Story and photos
by David W. Temple
Twice John North Willys brought a car company back from near-certain bankruptcy to great prosperity — once as a distributor of the cars and once as company president. There was yet another time when the end was near, but that time he could only manage to keep Willys-Overland in existence. Considering that third time happened during the Great Depression, simply keeping the company alive was a remarkable accomplishment.
Willys was born on Oct. 25, 1873, in Canandaigua, N.Y., and began learning the art and science of entrepreneurship during his childhood. During his childhood, he raised money to buy his own clothing and shoes, and in his teens, he partnered with a friend in running a laundry. In the 1890s, he began a bicycle repair shop in his hometown that soon grew to include bicycle sales. Business was so good Willys expanded his operations by purchasing a larger facility in nearby Elmira. By 1900, his company was selling $500,000 worth of bicycles per year, the equivalent of approximately $13.5 million today. These experiences gave Willys the skills he would later use in the automobile industry.
Willys enters the car business
Willys first saw the new horseless carriage upon spying one of automotive pioneer Alexander Winton’s vehicles in 1898 or 1899 and immediately decided the motor car business was for him. He persuaded Percy Pierce to let him try selling the Pierce Motorette in 1900, but could not sell even one; the following year, he sold one or two of them. Willys also took over a Rambler franchise in 1902 and sold eight cars followed by another 20 in 1903. He had found selling the automobile to be challenging during a time in which the new contraptions were facing some public resistance. However, he knew the automobile had a bright future and pressed on.
His next big venture came in 1906 when he became co-owner of the American Motors Sales Co., which served as a distributor for Indianapolis-based automobile manufacturers Marion and Overland. Unfortunately, in November of that year, a severe economic recession (or, in contemporary lingo, a financial panic) began and threatened to bankrupt Overland, which found itself caught with an $80,000 debt (equal to about $2 million today). Willys had already made deposits totaling $10,000 for cars that were not likely to be delivered. Therefore, he traveled to Indianapolis to tour the factory, assess the situation and speak with creditors whom he convinced to hold off on receivership. Willys raised cash to pay immediate financial obligations in order to get the production line going again. The business prowess that Willys demonstrated at that moment motivated Overland management to offer him the positions of company president and general manager, which he accepted. By the end of 1908, the company had generated an income of $5 million (equivalent to about $124.5 million today), $1 million of which was profit.
In January 1909, Willys purchased the Marion Car Co. with the intent of using its facilities to build Overland cars, and the space was much needed. About two months later, the much larger Toledo plant of Pope was offered for sale. The company had failed due to over-expansion and its plant was purchased for a bargain price. All Overland operations were moved to Toledo, Ohio, and the company reorganized as Willys-Overland. Also in 1909, the company introduced another line of larger, more powerful cars including its first six-cylinder model, the first to bear the Willys name. Sales were strong and from 1911 to 1918, Willys-Overland was the second largest automobile manufacturer in the United States just behind Ford Motor Co.
John Willys licensed the patented sleeve-valve engine designed by Charles Knight to power the Willys-Knight automobile starting in 1913. Willys had also acquired the Electric Auto-Lite Co. (1914); Russell Motor Car Co. of Toronto, Ontario (1916); New Process Gear (1919); and the Duesenberg Motors Co. plant in Elizabeth, N.J. (1919). In 1917, Willys formed the Willys Corp. to act as his holding company.
The former Duesenberg plant was ordered to be razed so it could be replaced with a larger facility for producing the new Willys Six. This was at a time when construction costs were skyrocketing. About this time, some major blows just about put an end to Willys’s empire. A strike by workers starting in May 1919 shut down production while John Willys was away in New York. Company Vice President Clarence Earl telephoned his boss to assure him the strike would be over in a week. It was not. The situation got ugly, in fact, and production did not resume for another six months. Then another recession hit and it lasted into 1921. Due to the more recent expansion and the strike, total company debt had ballooned to $30 million (equivalent to about $402.2 million today). Some projected that $50 million would need to be raised in order to save Willys-Overland.
After much negotiating, a banking syndicate headed by Chase Securities Corp. came to the rescue, but with the conditions of a high interest rate and John Willys ceding his authority to Walter P. Chrysler. Chrysler, who had previously run Buick, accepted the $1 million annual salary offered by the group, which obviously had great confidence in his abilities.
Chrysler immediately began making drastic changes: he cut Willys’s salary by half, sold off a variety of assets such as Curtiss Aeroplane, Moline Plow and various other subsidiaries, as well as the former Duesenberg plant site. In addition, he terminated production of the four-cylinder line and the Willys-Knight Model 20, which could no longer compete in the marketplace. When the dust settled, Chrysler took some of Willys’s best engineers with him to a company bearing his name. Willys-Overland had survived, but at great cost.
In 1926, production of the Overland was brought to an end and was replaced by the Whippet line of small cars, which stayed in production through 1931. The stock market crash and the economic turmoil that followed led to canceling production of the entire Willys-Knight and Stearns-Knight lines, too, plus a $35 million debt (the equivalent of approximately $564.4 million today).
Some months before the stock market crash, John Willys sold all of his stock in the company and accepted an offer from President Herbert Hoover to become the ambassador to Poland. Willys gave up his ambassadorship and came back to Toledo to try to manage another rescue of the company he founded, though it was declared bankrupt by 1932. Many in the city were hoping he could do it; 47 percent of Toledo’s population was employed by the company!
Two new models were planned for production for the 1933 model year, the four-cylinder Model 77 and the six-cylinder Model 99, but only the “77” was ultimately produced due to the precarious financial condition of the company and the requirements of the federal bankruptcy court. The company barely managed to continue with its restricted production. Not helping was a car of limited visual appeal. Some referred to the styling as the “European look,” while others just said it was ugly. The motivation behind the out-of-step styling is believed to have been John Willys’s attempt to gain an export market. Unfortunately, Europe was in the midst of a severe economic depression, too, thus the export market never materialized. Styling of the Model 77 was subsequently improved.
In 1936, the Willys-Overland Motor Co. was reorganized as Willys-Overland Motors, but John North Willys did not live to see his reorganization plan approved by the bankruptcy court, having passed away on Aug. 26, 1935.
Willys-Overland Motors began offering the newly designed Model 37 for 1937. It was powered by an improved four-cylinder engine and featured a bigger, more modern-looking streamlined body with a slanted windshield, headlamp assemblies again integrated into the fenders and a rounded one-piece hood. Many were still put off by the new styling, the relatively small size and the 48-hp four-cylinder engine (Chevrolets had sixes and Fords had V-8s), yet production climbed to help Willys-Overland Motors stay in business. The body from the cowl back stayed in use through the war-shortened 1942 model year.
The 1937 Model 37 was offered in coupe and sedan forms in either standard or Deluxe trim at prices starting at $499 for the standard coupe and $589 for the Deluxe sedan. In all, about 63,000 of the cars are believed to have been produced for that model year (historians disagree on the precise figure, some stating the number is closer to 51,000). Over the years, many Willyses were transformed into drag cars because they were cheap, lightweight and their short 100-inch wheelbases helped them grip upon launch. As a result, few survive in stock condition today.
A rare stocker
The 1937 Willys Deluxe coupe shown on these pages is one of 11 such coupes known to still exist in factory form. It was purchased in mid-1982 by current owner Johnny Allen of White Oak, Texas, after getting a single response from a want ad placed in Cars & Parts magazine. Johnny had owned a 1937 coupe that he bought from his aunt around 1948. That was the car he owned when he was married the following year, but after three years of ownership, the car had to be replaced.
Allen traveled to Omaha, Neb., to make the purchase. Upon arrival, he found a drivable Willys that had been painted with a brush and had rusty rear fenders and running boards. Cracks in the rear fenders had been filled with caulking.
“I showed up with a trailer, so the seller knew I was going to buy it!” Allen joked. Included with the sale were a few spare parts: a transmission, rear end, and seat springs, which have been kept in storage. The uncommon relic and extra parts were loaded onto the trailer and brought home. However, the restoration of the Willys did not begin until 2001.
A search for rear fenders resulted in one used set being found in California, and they needed work. The price tag of $2,100 was too much to pay. Fortunately, Allen found someone capable of repairing his original fenders for only $350. The work, which involved cutting away the rusty sections and replacing them with new steel, must have been done properly because the rust has not returned in the 15 years since the work was completed.
Though Allen’s car is a Deluxe model, it lacks the deluxe trim strips across the sides of the hood, nor did it ever have the mounting holes for them. Reportedly, the trim was supplied in the trunk and the dealer was supposed to have installed them. Perhaps there were times when the trim was not supplied by the Toledo plant.
Good original steering wheels for these cars appear to be unobtainable and the wheel on the featured car is in need of restoration. While steering wheel restoration services are available, the cost is understandably not inexpensive. Luckily for Allen, his son has volunteered to do the job. Furthermore, a good plastic horn button also appears to be non-existent and is not reproduced. Also missing is the deluxe hood ornament (a standard type is in its place) and the steam whistle that attached to the radiator overflow hose and served as a temperature gauge (it whistled if the radiator overheated). Though the restoration was declared completed in 2003, the car is still something of a work in progress.
The rest of the story
Finances for Willys-Overland Motors much improved when the company was chosen by the U.S. War Department to mass produce a lightweight vehicle based on a prototype designed by American Bantam.
Production of the Willys MB, better known as the “Jeep” (reportedly originating from pronouncing “GP,” the abbreviation for “general purpose”), began in 1941. A total of 359,851 were produced before the end of World War II. Approximately 100,000 more were built afterwards.
At the end of the war, Willys did not resume production of passenger cars, but instead produced Jeeps and Jeep-based vehicles, and did so successfully. However, Willys had planned to re-enter the passenger car market in 1947 with the Willys 6-70 sedan. (The model name was based on its six-cylinder engine producing 70 hp.) Ultimately, it never entered production.
Not until 1952 did Willys resume production of passenger cars. Its first such vehicle in a decade was a compact model, the Willys Aero. Kaiser Motors purchased Willys-Overland in 1953 and the last of the original Aero models was built in 1955. The tooling for the car was shipped to Brazil where the Aero went back into production almost unchanged starting in 1960 and lasting into 1962. The car was restyled for 1963 and continued to be built into the 1970s. However, in October 1967, Ford Motor Co. purchased Willys-Overland Brasil, thus these cars were built under Ford’s management. The American version of Willys changed its name to Kaiser-Jeep Corp. in 1963, thus ending the use of the name Willys in this country.
In 1970, Kaiser-Jeep was sold to American Motors Corp. (AMC) which then proceeded to install its own engine developed for its other cars in its new Jeep models.
Nine years later, Renault made a major investment in AMC and took over operation of the company, producing the CJ series until 1986. This was followed by Chrysler Corp.’s purchase of AMC in 1987 and then in 1998, the Daimler-Chrysler merger for $36 billion transpired. Today, Chrysler is owned by Fiat and still produces Jeep vehicles in Toledo, Ohio.
Incidentally, DaimlerChrysler introduced the Overland name for a trim package on the 2003 Jeep Grand Cherokee. The badging was a recreation of the Overland nameplate from the early 20th century.
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