Story and photos by Brian Earnest
If Rodger Wilson had his way, every old car buff would take their turn owning and caring for an early prewar car. They way Wilson figures it, too many people are missing the boat by not experiencing life with a survivor from motoring’s early days.
As a lifetime lover of prewar touring cars, Wilson is doing his part to spread the old car gospel behind the wheel of his lovely 1922 Overland.
“I go to cruise nights and things like that, and some shows. Obviously, you don’t see much of this kind of stuff around — and everybody just oohs and aahs about it, but nobody wants to pick it up and run with it,” says Wilson, a resident of Bolingbrook, Ill. “Unfortunately, most of the guys that are into these cars are all dying off, and all the knowledge about these cars and how to keep them running is all going away. So I would love to see some more people come along and join me in my passion and keep these cars running.”
The love for early touring cars was apparently hereditary in the Wilson clan. Rodger’s dad had similar interests and Wilson was a fan of primitive machines from an early age. It was only a matter of time before he had some of his own.
“My dad had a Maxwell touring car and a REO touring car when I was growing up. I wanted something other than a [Ford] Model T or Model A simply because, of the ones that are out there, there are more of those than anything. I wanted something more offbeat. So when I cam across the Overland, I decided to pursue that.”
The 1922 Model 4 touring had been in the same father-son ownership for more than 50 years and had been mostly restored. Wilson found a kindred spirit in the man who was selling it after his father died. “He wanted to find somebody who would do something with it. He didn’t want it to go to somebody who would street rod it or tear it up and that kid of thing. He saw that I had a love and passion for the old touring cars, so I was able to get it from him.”
“They lived in Brookfield, Ill., and when his father passed away he went ahead and took over some of the restoration work and had it repainted and had the upholstery done. But he wound up losing interest in it. When I got it most of the hard stuff had been done already. I had to do the wiring and a few odds and ends, but it was mostly done.”
The catchy red leather seat upholstery is not factory correct, but the sturdy Overland is otherwise very similar to the way it left the Overland factory in Toledo, Ohio. The original interior would have been black to match the black paint. The black-on-black paint scheme seemed appropriate since the Model 4 was a direct competitor to Model T Ford, which was also black.
Most Overlands wound up being built in Toledo, but the company was actually founded in Terra Haute, Ind., by Charles Minshall of the Standard Wheel Company, and a young recent college graduate named Claude E. Cox. The company began with a single-cylinder model, then soon added two-cylinder and four-cylinder models. The company outgrew the Terra Haute factory and moved to Indianapolis in 1905, then moved again to Toledo in 1909. By then the company was getting big orders for cars from New York auto dealer John North Willys. When the company got behind and failed to keep up with his production orders, Willys wound up taking the reins.
The ensuing years saw the introduction of the Willys-Knight car and a series of ups and downs for the company and John North Willys, who invested in other companies and even bought the New Jersey Duesenberg plant.
By 1922 Willys-Overland was still sixth among all U.S. manufacturers with more than 95,000 assemblies. It would soldier on through more peaks and valleys, and a name change to Whippet, before eventually folding for good in 1939.
Wilson had to do plenty of homework on the company and its cars when he decided adopt his orphan Overland. “I wound up joining the Willys-Overland-Knight club, and that is a tremendous resource to help figure things out and getting details on the car,” he said. “This car was built to compete with the Model T. The Model T had 20 hp, this one had 27 hp. It was almost double [the cost of a] Model T. This sold for $595 and the Model T was $348.
“One other thing that’s a little unique about this car is the suspension. It’s a ‘triplex’ suspension, and you can see how it curves out there in the front and it does the same in the back, and people didn’t trust it because everything was pretty much straight over the axle…. So dealers would put on these demonstrations where they would jump the cars over ramps and so forth to prove the cars were trustworthy and would stand up.
“Of course, what I want to know is did those wood-spoke wheels survive when they landed?[laughs]”
The 1922 Overland is equipped with both electric and hand-crank starting. “When it’s warm a quarter turn and it will fire right up, but when it’s cold you’ll crank your guts out,” Wilson noted with a chuckle.
The small circular accelerator is located in a unique spot on the floor between the brake on the left and the clutch on the right. “The parking brake is on the left side of the transmission, rather than the right side, which is a little bit unique,” Wilson noted. “But what that does is run you out of room to get your feet to the gas pedal, so your gas pedal is in the middle.”
Wilson folds the top down to get the Overland in and out of the trailer he uses for longer road trips, but otherwise he generally keeps the top up during his weekends at car shows and on weekday cruise nights. “It’s just personal preference to have the top up,” he says. “I guess I like that look better.”
Wilson says he has never been disappointed in the Overland’s road manners, handling or reliability. He’s driven the car regularly in the years he has had it and his affection for the ’22 has waned a bit.
“It’s fun to drive. It cruises pretty good at about 35 [mph], so you’re not going to get anywhere in a hurry,” he says. “Of course, the braking system is rear wheel only and it’s mechanical, so you’ve got to allow more room to stop. You have to drive the car, not like today where the car drives you. It handles pretty good for its year and its vintage, and you can turn it on a dime. It turns so sharp it’s crazy. Of course, you don’t have synchronized gears in the transmission, but you learn how to drive it. There is sort of a learning curve."
Aside from one rod bearing failure, Wilson said the Overland has never been in the shop since he’s owned it.
For all his affinity for his venerable Overland, Wilson admitted he is actually looking for new owner for the car — not because he doesn’t enjoy it anymore, but to make room for another early car or two that he has been stalking.
“I have this for sale because I have my eye on two or three others,” Wilson admits happily. “I just love the old touring cars. They’re old and they are fun, and they are something a lot of people have never heard of.”
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