Historic Car Brands



In 1908, John Willys bought the Overland Automotive Division of Standard Wheel Company and in 1912 renamed it Willys–Overland Motor Company. From 1912 to 1918, Willys was the second-largest producer of automobiles in the United States, after the Ford Motor Company.


1903 Overland


The Willys-Overland story starts with the foundation of Overland in 1902. The name for the car was decided over a coffee break one day during the fall of 1902 by Charles Minshall, president of the Standard Wheel Company of Terre Haute, and Claude E Cox, who had just graduated from the Ross Polytechnic Institute in town. 

Their experience in the automobile field was limited to Cox’s senior thesis project for a four-wheeler derived from a motorised tricycle. Despite this inexperience, the first Overland was a quite advanced little car for its day. 

It was powered by a water-cooled, 5hp, single-cylinder engine, mounted up front under a bonnet, driving through a two-speed planetary transmission, controlled by a foot pedal. It had jump spark ignition and an ignition lock, to prevent theft.

Around 12 cars were built in 1903 and that doubled in the following year, when a two-cylinder model was introduced. A four-cylinder joined the range in 1905, with a steering wheel and shaft drive.

However, having made no profit, Minshall had a change of heart, but one David M Parry put up replacement monev necessary to organise the Overland Auto Company on March 31, 1906. 

Production began, but the Panic of 1907 interrupted things. 

Enter John North Willys, a New York automobile dealer who had contracted for the Overland companv’s entire output of 47 cars in 1906, followed by a hefty order for 500 cars for 1907.(Incidentally, the correct pronunciation is ‘willis’, not ‘willys’.)

When no cars were delivered and correspondence from the factory ceased, Willys caught the train to Indianapolis, to find out what was going on. There he discovered Parry had lost everything, including his house, in the Panic and that parts were on hand for less than three automobiles. 

Willys took over production, building 465 20/24 hp four-cylinder cars in a circus tent in 1908

In January 1909, aghast at the feverish pace Wills was setting, Claude Cox left the company, but Willys’ production of Overlands that year was an incredible 4907 cars, including some 45hp sixes.


1910 Overland Roadster Lars-Goran Lindgren


The initial 1908 four-cylinder runabout sold well and was followed in 1909 by the Overland Six and 45hp Willys Six.

Production in 1910 tripled to 15,598 cars. Fours only were produced, in a contusing array of models, from 1910 through 1914 and some of these had sliding gear transmissions.


Willys-Knight Light Six engine – Mr Choppers


In 1913, the Overland 79 four-litre sold in large numbers, helping the company sell 80,000 cars in that year. Willys acquired a license to build Charles Knight’s sleeve-valve engine that it used in cars bearing the Willys–Knight nameplate. The first was a 4.5-litre four.

A 1914 ad ran: ‘In the electrically-started and electrically-lighted(sic) Overland Coupe, the women of America have for the first time their ideal motor car’.

In 1915, left-hand drive was introduced and a six was returned to the line.


Stearns Knight Two-Door Saloon – Lebubu93


John Willys acquired the Electric Auto-Lite Company in 1914 and in 1917 formed the Willys Corporation to act as his holding company. 

In 1916, that company acquired the Russell Motor Car Company of Toronto, Ontario and the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company in Buffalo, New York, 

In 1917, New Process Gear and in 1919 the Duesenberg Motors Company plant in New Jersey joined the growing Willys empire. Willys-Knight introduced a sleeve-valve V8 in 1917, which was sold until 1919.

In 1917, Willys released an Overland four to challenge the Model T Ford head-on with a price tag of less than $500, including a self-starter and electric lights. From a 1912 output of 28,572 cars, Willys-Overland production soared to 140,111 by 1916, including a new Willys-Knight car that was introduced in 1914.

A disastrous strike and wartime exigencies delayed introduction of the Overland competitor to the Model T until October of 1919, but the price had risen to US $845. However,  a new line of Willys-Knight fours was selling well and a Willys six was being developed before the postwar recession hit.



1922 Willys-Overland Model 92 Red Bird – Vauxford


In 1920, there was a joint venture with the UK’s Crossley car maker, for the assembly of Overland Fours in great Britain.

However, the post World War I slump of 1920–21 brought the Willys Corporation to its knees. The bankers hired Walter P Chrysler to sort out the mess and the first model to go was the Willys Six, deemed an engineering disaster. 


1922 Willys-Knight Model 20


To raise cash needed to pay off debts, many of the Willys Corporation assets were put on the auction block. The Elizabeth plant and a new six-cylinder prototype were sold to William C (Billy) Durant, then in the process of building a new, third empire.

After two years of cost-cutting measures at Willys, Chrysler left, to take on a similar salvage job for Maxwell-Chalmers. John North Willys revitalised his company with the two models that Chrysler didn’t like: the Willys-Knight and the Overland.

Willys-Overland recovered and by 1925 was building 250 Overland Sixes, 600 Overland Fours and 5200 Willys-Knights every month. Willys Overland sales soared from nearly 50,000 cars in 1921 to 150,000 cars in 1925.

In the mid-1920s, Willys also acquired the F B Stearns Company of Cleveland and assumed continued production of the Stearns-Knight luxury car, as well.

In 1926, Willys–Overland introduced a new line of small cars named Willys–Overland Whippet that were well-priced, but proved unpopular. Several Whippets made their way Down Under.


Whippet Four-Door Sedan – Lars-Goran Lindgren


There was also a pickup truck version of the Whippet, called the Willys-Six C-113 (reflecting its wheelbase in inches). Only 198 were built before this vehicle was picked up by International Harvester, who installed its own 213-cubic-inch engine and offered it in 1933 as the International D-1.

In 1930, John Willys took up the post of US Ambassador to Poland, where he served for two years. His return was timely, as the Great Depression crippled the US car industry.

In 1929 Stearns-Knight was liquidated and in the economic depression of the 1930s, a number of Willys automotive brands faltered. Whippet production ended in 1931 and those models were replaced by the Willys Six and Eight. Production of the Willys-Knight ended in 1933. 


1931 Willys Six Sport Coupe – Vintage Cars


Willys was forced to sell its Canadian subsidiary, itself in weak financial shape and started a massive reorganisation. Only the main assembly plant and some smaller factories remained the property of Willys–Overland. The other assets were sold off to a new holding company that leased some of the properties back to W-O. The parent company was thus able to ride out the storm.

Despite the drama, Willys decided to produce two new models: the four-cylinder Willys 77 and the six-cylinder Willys 99. However, with the company once again on the verge of bankruptcy, only the 77 went into production. 


1936 Willys 77 Four-Door Sedan – Lars-Goran Lindgren


The Willys 77 was a successor to the Whippet and was powered by a 2.4-litre, four-cylinder, 48hp engine that was highly economical, delivering 25 miles per gallon. The 77 had a top speed of 65mph, which made it a good base for racing car and a tuned-up Willys 77 achieved an average speed of 65.2mph in the 24-hour race on the Muroc Dry Lake.

In the years leading up to the United States participation in World War II the 77 model range was continued under the names Willys 37, Willys 38, Willys 48, Willys Speedway and Willys Americar. When civilian auto production was discontinued in 1942, the car disappeared from the market.


1939 Willys-Overland Four-Door Sedan Holden’s body with extra side window – GTHO


John Willys died in 1935 of a heart attack and in 1936, the Willys–Overland Motor Company was reorganised as Willys–Overland Motors.

In 1937, Willys redesigned the four-cylinder model. It gained a semi-streamlined body with a slanted windshield, headlamps integrally embedded into the fenders and a one-piece, rounded bonnet, transversely hinged at the rear.

For 1939, the Model 39 featured Lockheed hydraulic brakes, a two-inch increase in wheelbase and an improved four-cylinder engine, with power increased from 48hp to 61hp. The Model 39 was marketed as an Overland and as a Willys–Overland, rather than as a Willys.


Bantam in test action – US Library of Congress


Willys–Overland was one of several bidders when the US War Department sought an automaker who could begin rapid production of a lightweight truck, based on a design by American Bantam.

In 1938, Joseph W Frazer had joined Willys from Chrysler as chief executive. He saw a need to improve the firm’s four-cylinder engine to handle the abuse to which the Jeep would be subjected. 

Ex-Studebaker chief engineer Delmar (Barney) Roos, developed an engine that could run at 4400rpm for 150 hours without failure, after starting with an engine that developed 48hp at 3400rpm and could run continuously for only two to four hours. Closer tolerances, tougher alloys, aluminium pistons and a flywheel weight reduction all played their part.


Jeep WWII  – Mytwocents


Production of the Willys MB, better known as Jeep – named after a character Eugene the Jeep in the Popeye comic strip, known for his supernatural abilities – began in 1941 and was shared between Willys, Ford and American Bantam. Only 8598 units were produced that year, but 359,851 Jeeps had been made before the end of World War II. In total, 653,568 military Jeeps were manufactured.

The name stuck and Willys wanted to retain it. On February 13, 1943, Willys–Overland filed a trademark application on the use of the term ‘Jeep’ with the US Patent Office and that was finally awarded to the company on June 13, 1950.

During World War II, the factory also built aircraft assemblies for Lockheed Hudson bombers and 1292 airframes for the JB-2 Loon (a copy of the German V1). When the War ended, the factory resumed automobile production and was one of two locations to build the first CJ2A, as well as the Willys Aero.

After the war, Willys did not immediately resume production of its passenger-car models, choosing instead to concentrate on Jeeps and Jeep-based vehicles. The first postwar Willys product was the CJ-2A, an MB stripped of obviously military features, particularly blackout lighting and with the addition of a tailgate.


1957 Willys – David Monniaux


Willys initially struggled to find a market for the vehicle, first attempting to sell it primarily as an alternative to the farm tractor, but sales of the Agri-Jeep never took off, because it was too light to provide adequate draft.

The CJ-2A was among the first civilian vehicles of any kind to be equipped with four-wheel drive from the factory, and it gained popularity among farmers, ranchers, hunters and others, who needed a lightweight vehicle for use on unimproved roads and trails.

In 1946, a year after the introduction of the CJ-2A, Willys produced the Willys Jeep Utility Wagon, based on the same engine and transmission, with clear styling influence from the CJ-2A Jeep. The next year came a Jeep Utility Truck with four-wheel drive and in 1948, a wagon version.

In 1948, under a contract from the U.S. Army, Willys produced a small, one-man four-wheeled utility vehicle called the Jungle Burden Carrier that evolved into the M274 Utility ½-ton vehicle.

Willys later produced the M38 Jeep for the US Army and continued the CJ series of civilian Jeeps. One variation was the Jeepster, which came with a 2.2-litre, four-cylinder or 2.4-litre, six-cylinder engine, but with only two-wheel drive.


Brazilian Willys Aero  – Jason Vogel


In 1952, Willys re-entered the car market with a new compact car, called the Willys Aero. At first available only as a two-door sedan, it was available with either an L-head or F-head, 2.6-litre, six-cylinder engine. Export markets could get the Aero with a four-cylinder engine. A four-door sedan and a two-door hardtop were added for 1953 along with taxi models. 

Some Aero models were supercharged.

The Aero cars were called Lark, Wing, Falcon, Ace, or Eagle, depending on year, engine and trim level. There was also a small production run in 1955, of models called Custom and Bermuda. The bodies for the Willys Aero were supplied by the Murray Body Corporation.

Also in 1952, CJ-3B Jeeps went into production. By 1968, over 155,000 had been sold.


Willys Jeepster – Greg Gjerdingen


In 1953, Kaiser Motors purchased Willys–Overland and changed the company’s name to Willys Motor Company. The same year, production of the Kaiser car was moved from Willow Run, Michigan, to the Willys plant at Toledo, Ohio. Although Jeep production was steady, sales of the Willys and Kaiser cars continued to fall and the last Willys-brand cars were sold in 1955.

Kaiser-Jeep was sold to American Motors Corporation (AMC) in 1970 when Kaiser Industries decided to leave the automobile business. 

During the DaimlerChrysler era the Overland name was given to a trim package for the Jeep Grand Cherokee. The badging was a recreation of the Overland nameplate from the early Twentieth Century.


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