Curbside Classic: 1953 Willys Aero-Lark – The Failed Sneak Preview Of The Falcon, Lark And Other Compacts

(first posted 10/28/2013)     If I told you this was a mid-fifties Simca, or English Ford, or a Vauxhall, or Morris, or a Holden, or even a lost prototype of the GM Cadet, probably quite a few of you would believe me. The size and shape looks like so many European cars of that vintage, but just not an American one. The Willys Aero is a car that is all-too easily pushed into the rustier memory banks of the mind.  And yet it’s such an utterly remarkable car: a thoroughly state-of-the art compact/mid sized American car, light-weight with unit construction, with a small six cylinder engine, and offering excellent handling, performance and economy. It almost perfectly predicted the compacts that would appear shortly after it disappeared; it even predicted their names: in addition to the Aero-Lark, there was also the Aero-Falcon. Just no Aero-Valiant.

You can’t crystal-ball everything, and about the one really important thing Willys failed to prognosticate before putting its ambitious Aero into production was its highly predictable failure.

The “light car” theme is an endlessly recurring one in the history of the American car. Undoubtedly, it’s largely based on the Ford Model T, which was quite a compact and light car, the last one to be so as a “standard” American car. As unceasing growth in dimension and weight set in, the opportunity and challenge to undercut it with a smaller offering was a perpetual lure, mostly for the independents. They increasingly gave up on challenging Detroit’s near monopoly on big cars, and fought for the scraps under the big table.

We can’t do a full review of all the efforts here, but the 1939 Studebaker Champion was the most significant one of the late pre-war era; a very well-thought out and quite appealing “compact” car. It offered almost all of the room of a standard car, but with substantial savings in bulk, improved economy, all in a lively-handling easy-to drive package. Its 164 CID six would go on to power the Lark twenty years later, when the compact Studebaker concept reappeared. The Champ weighed in at 2260 lbs for the coupe.

Willys itself was relegated to making nothing but “compact” cars after its bankruptcy in 1933. With a 134 CID flat head hour (later used in the Jeep), the pre-war Willys, like this 1937, sat on mere 100″ to 104″ wheelbases, and also weighed in at about 2200 to 2400 lbs. Sales were very modest most years, due to the conundrum facing all the independents trying to undercut the Big Three with smaller cars: it was impossible to make them for less, because the volumes were so low. But they didn’t stop trying; until they couldn’t any more.

GM jumped into the compact game in its usual ambitious self, announcing to the public in 1945 that it would build a lightweight and compact Chevrolet, the Cadet (see separate post). Designed by the brilliant engineer Earle MacPherson, the Cadet was truly ambitious and radical. The Chevy Sales staff gave a thumbs down when asked if they could sell 300k per year, so the Cadet was aborted. But its presence was of course no secret, and all the manufacturers were scrambling again. The car industry runs on trying to keep up with the Jones; both on a macro as well as micro level.

WW II obviously gave Willys a needed shot in the arm, and with it an ambition to keep up with the GM-Jones. So in addition to selling the Willys wagon, Jeep and Jeepster, it launched an extremely ambitious project: the Aero. Proposed by the distinguished ex-Packard engineer Clyde Patton, and styled by Phil Wright, the Aero was a fully unitized construction design, sitting on a 108″ wheelbase. Its size and dimensions almost perfectly predict the compacts that came down the pike shortly after, from the 108″ wheelbase Ramblers, to the 108.5″ wb Lark, the 109.5″ wb Falcon, as well as the Corvair and Valiant.

The Aero’s 181″ length is identical to the original Falcon too, but with two more inches of width (72″), it was a bit wider and closer to offering that six-passenger room Americans wanted. Listed weight was between 2500 and 2600 lbs. Its handling was considered to be particularly advantageous, and its coil-spring front suspension and conventional leaf-spring rear end gave it a decent level of riding comfort. It was not radical, like the four-wheel independent suspended Cadet, but then it was actually built, and in its day, this would have been a very worthy design from any European manufacturer, save Mercedes.

The Aero also gave excellent performance, due to its favorable power-to-weight ratio, especially with the more powerful of its two engines. The 161 CID (2.6 L) inline six came in two versions: the Lightning, a 75 hp side valve (flat head) for the lower trim lines like this Lark and the Falcon.

The higher end models (Aero-Wing, Aero-Ace, Aero-Eagle) were blessed with the Hurricane, an F-Head conversion of the little six (see F-Head History here). With its better breathing, it made 90 hp, which is five more than the 1960 Falcon. Owners reported 27 mpg in “country driving” when equipped with overdrive. There was also a four cylinder version with the Jeep’s “Go-Devil” 134 CID mill, but relegated to export markets only.

The Aero arrived in 1952, with prices starting at $1713 for the most basic Aero-Lark. A 1952 Chevrolet Styline? $1614. Therein lay the reason why compacts could never compete on price. And why the 1951 Rambler came only as a very deluxe model, and didn’t even attempt to. There was just no way to, especially with the growing number of European imports that had the advantage of the high dollar value compared to their currency back then.

The Aero did also come in a handsome and high-level two-door hardtop, but that didn’t solve the challenges either. It only added to the production costs.

That steering wheel somehow has a very international look, and if someone had said “Simca” or something like that, I wouldn’t blame them.

But then a closer look makes one realize the limitations Willys had in building this car. Crude…not something GM would have done, had they done it.

The equation wouldn’t fully change until 1960, by which time the “standard-sized” cars from the Big Three had became mega-sized, and the market had shown its capacity to desire and absorb a range of sizes. In the early fifties, a standard Big Three car wasn’t all that big yet, and weighed just a bit over 3000 lbs. That just didn’t leave enough room between them and the cheap imports, as Willys quickly discovered.

The Aero had a relatively decent first year, selling some 30 k units. But that was a common first year bounce for cars like the Aero, and initial interest could not be maintained. Sales slid, and in 1953, Willys was taken over by Kaiser, who merged it with the also ailing Kaiser-Frazer to create the new Kaiser-Willys Sales Corporation.

The only major effect on the Willys Aero was the availability of Kaiser’s 226 CID six, which was bigger but actually an older design than the Willys six. The “Super Huricane” did make 115 hp, and quite a bit more torque, so the little Aero was a brisk car for the era just before the Chevy V8 appeared. GM’s Hydramatic was also available now, but none of it mattered. By 1955, its last year, barely 5000 Aeros left the lines in Toledo, and the high-flying ambitions were grounded, at least in the USA.

Like so many other cast-offs, the Aero was sent packing to Brazil, where it enjoyed a long and successful career as the Aero-Willys 2600, first in its original guise (above), and later,

in its handsome Brooks Stevens redesign of 1963. This square edged design had already been done back in Toledo the mid-fifties as a successor to the Aero, but it took almost a decade for it to reappear in Brazil in 1963.

That evolved into the Willys Itamaraty, including this handsome Executivo. Shades of certain Japanese executive cars.

Ironically, the car that so successfully predicted and Falcon eight years ahead of it ended up being owned by Ford itself, when Dearborn bought Willys do Brasil in 1967. The Itamaraty soldiered on until 1972, twenty years after its first ill-fated appearance as the predictor of the Falcon and Lark. History, especially automotive, is stranger than fiction.