with 90 bhp. Though small, the 161 six delivered good performance, plus fuel economy on the order of 25 miles per gallon.
Despite high pricing ($2155 for the Eagle), 1952-model production of 31,363 was good, if not great; the midrange Aero-Wing accounted for well over a third.
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Willys in the 1950s: Bought by Kaiser, Giving Up on Cars
Offerings expanded for 1953, when appearance changed only in detail -- notably red hubcap emblems and a gold-plated "W" in the grille, honoring Willys' 50th anniversary. About 500 Aero-Larks were built for export with the old F-head fours, but engines were otherwise unchanged. Aero-Wing was retitled Aero-Falcon, and a new four-door sedan arrived in Lark, Falcon and Ace versions. The hardtop Eagle was again rather pricey, though up only $2 from '52. Helped by the end of government-mandated curbs on consumer production instituted because of the Korean War, Willys had another modestly good year, selling about 42,000 cars.
The situation changed in 1954, when Willys-Overland was purchased by Henry Kaiser, who combined it with ailing Kaiser-Frazer to form Kaiser-Willys Sales Corporation. K-F sold its sprawling Willow Run, Michigan, plant to General Motors (which would use it into the 1990s), and Kaiser production was transferred to Toledo.
The Kaiser takeover didn't immediately affect the '54 Aero-Willys, which was little more than a '53 with larger taillights and revised interior. But March 1954 brought a raft of changes. Chief among them was Kaiser's 226-cid L-head six, which was shoehorned in as optional power for Ace and Eagle. There were also new Ace and Eagle Customs, basically the standard articles with a "continental" spare tire.
Though heavier than the Willys 161, the Kaiser 226 engine produced a useful 25 extra horsepower that made the Aero relatively fast. Top speed was little higher at 85 mph, but the big six dropped typical 0-60 mph times to around 14 seconds. As an experiment, a few Aeros were fitted with 140-bhp supercharged Kaiser Manhattan engines, which made the lighter Willys a performance match for many contemporary V-8 cars -- or so company engineers claimed.
All '54s handled much better than earlier Aeros, thanks to a revised front suspension. In all, the best Aeros yet failed to convince many customers, and production dropped to 11,717.
By early 1955, Kaiser-Willys decided to abandon the U.S. car market. No longer called Aero, the '55s comprised Custom two-and four-door sedans and a Bermuda hardtop (formerly called Eagle); Willys also built 659 Ace four-doors, again for export. Engine choices did not change save for deletion of the Lark's 134-cid four, but prices were drastically cut in a last-ditch effort to attract sales. The Bermuda, for instance, was slashed to $1895, and was thus honestly advertised as America's lowest-priced hardtop.
Sales considerations also prompted an ambitious '55 facelift by Kaiser stylists Buzz Grisinger and Herb Weissinger. The restyles' main elements were a busy two-tier grille (replacing the simple horizontal-bar motif of prior years) and Z-line side moldings that made for an odd two-toned appearance. In the meantime, a neat hardtop wagon was in the works for 1955-56, and designers "Dutch" Darrin and Duncan McRae were conjuring more ambitious restyles for the years beyond. But Willys wouldn't live to see them, at least not with passenger cars. So after a final 5986 units, most carrying the 226 engine, Willys returned to making nothing but Jeeps.
Happily, the Aero would live a good while longer in South America, where Kaiser's Willys do (of) Brasil subsidiary took over the Aero dies and offered a cleaned-up '55 with F-head Willys power during 1960-62. Designer Brooks Stevens then applied handsome new square-rigged outer panels, and the car continued through '72, first as the Aero-Willys 2600, then the Willys Itamaraty, and finally the Ford Itamaraty (Dearborn acquired Willys do Brasil via American Motors in 1967). That's eloquent testimony to the sound basic design of the original Aero-Willys. A pity it wasn't more appreciated in its native land.