From bicycles to cars
On this date in 1873, John North Willys, a “leading automobile industrialist,” was born in Canandaigua, New York. He began his career selling bicycles and was quite successful – by 1900 (when he was only 27) he had sold more than $500,000 in bicycles. However, when Willys (pronounced Will-is) saw his first automobile he realized that autos would supplant bicycles as the primary mode of personal transportation. He started a car dealership in Elmira, New York, and sold the Overland brand of vehicles.
From retail to manufacturing
By 1907, Willys’ sales were growing faster than Overland was able to produce cars for his dealership. His solution was to become a manufacturer; he bought the Indianapolis-based Overland Automotive Division of Standard Wheel Company and began revamping the company. In 1909, Willys purchased the Marion Motor Car Co. as well.
He later shifted production of the company’s automobiles to a factory he purchased from the bankrupt Pope Motor Car Co. in Toledo, Ohio. In 1912, he renamed the company the Willys-Overland Motor Company. Then, Willys had a seven-story headquarters built in Toledo; it was the most modern building of its kind in 1915. Before the end of the decade, about one-third of Toledo’s workforce either was employed at Willys-Overland or at one of its suppliers.
From cars to trucks and airplanes
Willys was very successful; between 1912 and 1918, Willys-Overland ranked second only to the Ford Motor Company in automobile production. In 1913, Willys acquired a license to build Charles Knight’s sleeve-valve engine, which it used in cars bearing the Willys-Knight name. Willys continued acquisitions – in 1914 the Electric Auto-Lite Company was purchased; in 1916, the Russell Motor Car Company of Toronto, Ontario was acquired, and the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company of Buffalo, New York and New Process Gear were both purchased in1917. That same year, the Willys Corporation was established to act as the holding company for the numerous acquisitions.
Then, following the U.S. entry into World War I, Willys’ company became a major manufacturer of trucks and airplanes for military use.
Following the end of the war, Willys acquired the Duesenberg Motors Company manufacturing facility in Elizabeth, New Jersey in 1919.
Labor issues and betrayal
Despite the success and the importance of Willys-Overland to Toledo, labor issues hit the company’s manufacturing facility in 1919. The resulting strike was violent and shut the plant down for several months.
Then, the 1920-21 depression hurt the Willys Corporation badly. The company’s bankers hired Walter P. Chrysler from General Motors to help right the company. Production of the Willys Six was halted. Chrysler then tried to oust Willys. Luckily, the attempted takeover bid backfired.
Many of the company’s assets were sold to help pay the company’s debts. William C. Durant, who had started General Motors, purchased the Elizabeth plant and a six-cylinder auto prototype.
In the mid-1920s, Willys had paid its debts and acquired Cleveland’s F.B. Stearns Company; the company continued building the Stearns-Knight luxury car. Willys-Overland introduced a new line of small cars in 1926 named the Willys-Overland Whippet.
The company built a new automobile factory in Commerce, California in 1929.
In 1930, President Herbert Hoover appointed Willys as the first U.S. Ambassador to Poland. Willys served in that position until May 1932. He returned to Toledo to find his company once again in financial trouble.
The Great Depression
The Great Depression caused thousands of companies to close or go into bankruptcy, including a number of automobile manufacturers. Sales of Willys’ brands fell significantly. Stearns-Knight was liquidated in 1929. Production of the Whippet was halted in 1931; it was replaced by the Willys Six and Eight. Then in 1933 production of the Willys-Knight was ended. A pickup truck version of the Whippet had been produced; called the Willys-Six C-113 (named for its wheelbase in inches), it had not sold well. However, rights to the truck were obtained by International Harvester; it installed its 213-cubic inch engine and began selling it in 1933 as the International D-1.
Ward M. Canaday had developed advertising for Willys beginning in 1916. In 1932 he was named the company’s chairman, and he helped guide the company through its financial problems. However, Willys-Overland was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1933.
In bankruptcy, the decision was made to produce two new automobile models – the 4-cylinder Willys 77 and the 6-cylinder Willys 99. However, because of the company’s financial difficulties, it only had enough funds to produce the Willys 77. Willys sold its Canadian subsidiary and once again reorganized. Except for the main assembly plant and a few smaller factories, most other assets were sold to a new holding company. It leased some of the properties back to Willys-Overland.
John Willys was significantly involved in the reorganization of Willys-Overland when he died suddenly of a heart attack in 1935.
Reorganization and rejuvenation
Following Willys’ death, the Willys-Overland Motor Company was reorganized as Willys-Overland Motors in 1936. The company redesigned its 4-cylinder auto in 1937. It had a semi-streamlined body, a slanted windshield, headlamps embedded into the fenders, and a one-piece, rounded hood transversely hinged at the rear.
Shortly after the introduction of the new model, Joseph Frazer was hired from Chrysler to become the Willys-Overland chief executive officer. Frazer ordered the company’s engineers to improve the 4-cylinder engine.
They did so, and a new car was introduced for the 1939 model year; it was named the Model 39. It featured Lockheed hydraulic brakes, a 102-inch wheelbase and an improved 4-cylinder engine with 61 horsepower. The Model 39 was marketed as an Overland and as a Willys-Overland rather than as a Willys.
World War II
Because of its more powerful 4-cycle engine, Willys-Overland was included in the 1940 bidding to develop a new, lightweight, four-wheel drive, general-purpose (GP) U.S. Army vehicle. As the Army modernized its fleet it needed a transport vehicle that would be easy to fix in the field. Ford and Willys-Overland were chosen to produce pilot models for testing. Willys-Overland won the contract for the vehicle because it had a superior engine, a lower cost and the company’s ability to fulfill production needs. The new vehicle was later named the Willys MB. The company built over 300,000 “Jeeps” for military use during the war.
During World War II, the California factory built aircraft assemblies for Lockheed Hudson bombers.
Like the other remaining U.S. automakers, Willys-Overland was challenged by the civilian market once World War II ended. The company’s leaders decided not to resume production of its pre-war passenger car models. Instead, they chose to focus on producing a civilian version of the successful wartime MB “Jeep.”
The first model the company introduced in the civilian market was the CJ2A, which was a stripped-down version of the MB. The CJ2A was popular with farmers, ranchers, hunters and others who needed a vehicle more rugged than the typical passenger car. The California factory was one of two locations to build the first CJ2A, as well as the Willys Aero.
With the success of the CJ2A, Willys-Overland diversified its lineup with 2-wheel and 4-wheel drive station wagons and trucks, the Jeepster, M38, M38A1, CJ3A, CJ3B, CJ5, and CJ6, and others. The Willys MB models, Willys trucks, Willys station wagons, and Willys CJ2As and 3Bs were the most popular in both military and consumer markets.
Acquisition and aftermath
Kaiser Motors purchased Willys-Overland in 1953 and changed the company’s name to Willys Motor Company. However, sales of Willys and Kaiser models declined. In 1963, the company’s name was changed again; it became the Kaiser-Jeep Corporation.
John Willys built a very good reputation within the automobile industry for his vehicles as well as his role in helping to improve the industry. For his leadership, Willys was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2008.