Although Willys-Overland cast its fate with Jeep after World War II, production of the 1940s Willys 6/66 concept car might have led to a very different outcome.
The days at the close of World War II were filled with the thrill of victory and were clouded in many American quarters by agonizing uncertainty over what to do next. One such place was Toledo, Ohio, the home of Willys-Overland, where confusion reigned about postwar civilian vehicles.
The confusion was actually a disagreement between chief executive officer Ward M. Canaday and Joseph Washington Frazer, the former sales chief of Chrysler Corporation who took over as W-O president in 1939.
Canaday had arrived six years before Frazer in the wake of Willys's Depression-forced bankruptcy, and had nursed the firm back to a semblance of health with a steady diet of low-priced small cars.
By the time Frazer joined up, the original funny-looking Willys 77 had become a more mature compact with "Slip-stream" design, a nicer interior, and an improved engine. Joe set about making it even better.
By the eve of Pearl Harbor, Toledo was selling the patriotically named Americar with attractive Ford-like styling and prices well under $1,000. Unfortunately, it didn't sell very many.
But Frazer gave Willys a far bigger shot in the financial arm when he almost singlehandedly landed a contract for building the Army's new general-purpose vehicle, the Jeep. With that, Willys reaped the literal fortunes of war with sales that jumped from $9 million in 1939 to $212 million in 1944.
By that time, the firm stood to profit in another way from a vast reservoir of GI affection for the rugged little "Willeeze" Jeep, whose heroic wartime exploits were already the stuff of legends.
Continuing this newfound success in the postwar world was the heart of the dispute between Frazer and Canaday. Joe wanted to pick up where the Americar left off with a wartime prototype called "6/66," which aimed at a light, roomy, and thrifty low-priced car in the same popular mold as Studebaker's 1939 Champion.
But though it looked fresh in a handsome new Brooks Stevens suit, the 6/66 owed much to the old Americar. Wheelbase, for example, was the same 104 inches, and the engine was all but unchanged: a 148.5-cubic-inch side-valve four churning out 66.5 modest horsepower.
Continue to the next page to see photos and learn more about the 1940s Willys 6/66 concept car.
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1940s Willys 6/66 Concept Car Features
The 1940s Willys 6/66 concept car features showed promise. Although an ordinary transverse leaf spring appeared at each end, front suspension employed the novel "Planar" independent geometry devised by W-O chief engineer Delmar G. "Barney" Roos when he was at Studebaker (and used on the aforementioned Champ).
Out back was a "swinging independent, semi-floating wheel bearing" axle, though that presumably did not mean half-shafts, which would have been far too expensive for such a cost-conscious product.
Standard transmission was the usual three-speed manual with column shift, but optional overdrive was planned along with an automatic transmission of undisclosed (or, more likely, undecided) design.
The 6/66 progressed to a single running prototype, a two-door sedan that looked for all the world like a shrunken mid-1940s Hudson. Designer Stevens, then working as a consultant, also penned a convertible version with a fashionable blind-quarter cabriolet top, but it went no further than his drawing board. Stevens doodled numerous trim variations.
Front-end workouts followed a common theme of a trim die-cast grille beneath a "coffin nose" hood reminiscent of the late, great Cord 810/812. Many of Stevens' renderings, as well as factory photographs of the lone prototype, showed "1947" license plates, suggesting that was the planned introductory model year. At one point, base price was targeted as low as -- you guessed it -- $666.
Somewhere along the way, the 6/66 became the Model 6-70, as shown on a set of general specifications dated April 17, 1945. It was the same car, however, and that was the problem.
Canaday had never liked it, and he liked it even less when the prototype was hit by a train during a trial run, killing the wife of the test driver. Joe stuck to his guns, but Canaday also stuck to his, so Frazer left in mid-1944 for Graham-Paige and his short-lived alliance with Henry John Kaiser.
In retrospect, Willys was wise not to pursue a compact in 1947. Demand for small cars, however cheap, was very thin in those days, and the 6/66 would have looked somewhat dated.
Besides, civilian Jeep business quickly proved to be highly profitable, and Willys was able to offer a far better car by waiting until 1952. Regrettably, its worthy new Aero-Willys sold well only in 1952 and was gone within three years, leaving Toledo to rely once more on Jeeps alone.
Of course, that was hardly tragic, even though the Willys name vanished completely by 1970. After all, Toledo has never stopped building Jeeps, and some people still think of them as Willys products -- not a bad fate for a defunct nameplate.