Almost half the working population of a city was employed to make these autos.
The secure position of the Willys-Overland Company during the period 1915-16, due to the shrewd acquisition of various component manufacturers by founder John N. Willys, was to be greatly consolidated during the decade that followed. From 1915 to 1919, when the Willys Corporation was organized, some 22 different models succeeded each other, 14 of which were four-cylinder jobs; six with six-cylinder engines and two powered by eights; but of all these only one carried a price tag of over $2,000. This was the 1915 Model K-19 Sedan with a 120-inch wheelbase and a big, four-cylinder engine of 276.5 cubic inches that developed 45 hp. Offered at $2,475, it did nothing to set the world on fire.
Of the other 21 types, nine cost under $1,000; four were under $1,200; three sold for less than $1,500 and five were in the $1,500 to $2,000 bracket. Having become identified as one of the three most successful automobile manufacturers in the low-price field, Willys-Overland was smart enough to stay with the type of buying public for which its products held the greatest sales appeal.
In 1916, the company which had acquired the Knight sleeve-valve engine patents pioneered in 1912 by Charles Y. Knight, announced a new Willys-Knight Model 88, seven-passenger touring car, also manufactured at the Willys-Overland Toledo plant. Powered by a four-cylinder, sleeve-valve engine of “square” dimensions giving a low piston speed, this car rode on cantilever rear springs and had attractive bodywork. Standard finish was “a rich French blue, relieved by black fenders and trimmings, with wheels of battleship gray.” All bright fittings were either of nickel or aluminum and the upholstery was “deep, with seat cushions each containing a number of small spiral springs set close together and encased in a canvas covering designed to produce a pneumatic or floating effect.” Retailing for $1,285 at first, this one, too, was a winner. A year later, an interesting new Willys Six--a revival in name only of the 1909 model bearing that name--was announced. Although no lightweight, this car embodied several progressive ideas found only in the higher-priced field. The six-cylinder, L-head engine had a 303 cubic-inch piston displacement and developed 45 hp at 2,200 rpm. The carburetor, termed an “Improved Hot Air” type, was bolted on a modern hot-spot variety of intake manifold for preheating the mixture, while the rear axle was a full floating type carried on long leaf springs. Ignition was by magneto and bolt-on wire wheels were featured as standard. Priced at $1,250 with a sporty Cloverleaf Roadster body manufactured by the Ohio Electric Car Co., the newcomer found plenty of buyers.
In 1919, the Willys-Overland became the Willys Corporation, following a deal in which the firm joined forces with Electric Auto-Lite, the New Process Gear Company and Duesenberg Motors. The new corporation’s main financial asset consisted of 700,000 shares of Willys-Overland stock bought by John Willys, and for advertising purposes the firm’s original name continued in use.
Plans were launched for building a new automobile of advanced design, engineered by none other than Fred Zeder, Carl Breer and O. R. Skelton--the famous trio who five years later were responsible for the hugely successful Chrysler car.
Meantime, experimental work was completed on a small four-cylinder engine which was introduced in the 1919 Overland Four. This compact, rugged, L-head power unit which developed 27 hp was, in fact, the direct ancestor of the notable Jeep engine, produced 21 years later. The new Overland, which featured a patented “Triplex” front suspension with quarter-elliptic springs arranged in V-shape, and all-steel body with removable upholstery, got off to a big start with the public. During the third twelve months of production, 126,000 of these cars were built and sold for a low $495 apiece.
The engine of the 1921 Model 20 Willys-Knight was improved in detail to produce 40 hp at 2,600 rpm, and so great was the influx of orders for all cars of the Willys-Overland group, that the Corporation reached a production total of 196,038 units for 1923, with a daily output of 1,100 vehicles during the peak months.
Company slogans now came thick and fast, though not without justification. “The Most Automobile in the World for the Money”; “Drive an Overland and Realize the Difference” and “A Car of Proven Performance” were among the favorites.
Overlands for 1924 retained the 100-inch wheelbase, but had a slightly larger engine rated at 19.6 hp instead of 18.23 hp and developing three hp more than before. “This engine is built for Good Service in all weather!” piped the company. Improvements included cylinders and crankcase cast in one block for greater rigidity, with the removable cylinder head as a separate casting. “It’s the Little Things that Count,” said the Willys Corporation, enumerating six good reasons for buying an Overland. These were: “Buoyant Riding Ease; Faithful, Quiet Performance; The Strongest Rear Axle of any car at any price; Driving is a Joy, not a Job; Economy; and Beauty to match Quality.” This pitch built sales.
That year also came the Overland “Red-bird” Model 92 with a similar engine to the standard Model 91, but with a six-inch longer wheelbase. This was a sport touring car described as “a creation in beautiful Mandalay Maroon.”
In 1925, the Overland Four was finally paired with a Six after five years of booming sales. The newcomer had a more powerful and flexible L-head engine that put forth 38 hp at 2.400 rpm, larger crankshaft bearings and high-pressure lubrication. Oil-tight universal joints also were featured on the 112 3/4-inch wheelbase chassis which was offered only with a sedan body in standard or deluxe form. Both versions had a two-tone polished lacquer finish, the price difference being related to accessories.
As an added inducement to purchase this “richly finished, masterfully engineered motor car that easily leads its field,” Willys-Overland advertised easy terms with “a small amount down and 52 weeks for the balance.”
All this added up to big profits, and by the close of 1925 Willys-Overland was employing over 20,000 workpeople whose payroll topped $27,000,000 annually--or 41 per cent of the payroll of the entire city of Toledo.
At this time, the design of a new low-priced car to be known as the Whippet Four and introduced the following year, already was nearing completion, while plans to build an assembly plant at May-wood, California, a Los Angeles suburb, also were under consideration.
The close of the period 1915 to 1925 saw the Willys Corporation rapidly approaching peak production and the zenith of its interesting career, begun nearly a quarter of a century earlier.