The Popular, Advanced Willys Whippet
The common idea that Americans haven’t made small cars does not always have a basis in reality. Willys, a predecessor of AMC/Jeep, brought out a highly successful, small four-cylinder car — but its success was marred by the Depression.
Introduced in 1926 in three countries (Canada, the United States, and Australia), the Willys Whippet replaced the storied Overland brand — though early Whippets had Overland hubcaps and radiator tags, and some brochures called it an Overland-Whippet. The Overland traces were soon dropped.
Whippet had an advanced, refined engine with pump forced cooling and full pressurized lubrication; it gained four wheel hydraulic brakes in 1939 (using the Chrysler design). The 1927 4 cylinder Whippet had about 35 horsepower, and 90 ft lbs of torque. In the light, smaller body of the Whippet the mighty little engine made the Whippet feel and handle like it was lively and quick.
The cars were light, sturdy, fast, dependable, and inexpensive. They ranged from a fairly well equipped lead model at $525 all the way up to $850.
People mobbed the showrooms. One estimate had over 14 million people visiting Overland showrooms in the United States in the first three weeks. The Willys Whippet was neat, well made, stylish, and well promoted, and sales took off.
John N. Willys intended the Whippet to be a new brand for light, fast, economical, stylish, and inexpensive cars. Unlike the cheap Fords, the Whippet had four wheel brakes, a water pump, and forced lubrication. The body was compact but because of the intelligent design, it was roomy; the relatively low-hung car had good cornering; and the light weight provided both gas mileage and speed.
The wheelbase was just over 100 inches, making it slightly larger than the Model T; but the 2.2 liter engine easily beat Ford's performance, and the cooling and lubrication features also helped it to be more durable and reliable.
Whippet production easily jumped to 100,000. With the instant success of the four-cylinder Whippet, Willys quickly rebadged the Overland 93 to Whippet 93 for 1927; but the four cylinder continued to be the sales leader. Indeed, by 1928, the Whippet was the third best selling car in the United States (the Plymouth was #15, in its first year).
The Whippet Model 96 went out of production at the end of 1928, replaced by the Whippet 96A, which had a slightly (3/8 inch) longer stroke.
For the Model 77, Willys reverted to the Model 96 bore (3.125”) and its shorter 4.375” stroke; aside from that, and the same bore spacings, the Willys 77 engine was a complete redesign, and the only part that can interchange without rework with the Model 96 series is the head. The 1933-38 Willys 77 head can be retrofitted to the 96 for a higher compression ratio and the better spark plugs in the later models.
The Willys 77 design was adapted for the Model 48 of 1939, and was redesigned to enhance durability in 1939; this redesigned version was a significant engine, even if Willys and the world did not recognize it as yet. It would be the basis for the "GO-DEVIL" engine that powered thousands of Jeeps; the basic design was used for many years, with a 1946 cam drive and crankshaft redesign, and a new version with the F head (overhead inlet valve, side-valve exhaust) for 1950. Both 1946-design L134 and F-head F134 were produced for some years. (Thanks, Ted Robinette of the Willys Overland Club, Victoria, Australia.)
In 1929, Willys-Overland production hit 320,000 cars, with a profit of $187 million. The Whippet may have well been the major reason why Edsel Ford kept telling Henry, his father, that Ford needed to update their cars. That was their peak, though; in 1930, the Whippet (along with the inexpensive Hudson Essex) were sinking fast.
In 1930, a new eight cylinder was brought out, with remarkably bad timing; and the Whippet name, still fresh and hot, was unaccountably replaced by Willys.