Willys-Overland: Whippet to Jeep

Willys-Overland was, before producing the Jeep, one of America’s biggest automakers, but its early life was fairly tumultuous — having to be saved twice by Walter P. Chrysler. The story really began around 1903, when the Standard Wheel Company bought a car design from Claude Cox, and created its Overland Automobile Division. The car met with a good reception, and the company tooled up to make more.

willys runabout

Highly successful bicycle salesman John North Willys, of Elmira, New York, was good enough that it took two factories to fully supply his operations. By 1900, he was, at 27, extremely wealthy, and started selling cars in 1901; he bought a Rambler franchise in 1902, and moved from selling eight cars to needing more stock than he could get from Rambler and Pierce. Willys heard about Overland’s cars, and ordered an entire year’s output to be his sole source, but none arrived at his shop, despite a $10,000 check to Overland.

1904 Overland runabout

Willys went to the Indianapolis plant to investigate, and found that Overland was in shambles, unable to produce cars, and close to bankruptcy as a result. A plant explosion in 1904 had caused Standard Wheel to lose interest and sell Overland to the car’s inventor, Claude Cox, for $8,000; Cox reorganized in 1906, but the cars were built using money from an investor who could not sink anything more into the venture.

Willys arrived and found 45 unfinished cars on the assembly line, and the plant in a mess; workers hadn’t been paid because Overland did not have the funds. Willys jumped in with both feet, energetically seizing power, calling the shots, and getting people organized, while raising cash from friends in Elmira, getting $3,500 wired in just a day later. Overland’s creditors, owed $80,000, held off, and production restarted; Willys increased production by a factor of ten, to 465, which were all sold. Willys arranged to buy Overland at that point, renaming it to Willys-Overland Company. Willys himself was not just the president but also the treasurer, sales manager, and purchasing agent.

Given the popularity of the cars, which can largely be credited to Willys himself, he built a new factory in 1908, and then realized it, too, was too small. He bought the Marion Car Company in 1909, hoping to use employee Harry Stutz’s skills, but Stutz left to form his own, famous firm. Finally, Willys bought the large Pope Motors plant in Toledo Ohio, a modern facility, for $285,000, moving the entire organization there in 1911.

1911 Overland
The photograph of this 1911 Overland Model 38 Torpedo Roadster was provided by RM Auctions. It sold for $35,200 in 2012.

From 1910 to 1927, Overland was second in US production only to the Model T, which arrived in 1909. The Overland was a better car, with a sliding-gear transmission and relatively high quality, at a higher price. At the end of 1910, Willys-Overland had a profit of over $1 million and had no debt.

Willys met Charles Knight, inventor of a “sleeve valve” engine (that replaced the poppet valves used by most others). He tested a Knight car and sought the cheapest way to use the new engine — which turned out to be buying Edwards Motor Car, which already had a license. Willys made the engines in Ohio, closing Edwards’ Long Island plant. Not using the poppets eliminated valves, valve springs, push rods, lifters, and valve rocker arms, not to mention being able to put spark plugs into the center of the heads. He got more power, with less compression, sludge, and carbon deposits. He called it the “Willys-Knight” engine; originally a six, he developed a four cylinder and a V8. The technology seemed better but reached its limits quickly.

1913 edwards-knight

Production rose from 15,500 in 1910 to 150,000 in 1915; he had 18,000 employees in Toledo and 20,000 more in Ohio, New York, and two cities in Michigan. In 1917, he made Willys-Overland a holding company to allow for buying suppliers, including Auto-Lite.

1917 Willys

john north willysWillys started to have trouble when he moved his headquarters to New York, in 1918. A year later, he bought Duesenberg’s almost-new engine plant in Elizabeth, New Jersey; it had made marine engines for US, Russian, and Italian submarine chasers, and Bugatti aircraft engines. Willys spent $8 million retooling the plant and developing an evolution of the Willys 6, but while he was busy in New York, trouble brewed in Toledo, resulting in a long strike in 1919. The plant was shut down for months, just as a short, sharp recession hit; Willys’ creditors pushed the company into receivership and hired Walter P. Chrysler, recently retired from Buick, to run the company. Chrysler demanded $1 million per year, for two years, regardless of outcomes, an unheard of payment — and it was accepted.

Chrysler consulted Willys’ engineers — three very skilled people named Fred Zeder, Owen Skelton, and Carl Breer — who said the car had a weak frame, and an engine that was not strong or reliable enough. They happened to have such a car, developed from a clean sheet, being prepared, using a new high compression six cylinder engine. Willys and Chrysler agreed on the plan of building it, but Chrysler wanted to not just build it but sell it as the “Chrysler.” He even placed newspaper ads in 1920 and 1921 for the Chrysler Six, “a product of the Willys Corporation.” But Chrysler’s attempt at taking over Willys failed and he went back into retirement.

Willys’ Tobe Couture wrote:

It gave a very good ride and an unusually good performance. This car was light and had plenty of displacement in the motor. The result was that the bankers threw in 15 million dollars to put up a new building. It was 5 stories high, 3500 feet long, and 460 feet wide, and was completed by April, 1919.

Tobe Couture, Fred Zeder, and Barney Oldfield

... Six experimental cars were built. Road testing began, and after mileage accumulated, the frame began to fail in various places. Then the body began to show up failures.... with more mileage, the engine began to show its weaknesses. In the meantime, tooling was going on and we were getting ready for production.

Chrysler had not neglected Willys-Overland; after two years, he had reduced the debt from $48 million to $18 million. However, Willys-Overland needed cash three months after Chrysler left; and the Elizabeth plant went up for sale, along with their New Process Gear Company in Syracuse, New York, whicih Chrysler would eventually buy. Chrysler sent an agent to the sale, but his maximum of $5 million was outbid by GM founder Willam Crap Durant’s $5.2 million. Durant would further develop the new six cylinder car and sell it as the Flint.

With the $5.2 million from Elizabeth and $10 million from New Process Gear, John Willys was able to bring Willys-Overland back to profitability in early 1922. He set about to build a second automobile empire from there, and Willys-Overland car continued on its successful path.

1926 forge shop at Toledo Ohio

In 1925, John Willys bought luxury automaker Stearns, which had used the Knight sleeve valve engine since 1911; they were as refined as Packard or Pierce-Arrow, and sales of the Willys-Knight and Sterns-Knight cars climbed to 50,000 per year, at an immense profit. Stearns’ final year, 1929, saw production drop from around 3,000 per year to a little over 1,000. He continued to expand in Toledo.

1926 Toledo plant

A big surprise arrived in 1926, with the new Willys Whippet, a replacement for the old Overland. A totally new car, launched on May 12, 1926 in Canada, the United States, and Australia, the Willys Whippet was the smallest four-cylinder car on the market. Early Whippets had Overland hubcaps and radiator tags, but the Overland traces soon disappeared.

The Whippet was successful enough that the six-cylinder Overland 93 was renamed to Whippet 93.

go-devil engineOne key to the Whippet was its engine, which had a cooling pump, full-pressure lubrication, and, starting in 1939, four-wheel hydraulic brakes based on the Chrysler-Lockheed design. The car itself was light, sturdy, dependable, and inexpensive, but also fast and handled well. The base car was $525, and the top model was $850.

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.

The 2.2-liter, 35-horsepower engine was good for 90 pound-feet of torque, a good amount for the weight of the car, and would be the basis for the famed Jeep “Go-Devil” engine.

With the Whippet, production leaped to 100,000, and in 1928, the Whippet was the third best selling car in the United States.

The Whippet Model 96A replaced the 96 at the end of 1928, adding a slightly (3/8 inch) longer stroke. In 1929, Willys-Overland made 320,000 cars at a profit of $187 million. Yet, John North Willys resigned as president and sold his common stock (before the Crash) for $25 million. The stock market crash led to the end of the luxury Stearns-Knight.

John Willys himself became ambassador to Poland in 1930; and Willys brought out a new eight cylinder.

Willys Whippet

In 1930, the Whippet name, still fresh and popular, was unaccountably dropped and 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.

In 1932, Willys brought a restyled line of 1933 Willys and Willys-Knight cars. Sales were a disaster, with 571 Willys-Knight Great Six, 6,775 Willys Six and 1,022 Willys Eight models built in a six month period. Production came to an end in October, 1932, and the plants sat idle. The Canadian operation was shut down completely and all assets sold off. Willys would not have a Canadian presence again until 1937.

1930 Whippet

Willys-Overland had lost $35 million between 1929 and 1932; a new four-cylinder Willys 77 was announced for 1933, along with a six-cylinder that was never produced. The Model 77 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)

With these issues, Willys-Overland went into receivership in 1933. John North Willys returned, and without warning, divorced his wife in 1934, remarrying in 1935. He became the President of Willys-Overland again in 1935, but in the same year, suffered a fatal heart attack.

The bankruptcy recovery plan was accepted in 1936; the Willys Real Estate Realization Corp. was formed and all real estate owned by Willys-Overland was transfered to it. A new company, Willys-Overland Motors, Inc. took over auto manufacturing, renting its offices and plants from WRERC, which did not need the whole complex. WRERC rented out facilties not used by Willys-Overland Motors, Incorporated. It was now profitable and run conservatively.

The Willys 77 design was adapted for the Model 48 of 1939, and was redesigned for better durability in 1939. 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.)

Jeep MB on display

The company continued on going through the World War II years with the awarding of the open bid contract to build the “jeep” for the military. When Willys resumed production for the public in 1946, it focused on civilian versions of the mostly-Bantam-designed military recon vehicles; its cars, made from 1951 to 1955, had little success.

1950 Willys wagon

In 1953, Kaiser Corporation bought out Willys-Overland Motors, and renamed it Willys Motors Company. In 1963 the company re-organized, becoming Kaiser-Jeep Corporation, and the Willys name disappeared into history (though Overland was used as a premium Jeep model, and a concept Jeep Willys was created).

Also see: John North Willys (bio) and Willys Whippet (car)

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