The little Americar of 1942 had given way to the Jeep and light trucks. If Willys was going to return to the car business, it would need something distinctive spun from them.
The 1948 Willys Jeepster was a phaeton with a
carlike feel that owed much to Jeep trucks. See more classic car pictures.
Truly distinctive automobiles can sometimes come from the least likely places. The Willys Jeepster is a perfect example: Who would have thought one of America's most daring postwar automobile designs would be produced by a light-truck manufacturer? It came about simply because the chairman of Willys-Overland was determined to get back in the business of manufacturing passenger cars.
Willys chairman Ward Canaday was by nature a determined man. After the death in 1935 of John North Willys, who bought moribund Overland in 1907 and made it prosper for a time, Canaday shrewdly engineered a takeover of the now-bankrupt company via a complicated exchange of bonds and warrants for stock shares. For less than $2.5 million, a group of investors led by Canaday gained control of Willys-Overland.
With the threat of bankruptcy removed, the firm was able to get back into the production of cars and trucks. Remarkably, during 1937, its first year of operation, the new Willys-Overland Motors reported a profit of $473,000.
However, the following year the company reported a loss and would have nothing but losses to report until 1941, when sales of its Willys Americar passenger automobiles were augmented by government purchases of the first military scout vehicles that would come to be known as Jeeps.
World War II was Willys' salvation, and the attendant high levels of Jeep production provided funds to modernize and retool the company's aging plant. By war's end, Willys had a modern production system capable of high-volume output, and Canaday was aching to get back into the production of cars.
The responsibility for returning to peacetime production fell on the shoulders of Willys-Overland's president, Charles Sorensen, who landed at Willys after his earlier career at Ford Motor Company ended abruptly. "Cast-Iron Charlie" Sorensen was perhaps the most capable production manager in the world just then.
The first postwar vehicle Willys could produce was a civilian version of the Jeep -- a snap since it entailed minor revisions to an existing product rather than a completely new model. The Toledo, Ohio, plant was soon pumping out civilian Jeep CJ-2As. Still, in order to survive, Willys needed to build something in addition to the CJ.
After investigating the postwar supplier situation, however, Sorensen advised Canaday that Willys would be unable to produce passenger cars in the foreseeable future simply because there were no body manufacturers interested in supplying Willys' minuscule requirements. "Murray, Briggs, Budd-they won't even talk to us," he complained.
But Sorenson would soon solve this conundrum. Read the next section to find out what he did.
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