Because he never liked to lose a sale, John Willys saved an auto industry.
The first Overland, grandfather of the famous World War II Jeep and ancestor of today’s Jeep automobiles, was born in 1902. That year, the Standard Wheel Company of Terre Haute (later of Indianapolis) put on the market a low-priced runabout with a starkly functional appearance. It used a tiller as a means to control the steering. The power unit was a single-cylinder, water-cooled engine that embodied at least one “modern” design feature--it was located under the hood at a time when many automobiles still had their engines below the driving seat. The company claimed that the “long wheelbase” (78 inches), “large tires” (28 x 2.5 inches) and “long springs” were major contributions to “pleasure in driving.”
For one reason or another, people took to the Overland, and after three years the concern (which had now become the Overland Motor Car Company), dropped its one-cylinder engine in favor of more powerful two- and four-cylinder versions, the first of which appeared in 1905. These two models were known as 17 and 18 and developed nine and 16 hp respectively. The wheelbase was lengthened to 86 inches. The two-cylinder car sold for $750 and the four cost $100 more.
For 1906, a Special Runabout was introduced. It featured not only a steering wheel with controls “at your fingers’ ends,” but also a brand new color known as “Silk Green.” Priced at $600, it evoked lavish praise from a Gulfport, Mississippi, dealer: “I received the car and sold it the day it came to a man who never rode in one before. I instructed him for two hours and he has not had one minute’s trouble since he started it...”
The steady upsweep in the Overland’s popularity, coinciding with the failure of the Knickerbocker Trust Company in 1907, produced a paradoxical chain of circumstances that in turn changed the entire future of the firm. The Overland Motor Car Company found itself in virtual bankruptcy, while at the same time it had on hand a large unfilled order from an Elmira, New York, dealer named John N. Willys. Mr. Willys had contracted to buy the entire Overland output for that year.
A dynamic individual, he made a quick decision. If he let the firm close down he would be unable to get delivery of a large number of cars he had already sold. This being out of the question, Willys took a train for Indianapolis. He financed and reorganized the company so efficiently, that by the end of 1907 some 323 cars were produced and delivered.
In 1908, Willys became president, treasurer, sales manager and purchasing agent for the re-formed Overland Company, and was responsible for the production and sale of 465 cars, all of which were variations of one model known as the 24. It was priced at $1,250.
This was just the beginning. The first six-cylinder Overland appeared the following year and retailed for $2,000. It was known as the 34. So enthusiastic was public response that Willys-Overland sales for 1909 jumped to 4,000 cars--a production increase of nearly 900 per cent over the previous year! The appearance of the first Willys Six, costing $2,250, added still further to the company’s prestige, although the four-cylinder Overland continued to sell in a big way in the $1,000-1,500 price range. It had attractive specifications, which included three-point engine suspension, shaft drive, a planetary transmission, double ignition and a “long wheelbase” (110 inches). The Company claimed that “... In the Overland you get actually $3,000 worth of real car value for one half or less than one half the price...” This pleased the customers so much that in December, 1909, John Willys was able to purchase the Pope-Toledo automobile plant in Toledo, Ohio. He converted it into a new assembly plant for his cars. This was a building 600 feet long, 90 feet wide and three stories high located on Central Avenue. It soon was working at capacity, in addition to the Indianapolis factory.
For 1910, there were four models known as the 38, 40, 41 and 42, all of them four-cylinder cars, with the largest having a displacement of 255.3 cubic inches and a wheelbase of 122 inches. This last, with a fore door touring body, sold at the low price of $1,250.
The following year Willys moved the Indianapolis plant to Toledo and launched another expansion program to cope with public demand. The 1911 Overland fore door touring car, with 118-inch wheelbase and a 40 hp engine, was an immediate favorite.
That year the Kinney Manufacturing Company was organized to supply sheet metal parts for Willys-Overland; and in 1912, John Willys brought the Warner Gear Company to Toledo to make gears and other machined parts for his products. In 1914, the Tillotson Carburetor Company was organized with Harry Tillotson at the head. Prior to that time, Tillotson was chief salesman for Stromberg carburetors. In that job he had acquired immensely valuable knowledge and experience. Tillotson carburetors now went into all Overland cars, improving performance and cutting down on gas expense.
Willys next acquired control of the Morrow Manufacturing Company at Elmira, New York. It was renamed Willys-Morrow and put on a full-time basis making Willys transmissions. This move was followed by the acquisition of the Electric Auto-Lite Company of Toledo, which devoted its facilities from then on to the construction of generators and starters for the parent concern.
At the start of World War I, Willys-Overland was one of the leaders in the production of factory-built, enclosed bodywork--the primary appeal of which was to the womenfolk. Most popular was the 1914 Overland Model 79 with a four-cylinder, 35 hp engine, 114-inch wheelbase and a coupe body that had almost the window area of a small greenhouse. Priced at $1,550, it was described as “The Reigning Electrically Started and Lighted Coupe for Women.” Over-all sales hit the 80,000 mark.
By 1915, the company had risen to the position of second largest automobile manufacturer in the U.S. and production reached a new high of 91,780 units, taking second place only to Ford.
In 1916, Willys-Overland was making 140,000 vehicles, and as later events proved, this was still to be nowhere near the peak of the company’s achievement.
The foresight, shrewd business mind and courageous energy of John N. Willys undoubtedly has stamped him for all time as one of the giants of a giant industry in which the most intense competition left no room for any but the best brains.