CC For Sale: 1927 “Willis” Overland – What You Talkin’ About?

Today on CC For Sale, we’re going to take a look at a car off the beaten path, a 1927 Willys Overland. Billed in its Craigslist ad as a “Willis Overland,” which I assume is some sort of autocorrect typo since it’s spelled properly elsewhere, it has a “complete steel body no Rust EVER. Radiator. Wood spoked wheels..Engine. Transmission.” It’s “ALL THERE. $2800 Or Best offer.”

The Willys name these days is most closely associated with the original WWII Jeep, the Willys MB. In July 1940, the U.S. Army asked for proposals for a new light reconnaisance vehicle. Three manufacturers submitted bids- Willys-Overland and American Bantam, with Ford following quickly behind. While Bantam had won the original contract, the company was in no shape to be relied upon for the upcoming war effort, and contracts ended up being given to all three companies.

By 1941, Willys had won the lion’s share of contracts, mainly due to its stouter “Go Devil” engine and lower cost. By the war’s end, Ford was also contracted to build the Willys design, with Willys producing 363,000 Jeeps and Ford making 280,000 licensed copies.

After the war, Willys ditched their passenger car line completely to focus on the civilian Jeep line. Not until 1952, with the introduction of the Willys Aero, would they make a non-Jeep-based vehicle. The Aero, one of the new crop of domestic compacts that would include the Kaiser Henry J, was a flop. Apparently, much like Chrysler would do thirty-odd years later, Kaiser saw the writing on the wall. They purchased Willys based on the strength of the Jeep name and product line. Only a few short years later, they would retire both compacts and the Willys name, becoming Kaiser-Jeep.

Incidentally, both the Willys and Overland names continue today as special trim lines for Jeep. Overland is the top trim level for Cherokees and Grand Cherokees, and the Willys is a limited-edition package on the modern Wrangler.

Before the war, though, Willys-Overland was actually the second-largest car company in the US–behind Ford–from 1912 to 1918. A few years earlier in 1908, John Willys bought Overland Automotive from the Standard Wheel Company to form Willys-Overland. Willys was on a roll, buying smaller car companies, and by 1919 he acquired the former Duesenberg factory in New Jersey. But by 1920, economic conditions had Willys on the ropes, so none other than Walter P. Chrysler was brought in to clean up. Chrysler brought in his “Three Musketeers” of engineers (Owen Skelton, Carl Breer, and Fred Zeder) to save the company and begin work on a new car. Chrysler and his crew couldn’t fix Willys fast enough for the creditors, though. The “Chrysler Six” car they were prototyping, along with the Deusie plant, were sold to William C. Durant of GM fame.

(Chrysler and the Three Musketeers would later move over to Maxwell-Chalmers, which then became the Chrysler Corporation.)

There was a bright spot, though– the company introduced the low-priced Whippet in 1926, which became popular. However, while the Whippet thrived, many of the car lines they had purchased or licensed designs from, like Stearns-Knight and Willys-Knight, were abandoned.

By 1932, they used the last of their development budget to build the Willys 77, a small car. From 1933 to 1936, it was the only car the company produced. By 1938, Willys was the 16th largest automaker by sales in the US. In 1939, Joseph Frazer (of Kaiser-Frazer fame) would come in as President and General Manager of Willys-Overland. A few years later, the Jeep would make history.

So where does that put our featured car? It would seem to be in the middle of the company’s post-1920 recession crisis. The body says (to my admittedly untrained eye when it comes to pre-war cars) to not be the Whippet, but I can’t exactly tell and the rest of the ad isn’t forthcoming. Perhaps one of you can elaborate in the comments.

The car in question here looks to have a straight 6, which in 1927 could have been a 178ci, 236ci, or 255ci engine, producing 53, 65, or 70HP. It would have been slightly more than the base 4-cylinder model’s price of around $2,500. Probably due to the obscurity of the nameplate for modern collectors, restored versions of this vehicle seem to be going for $10,000-$24,000 online.

This example is definitely, charitably, a “project car”– most of the interior seems to have gone Overland, so to speak. And are those extra fenders inside, or were they removed sometime between when the exterior and interior photos were taken? But it’s certainly an important piece of American motor history, and a little more interesting than, say, a contemporary Model A, which it tried–and failed–to compete with in the marketplace.

(P.S. Bonus old company shot in this ad as well–the radiator is made by the Fedders company of Buffalo, New York. Years after this radiator was made, the Fedders company would go into home air conditioning. Even today, you can buy a new Fedders window A/C unit, although as far I can tell the company is owned by interests in Singapore and China.)

(P.P.S. Thanks to Paul for the chance to contribute to CC, and thanks to all of you for reading!)

Further reading:

Wolfgang drives a 1920 Willys-Overland