The Popular, Advanced Willys Whippet
The idea that Americans haven’t made small cars does not always have a basis in reality. Willys, which was later to produce the Jeep, brought out a successful small car in 1926.
Introduced in three countries (Canada, the United States, and Australia), the Willys Whippet replaced the storied Overland (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-based cooling and full pressure lubrication; it gained four wheel hydraulic brakes in 1939, using the Chrysler design. The 1927 four-cylinder Whippet had about 35 horsepower, and 90 ft lbs of torque. In the light body of the Whippet, the little engine made the Whippet feel 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 cheap Fords, the Whippet had four wheel brakes, a water pump, and forced lubrication. The body was compact but roomy; the low center of gravity provided 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 it was more durable and reliable.
Whippet production jumped to an astonishing 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 96A replaced the 96 at the end of 1928, adding 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. (Thanks, Ted Robinette, Willys Overland Club, Victoria, Australia)
The Willys 77 design was adapted for the Model 48 of 1939, and was redesigned to enhance durability in 1939; this was a significant engine, 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 his father, Henry, that Ford needed to update their cars. That was their peak, though — and not coincidentally, the year John North Willys sold his interest in the company to become ambassador to Poland.
In 1930, the Whippet started sinking fast. A new eight cylinder was brought out, with remarkably bad timing; and the Whippet name, still fairly fresh and hot, was unaccountably dropped replaced by Willys on the new C-113 body design in January 1931. Willys would never break 100,000 again; from 1939 to 1949, the company never even hit sales of 33,000 cars. Kaiser took over the company in 1953.