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The Popular, Advanced Willys Whippet

Portions based on an article
at Allpar by Curtis Redgap

The idea that Americans haven't made small cars does not always have a basis in reality; Willys (of Jeep fame), for one, brought out a successful small car in 1926.

Introduced in 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).

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Whippet had an advanced, refined engine with pump-based cooling and full pressure lubrication; it gained four wheel hydraulic brakes in 1930, 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.

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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).

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The Whippet Model 96A replaced the 96 at the end of 1928, adding a slightly (3/8 inch) longer stroke to the engine.

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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, a new eight cylinder Whippet was launched to the sound of crickets; perhaps it had been in development before the 1929 crash, but it was not what buyers wanted at that moment.

In January 1931, the new Willys C-113 body design started in production - without Whippet name badges. Thus, very early in 1931, the familiar, still popular Whippet was dropped - when it quite probably still had a lot of life left in it.

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Traces continued. The Whippet engine, redesigned to enhance durability, became the basis for the "Go-Devil" engine that powered thousands of Jeeps. The basic design was used for many years, with a final major redesign adopting an F-head for the 1950 cars. (Thanks, Ted Robinette of the Willys Overland Club, Victoria, Australia.)

Willys never even hit a third of their 1930 sales until, after the wary, they started mass-producing Jeeps for civilians; their cars quickly faded. Jeep turned out to be a major success for the company, but never hit anything like 1929's 320,000 sales; still, they had six-figure production for some time.

Kaiser took over Willys in 1953, seeking a unique market niche and global reach; the Willys name faded out, and is now mainly known to enthusiasts.

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