(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.
It’s too bad that Willys couldn’t have survived with a foreign/domestic strategy, not unlike Buick in the present day. Imagine if they had been able to hang on in the US with products like the Jeep but obtained their wealth through sales in South America. The irony of Ford purchasing the Itamaraty and kept it going is too great.
In the opening paragraph, you could have convinced me that the Willys in the pix was any number of mid 50’s cars; there’s precious little to distinguish it from so many other contemporary cars. I noticed the first Brazilian advert seems to have artwork done in the style of Van and Fitz, if not them, someone who aped them really well. IIRC, they were under contract to GM, so I guess it’s unlikely.
Thanks for that little look back into automotive history. Now, if we could get more info on American car company expatriate models in Brazil, like the Renault (AMC) Torino, et al. That would be cool. I’d even happy with Mexican AMCs, those are pretty strange little beasts, too.
Fabulous find! I have seen maybe one of these in my life outside of car shows. These early 50s compacts (Rambler, Henry J, Hudson Jet and this car) have always fascinated me. How did so many companies independently think that this was such a great idea and go there all at once when none of the biggies did?
Another probable factor in these cars’ failure was that they hit the market just as Ford launched a bitter price war with Chevrolet in a failed effort to buy market share. It has always been a hard sell in the U.S. to get someone to pay more money for a smaller car. In 1953-54, there was really no reason to do so. Also, Studebaker Champion was still a pretty small car during this time. Even though the Champion started to fade in 1953, Studebaker still sold a fair number of them, and maybe there just wasn’t room for another player in this niche.
Finally, what an odd naming structure – I have never been able to keep them straight. Aero-Ace, Aero-Lark, Aero-Falcon, Aero-Eagle, Aero-I forget, were there more? Edit – A great idea! An amphibious version called Aero-Nautical!
The strangest part about the names is that both Lark and Falcon were later used by more successful compacts.
…and the Willys cars were so rare even by then that the other manufacturers had no problems lifting the names.
Minor correction: the Lightning was the L-head, the Hurricane was the new F-head. The Lightning was also supplied to Kaiser, where it was used in six-cylinder Henry Js. (The Kaiser Darrin sports car used the Hurricane.) Kaiser claimed 80 hp from the F-head, although as far as I know, it was identical to the Willys engine rated at 75 hp. Go figure. There was also a four-cylinder Willys Aero, with a 134 cu. in. flathead engine that was also used in base Henry Js and Allstates. K-F rated it at 68 hp.
The Willys/Kaiser merger was actually completed in March 1953, not 1954. It was an odd deal. Essentially, the Kaisers (not Kaiser-Frazer) bought Willys via a new holding company, renamed the holding company Willys Motors, and reorganized Kaiser-Frazer as Kaiser Motors, which if I remember correctly, was now a Willys Motors subsidiary. The reason for all this shuffling was that Kaiser-Frazer didn’t have the money to buy Willys, or much of anything else; they were $48 million in the hole to the RFC, and Ward Canady wanted $62 million for Willys-Overland.
The Willys was not a bad car, but at the time of its introduction, it was competing for what was still a fairly small slice of the market. Before the recession, there was a market for maybe 300,000 compacts a year — not bad, but not enough to sustain four or five competitors, especially if their manufacturers were depending on them for their bread and butter. Two, maybe, but not four, and certainly not five or six.
Rush, rush, mix thing up. Thanks; fixed.
I couldn’t find any info that supported the four cylinder being offered in the US, although it certainly makes sense.
The Encyclopedia of American Cars lists both Aero-Lark 4 and Aero-Lark 6 engines for 1953-54, although for some reason the listings don’t specify separate prices for those models; they only list the Aero-Lark, two- and four-door sedans, no mention of engine. It’s possible the four wasn’t offered in the U.S., or only by special order — I have no idea. They list it at 72 hp, so I assume this was essentially the same as the flathead four in the Henry J and Allstate.
The Willys US sales brochures only list the sixes. I read somewhere that the four was export only; that would tend to confirm it. But?
I’ve read up a lot on these great cars and remember that some ( very few ) Aeros were built for Taxi service! Stripped down 4 doors that probably came with the little 4 cylinder.
This is a great website!
Brief Passenger Car Data published by Ethyl Corporation lists two engines available for Willys in 1953 and ’54, both sixes. Model 675A was an L-head rated at 75 hp @ 4000 rpm. Model 685A was an F-head rated at 90 hp @ 4200 rpm. In 1955 the only engine available was the 6-226-A, a 226.2 cu in L-head six rated at 115 hp at 3650 rpm. The 226 engine was probably manufactured by Continental. The Jeep station wagon and pickup trucks used this engine as well.
The 4 cyl, 134.2 cu in (3.13 x 4.38) 72 four that Encyclopedia of American Cars (1984 ed) list as available in ’53 and ’54 was also available in post war Jeeps and Willys automobiles going back to 1933.
Any chance you can help me with an engine I have!!! for a lark.
THe only info I can find it that the head has Kaiser cast above the word ‘Hornet”… four cyl/complete engine, looks like it might have been a racing engine?
Fantastic car. I love the lines of it. This one deserves to be saved. I’ve only seen two of these – a four door and a two door hard top both in very nice shape, both 53s and oddly both green.
Well here is another one that is in my possession
Out of the early 50s Compacts the Willys Aeros have to be my favorite. They didn’t have to ape any larger sibling and they seemed to be the best engineered, without compromises to styling (The Jet, who left the 1952 Ford in the Dryer) or quality (How’s that Henry J bath tub?).
The Hardtop coupes were particularly dashing, but wrong car wrong times. It arrived in a decade before there was the burgeoning youth market that would be buying Corvair Monzas and then Mustangs and GTOs. There was too much of an emphasis on the growing families in the 1950s that a sensibly sized coupe could really take off as a Niche product. That might have been the only way the Aeros could have saved themselves (in the US Market), in the same way that the Starlight/Starliner ’53 Studebaker’s could have saved Studebaker but due to quality and production delays, didn’t.
It’s interesting that the French Ford Vedette was probably the direct rival of the 2600/ Itamaraty as the Simca Esplanada. They both seem so conceptually and stylistically similar.
There’s another I’ve never heard of, thanks Paul.
At $100 over a base Chevrolet I can’t believe they sold 30 of these the first year, let alone 30 thousand. The Brooks Stevens redesign is quite handsome, Stevens was the king of the sow’s ear when it came to inexpensive redesigns.
What happened to the paint on this one? It doesn’t look like it was stripped, it looks like it was painted with water soluble kids craft paint and it just melted away..
Keep in mind a couple of points:
1. There were more than a few customers who liked the idea of a small car, even considering what passed for a normal sized car (say, 53-56 Chevy) as being too large. Every article on the 50’s compacts I’ve read keeps coming up with a market of 300,000 cars annually for that class of car. Which made them a viable proposition – as long as only one or two manufacturers were competing in the class. Once you got it up to four or five nameplates, no one company was selling enough cars to make a viable profit.
2. That’s $100.00 over a base (probably best categorized as a 150 business coupe, luggage space in place of a back seat, rubber floor mats, blocking panel over the radio, three on the tree, no arm rests, no sun visors, etc.). I don’t have the yearly sales by model figures available, but I seem to remember that, back in the mid-50’s, the best selling single model for Chevrolet was the Bel Air four door sedan. Which cost a few hundred more than the lowest price Chevy. So yeah, the Willys was more expensive than the cheapest Chevrolet, but it was cheaper than the Chevrolet that most people wanted.
3. Back then, with every marque fitting in one tightly structured sales class and only having one platform, most people would want the fanciest car they could afford if they were looking at the low priced class. They would be more willing to take the cheaper trim if it would get them in the next higher marque. Status was important back then, and ‘you were what you drove’.
In 1955, the Bel AIr 240 four door pillared sedan was indeed the top selling model. In ’56 and ’57, the midrange 210 sedan was the best selling model. The production numbers were very close, however.
This is a new one to me, as I have never heard of it. I was only familiar with Henry J’s, most w/o trunklids. This is a really cool find. Paul, you clearly live in an automtive classic paradise!
Now if only you could locate and do a story on the Kaiser Manhattan! Those were quite interesting, indeed!
In the early 70’s I worked with a guy who lived in North Portland and had a storage barn with 30-35 1950’s era Kaisers, Frazers and Willys. I didn’t pay much attention to them then, they were just old, weird looking 50’s cars to me. I wonder today what became of them.
What was his name?
I may know who you are referring to.
Very interesting article as actually quite a lot of these were seen in and around Warren, PA where I grew up in the fifties. I agree that the hardtop coupes were especially attractive. My father purchased a new 1949 Kaiser Special and it was the family car until being traded for a new Ford Ranch Wagon in 1956. My father was very interested in the Willys but by 56 they were gone and anyway we needed the Ford V-8 to traverse a steep 2 mile hill to our new home in the country. Also needed the station wagon because there was no garbage service up there and we had to haul a garbage can to the dump every Saturday morning after burning all the consumables. Loved seeing the photos of the Brazilian models, especially the 63.
Video walkaround of a ’66, I assume from its Brazilian owner. The rear looks a bit Pininfarina. The dash (@3min) has a European look & is much nicer: wood veneer & full gauges:
Don’t know why his shifter is detached; maybe an anti-theft measure?
Nice looking car! Interesting that in the 1960’s the Brazilian market took its styling cues from Europe as opposed to the US.
I wonder if these would be drivable today in North America (parts availability, etc.)? They would give 60’s Valiants & Falcons a run for their money among the urban hipster set.
So… the inevitable, heretical question… would a Chevy small block fit?
Probably this specimen’s only hope…
Actually, there is no hope. Great find, Paul! This one is truly a mummified corpse: looks like something once alive, but touch it and it falls to pieces…
Oregon sure must be a wonderland of scenery and antiques, especially compared to the flat, gray salty of Ohio! (Still home of Jeep in Toledo!) Oregon is one of five states I’ve missed in my 34 years… Now I need to go check out this Havana-with-volcanos!
Is there anything a SBC won’t fit? I’ve seen a few of the pre-war Willys given SBC treatment for dragstrip use only. Although a few of them had more custom work than Joan Rivers and sometimes looked about as good…
Hey! Don’t put down Joanie Phoney Baloney. She da bomb!
Several years ago we mounted a ’53 Chevy Bel Air HT on a ’65 ElCamino frame, Bri was going to look for a SBC. In our storage yard were six ’63 Electra’s (my parts cars), one with a 425. We measured, and the nail head was very slightly narrower, and with fan off shorter than a SBC, true it was taller, but that was no problem in the ’53. We put the 425 and Twin Turbine trans in. It was amazing, 90+ in 1st, 140+ in high and got there quick. Even fuel milage was decent with so much power. It would fit the ’55 Bermuda I had. The Chevy’s been going for over 30 years. He blew the engine in his ’65 Ford pickup and looked to the storage yard…
The original Continental engine (used in Kaiser and Willys) is still available new as an industrial engine. Got parts for my 53 Manhattan a few years back. I had a ’53 Willys coupe and ’55 Bermuda hardtop in 1965. No one knew what it was then. Handling was on a par with the step down Hudsons and top speed edged over 100 mph if you had a 20 mile strait. I was surprised checking the videos to see exactly the same car as the ’55 Bermuda in SA in 1961, could have used a few parts. The Volvo Amazon sedan looked like a reborn Willys to me.
Do I see a bit of the Mercedes Pullman 600 in that Executivo??? nice
Or maybe Checker. That’s what I thought till I read Executivo.
Call it anuthing you like Paul but Ive seen some of these never seen a runner though but dead ones are about even here, looks kinda like a MK2 Zephyr around the taillamps. Only one I ever looked at close had a Jeep motor and was being wrecked for the motor, Good find.
As you say, the low-priced inline-6, three-on-the-tree, rear-drive compact sedan is an American archetype. In production one way or another for at least forty years, from the ’39 Stude Champion out through the late seventies Mavericks and Dusters (also 108″ wheelbase). A constant form through all those years of change. Have you done an Automotive History piece on these cars?
This Aero is a sweet example, very nice to see and learn more about. Thanks.
PS: An Aero Lark appeared in Back to the Future Part II:
Here’s that photo…the scene is set in 1955.
It’s interesting, in that while independent compact BRANDS tried, and mostly failed; compact car LINES, by the majors, actually succeeded. I don’t think the market changed drastically enough between 1952 and 1960 that it was “suddenly” able to support a fragmented product market.
I think what was in play here was brand loyalty. In those days, you were a Ford man, or a Chevy family, or a Stude dude. You might move up, over your lifetime, from a Chevy to a Buick or a Ford to a Lincoln…but that chosen company was like your spouse.
Willys had had troubles before the war; and its loyal customer base, never very large to begin with, was skittish. The Aero line offered neither outstanding value nor assurance of big, benevolent General Motors standing behind it. The Kaiser, even more so…everyone had heard of Henry Kaiser. But his car was a new product; and it had zero loyal customer base.
(As an aside, Kaiser would have done better in taking over nascent American Motors….which I believe he in did intend later; the purchase of Kaiser Jeep by AMC was, I posit from readings, initially intended to bring AMC into the Kaiser Industries fold. Kaiser had a large percent of AMC stock at the time talks began; but alas, Henry died in 1967, two years before the deal was agreed on. The Kaiser family wanted/needed to liquidate; they voted their AMC shares to purchase their own crappy little car company, and then leaked their AMC holdings back onto the public.)
Two other points: Kaiser-Fraser had no engine of its own. It purchased its engines from Continental (the engine company, not the Ford company). So the “Kaiser” engine in the Aero-Willys was actually a farm-out of the engine source.
And Kaiser-Willys Sales Corporation, was simply a divisional separation of the sales (to dealers) end of the business. This was done in a few business plans; later this same organization was Kaiser-Jeep Sales Corporation; and Studebaker used a Studebaker Automotive Sales Corporation structure.
Taxes were the probable reason for this. The Sales Corporation could show a high profit, while the parent company showed “losses” at the manufacturing level; or vice versa.
“I don’t think the market changed drastically enough between 1952 and 1960 that it was “suddenly” able to support a fragmented product market.”
I disagree – two main factors are the 57-58 economic dip and the hugely increasing size of the mainstream cars by 1960 that created demand/opportunity for smaller cars. Undeniably the new compact cars coming from the big 3 helped as well.
And, had the major companies introduced separate compact lines in 1952 instead of 1959, they would have been as able to succeed.
It would have taken a marketing blitz, of course. Absent a recession, that part of the buying public that was open to lower cost, purchase and operation, needed to be SOLD on the advantages of such a car. There was no need for the Big 3 to be rocking the boat; but had they done it, they would likely have been as successful as they were eight years later.
And a Ford man was still a Ford man if he drove a compact Ford. The cross-pollination; that of a buyer dedicated to TYPE as opposed to BRAND, would later have happened, as it did…and happened a decade earlier; that would have just gotten the dynamic in place sooner.
There were two reasons why it didn’t happen, of course. First, all was going well in Detroit…nothing breeds complacency like success. And that’s not even necessarily a bad thing or lazy habit; when your business model is working, there’s good reasons not to change it.
The other…there was a shortage of raw materials and machine tools in the early 1950s, courtesy of the Korean War. Likely manufacturers couldn’t have tooled up for separate car lines if they wanted to. Willys, in fact, was so desperate for stamping equipment that they bought presses from a defunct washing-machine plant…which, to get off topic, was the reason for the quaint body stampings of the “Basket Weave” Willys Jeep utility wagon.
What happened in the late 1950s, of course, was first Volkswagen proved there was a market for different, smaller cars. Nash-Hudson rushed in to tap into that new segment, offering American made, conventionally-engineered products instead of strange ideas like air-cooling, rear-engine, 1930s designs.
Willys, too, in its struggling gasps…but by then its dealer network was so weak; its advertising budget too pitiful, for it to make a serious dent in this new market. Willys was on what we’d call here, a Death Watch. Only the very-unique Jeep line saved it; that was able to be sold out of garages and storefronts to work-minded customers.
But I still believe: the reason compact cars succeeded when they did, was because they were built and backed by manufacturers of substance.
Keep in mind that, back in the ten years after WWII, a small Ford would not have been badged a Ford. It would have been probably called something else entirely, as a Ford was the low-priced full sized car and nothing else. Remember than stillborn GM car was supposed to have been called a Cadet, not a Chevrolet Cadet. Yes, it would have been a Ford product, and would have fit into the Ford heirarchy, but I doubt if it would have been called, say, a Ford Falcon.
That size/price/class system was quite rigid, which is why the Sloan system worked. The first chip in the rigid hierarchy was the Chevrolet Corvette (failed at first), then the Hudson Jet (absolute failure), then the Ford Thunderbird (now it’s working). I’m not really sure how to call the Rambler, because I’ve always known of it as a Rambler, not a Nash Rambler (despite the 50’s pop song). And even if you do want to credit it as the first car to cross-pollinate a marque, it was the only success until the Thunderbird – and then only until the competition followed in.
The 1960 model year was the first time that companies got serious about destroying marque identity, and even then only Ford and Chevrolet did it because they had already tasted success with multiple separate automobiles under the same marque. Valiant was just that, like Cadet.
I bet the Aero with the Continental six was an excellent performer for the day…I wonder if any of the supercharged Kaiser engines ever ended in the Willys, either from the factory (highly unlikely) or aftermarket.
Yes. I owned one in Australia in the mid sixties, with the excellent overdrive I can personally confirm that it was faster than a twin spinner Ford V8 in top speed. Having raced one on a dual carriage way. Overdrive second was an excellent towing gear.
I think to a large degree, you have a major point on brand loyalty. The Falcon likely garnered buyers that would have bought bought “normal” Fords amyway, Ditto for Valiant and Chevy II (I put Corvair in a different class, and probably got a few “Conquests” from outside the Chevy camp.) People generally had more brand loyalty then. It even extended to appliances there were people who bought G.E. or nothing, Others had to buy Kenmore or other Sears nameplates. When I was a kid, I thought Zenith was the superior TV, It didn’t matter though. In our house the only TV brand was RCA! Today only sneakers and cellphones generate any brand loyalty!
It’s too bad that the Aero sold so poorly because, all in all, it was the best compact design of the early 1950s. Indeed, the Aero aged much more gracefully than the original Rambler. Be that as it may, the Rambler had crucial business advantages, such as a stronger dealer network and better economies of scale, which by 1954 allowed Nash to price its entry-level models well below the Aero’s.
By the 1950s, Willys was so weak that it arguably shouldn’t have even bothered re-entering the passenger car field. The money spent on the Aero could have given Willys a much greater bang for its buck by expanding and modernizing the Jeep line of four wheel drives.
Trouble with that is, nobody knew what the future of the Jeep even was. At first it was marketed as a roadgoing tractor to farmers; then to service stations and large corporations as a work-mule and gofer car.
It wasn’t until the late 1960s that the idea of a four-wheel-drive truck as a recreational vehicle really started to catch on. It took time for, first, servicemen returning from WWII to realize they really LIKED the out-of-doors…creating demand over and above the small numbers of rural folks who could afford such a car. Then, the economy had to expand to where owning more than one car was possible and practical.
In the immediate years after WWII, none of this could be forseen. In fact the opposite seemed to be happening: There were a series of sharp recessions in the first postwar years. War-bond holders did well; but the average working joe, not so much.
To succeed with Jeeps alone, which of course the combined Willys and Kaiser companies did…involved lowering the breakeven point, to where a small production run could turn a profit…and also having a large parent corporation with deep pockets. The Kaiser conglomerate provided the latter.
But even right up until and after the AMC takeover, the only real money for Kaiser-Willys-Jeep was in government contracts. Private sales were just icing on the cake; or in lean years, a way to keep excess production capacity busy.
The core challenge of being an independent automaker has always been how to anticipate new markets while not being too far ahead of the curve. Of course, it is easy to speculate well after the fact. But the logic chain I’m offering is pretty pedestrian.
Re-entrenching in the truck market was tried by more than one failed passenger-car maker from the 1930s onward. Willys happened to have a foothold in the four-wheel-drive market but its first post-war designs were overly crude. That limited their nongovernmental sales relative to other truck manufacturers.
Four-wheel-drive wagons may very well have stayed a small part of Willys’ sales for another decade, but I’d bet that the brand could carved out a decent niche in the 1950s truck market.
Here’s the thing: Even a marginal sales improvement over the course of a decade would have given Willys more bang for its buck than the money-losing Aero. That was a really expensive gamble.
All I can add here is that the patina is amazing. The front end shot with that oddly architectural W…I imagine some mad scientist driving this in a dystopian sci fi.
I have a 53 willys aero lark 4 dr. Body is in good shape but needs engine and interior. It is a 6 cylinder.
Looking for parts. Do you have any for sale?
I actually owned a 1953 Aero Willys 4 door sedan. It was the top of the line model, I believe an Eagle, two tone blue, with the more powerful motor. I bought it used in 1957 after I returned from military service for $450. It served my family and me very well for several years, aided by the fact that I lived less than a mile from a Willys dealer who serviced the car very well. Although the details are now vague, I have only the most pleasant memories of the car. It was very comfortable, had a lot of room for a “small car” and drove, handled and rode very well. The overall design, for it’s time, was ingenious. It just didn’t fit the times. After the depression and the war, people had money and wanted luxury, size and power and the Big Three supplied it. The Willys was not cheap and had neither the flash nor the dealers to compete. For example, in 1953, when I did buy a new car, I bought a Dodge Diplomat hard top coupe with a Red Ram V-8 Hemi engine. It was a lot more exciting than the Aero Willys and, if I recall, cost less. By 1957, when I was returning to school and had a wife, two kids and had left my previous car on Guam, I wanted and needed something more practical and better value. The very low resale value of the Willys gave me a fine car and a truly great value.
I bought a 53 Willys Aero Eagle two door hardtop in my junior year of high school in 1958. It had the F head engine but had been driven hard so had a rod go out in a little over a year after I got it. But was a fun car, even though didn’t have the power to keep up with the V8’s from the big three
Enjoyed all the postings! I have been re-building a 1953 Willys Aero Eagle (2-dr hdtp) for nearly 5-years now and have found several much-needed parts on e-bay from sellers as far away as the Netherlands and Brazil. Those looking for parts for the Aero should be aware of a salvage yard in Peyton, CO (Classic Motors) which has several Aeros that are being parted-out. Living in Golden, Colorado, I have made several trips to Peyton for parts. My Aero has been an engineering project in that I’ve installed a mid-ninety’s GM 4.3 V6 and 4L60E overdrive transmission, as-well-as a late 70s Ford rear axle/differential. Hardly anything for the project has been “off the shelf”, but the Willys should be an item of interest at the car shows.
I followed in my Dad’s footsteps as a car guy, growing up in the fifties and sixties and always liked the Willys. As a young man I was attracted to the Bermuda hardtops at the end of the production run with the sparkle -lathered bodies. That was the effect of having been a child when the approach to car design was style over substance, when designers kept going deeper and deeper into the realm of baroque application of brightwork because it sold well. It was the boomer child’s version of today’s interactive toys with their abundance of bells and whistles; when we were 8 years old, detroit designed cars that were attractive to 8 year olds, and should have been seen as garish by the Mom’s and Dad’s of that time but weren’t. As I now look back, the pre-facelift Aeros with the little “W” grill are masterpieces of understatement, so beautifully proportioned and tastefully decorated that the phrase “what WERE they thinking when they designed this?!!” so appropriate for many other cars of the era, does not apply. One thing not mentioned by any posters in this thread is the other end of the pricing question. When Willys, Rambler, Hudson and Kaiser brought out their compacts costing more than a full sized Detroit offering and tried to sell them to Americans weaned in the depression, they were bound to fail. What eventually made the difference was that GM, Ford and Chrysler operated at economies of scale that allowed them to price the Corvair, Falcon and Valiant below that of their standard sized cars, which, it’s been pointed out were much larger than their forebears from the early postwar years.
I used to have a ’52 Willys Ace Aero 2dr. sedan.
I was in Prescott AZ. at the time and found it in an old man’s back yard.
He had it since the ’60s.
I never really drove it much because I moved back East, but it was really an interesting little car, and seemed very well put together.
I don’t think anyone mentioned the Hudson Jet.
Very similar car that I don’t think sold well either.
I recall when these came out. Our local Willys dealer sought to build a room onto his little building to feature them. They were by far the best-looking of that generation compact.
The Hudson Jet suffered from corporate styling meddling. It had been planned to look much better, but the suits were like K.T. Keller and demanded height for the hat. Result was a big waste of money, since the car, although a good little car, now looked dowdy.
Another irony is that the F-Head went on to power Brazilian-built Mavericks for a time until the 2.3 Lima 4 was ready.
I don’t know if it was already mentionned. ^^; But I spotted these pictures of clay models showing then Ford Brazil once studied the possibilities of a 3rd-gen Aero-Lark/Aero-Willys/Itamaraty http://www.flickr.com/photos/hugo90/2315393725/
http://www.flickr.com/photos/hugo90/2316202598/in/photostream/ They cancelled the project and they bring the Maverick in Brazil.
Wow, the blue and silver cars look like a 3/4-scale 1970s Marquis and Continental from the front–but with exposed, rectangular headlights. Interesting!
I see the ’70 Lincoln, the ’77 Lincoln, and that second link looks a bit like the ’75 U.S. Granada. I also see the ’66 full size Ford wheel covers that lived on for several years on the Brazilian LTD that was based on the ’66 U.S. Galaxie.
I have never once seen one of these in person, but I’ve thought they were very cool for as long as I’ve known of their existence. It’s too bad Kaiser-Willy’s passenger car line couldn’t hold on a little longer in the US. I’m sure an updated model would have done at least somewhat better during the period when Studebaker was selling over 100k Larks a year. They still would have failed, no doubt, but at least the world would have had a few more Aeros to show for it.
A few months ago I was hooked on browsing Mexican and South American classifieds sites and daydreaming about bringing cars like the Brazilian Willy’s up north. They’re much more plentiful down there and shockingly cheap when converted into US dollars. Anything over 25 years old is fair game as far as import laws go, and you can actually drive most of the way back home. Yet, I’ve never heard of anyone doing it. Wonder if there’s some reason why, or if cars like this just aren’t very popular with the kind of folks who have the means and know-how to do such things.
A really great story, fascinating that so many cars head to South America and spend years being reasonably popular. It’s interesting that the U.S. companies had such a hard time doing compacts due to price issues. It appears that the only way the big three could have made a compact work would have been to collude to make all their entry level standard cars more expensive. Since GM already had 5 price tiers that were very successful, it would have been like trying to add Saturn when there really was nothing logical in doing so.
I see a lot of late Studebaker in the 1963 revision.
Being newer here, I appreciate that some of these stories recycle to the top. While I’ve searched the archives, some titles don’t grab me, and yet there are some really great stories / histories out there that are a good read.
“I see a lot of late Studebaker in the 1963 revision.” That’s no coincidence, Brooks Stevens did them both. (CC here)
Am I the only one who sees a crap-ton of resemblance to the Volvo Amazon/122??
nope, my first thought was that the greenhouse/roofline/fenderline relationship looked like a slightly slab sided Volvo Amazon too.
Here’s a nice one from a car show here in beautiful Wisconsin.
amigo yo tengo un willis aereo 1953 coope y quiero restaurarlo el esta todo completo pero en regular estado como consigo los repuestos para ese carro yo estoy en colombia si puede darme alguna informacion o alguna pagina lu agradesco la ayuda
Well, we certainly learned how much so many of you remember and enjoy these cars. I was a youngster in The Bronx in the early 1950’s. As boys, my friends and I regarded the Aero Willys automobiles as being cool cars. Looking at the pattern of The Big Three, it is conceivable that they gradually increased the size of their cars from the early ’50’s until the 1960 compacts were introduced in the fall of 1959 as a relief from the Detroit large cars. Good planning one might say. Frankly, who needed a 1957 Plymouth “boat” to go to the store? Two-car families were becoming the norm in the suburbs. Could a family afford to large cars? They would life have a large car, well equipped, and something simpler for running around. Still, I always admired the Aero Willys, still do, and love the modifications of American body panels to fancy looking Brazilian market cars. One wonders why we could not have had such nice lines on our compacts when they were built in the U.S. Great going, gents! Love all of your comments and enlightenments.
What is the source of this convertible? Was this Aero Willys made in the USA or elsewhere? Any ideas, gentlemen?
I remember seeing this in a magazine in the ’50’s, a black and white photo, listed as a custom one-off car.
These were nice-looking cars that were sized just right and being a little wider than most competitors was a nice touch too. But man that interior was a real letdown! Just for fun I went to oldcarbrochures.com and looked at the sales material and guess what! – very few interior pics and what there was didn’t really have a good view of the dash or instrument panel. It seems that even Willys knew these cars weren’t special in the interior department either! I can imagine customers checking these out at the dealers and being completely unimpressed when sitting inside, I really wonder how much of a factor that was in the failure of these cars, and whether these interiors were upgraded for the Brazilian versions. Would be interesting to compare the two.
Frank, you said that well. By 1950, GM Buick, Olds and Cadillac cars had side door panels that flowed into the dashboard. No one else, but they had it. Other makes, even the “Low Priced Three” had much better interiors than the Aero Willys. Our 1950 Dodge had bright metal surrounds on each of the pods of the instrument cluster, for example. The dash panel went from side to side with standard and optional equipment, such as the clock that would not run after some pounding on the roads. LRF, thanks for identifying this one-off Willys Aero convertible.
THANK YOU for this detailed thread about these cute little cars that never quite ‘made it’ .
I notice they managed to address the exposed shifter linkage on the steering column years before Ford did…..
Aero-Ace for sale in good shape:
Another for sale ($2K more than the above); the devoted owner has really spent the time and money to bring this one back: http://www.ebay.com/itm/1953-Willys-Aero-Lark-Base-/162628868415?hash=item25dd6f993f:g:ovEAAOSwcp1ZjyCO&vxp=mtr
A ‘rebuilt’ engine that has the oil pressure light on at idle ? .
It’s a nice car but certainly not ‘restored’ by any measure .
True, not REALLY at all restored, but likely more of a “driver”. Not that that’s a bad thing, The thing that stuck out at me is that the oil light looks like an LED. It’s not of course. Just caught my eye.
Not a bad idea for anyone who wants a fifties car that’s outside of “the usual suspects”! If I had the extra dough, I would give such a thing a serious thought! (assuming a nice first gen Corvair sedan didn’t “hex” me first!).
I like the little ’37 Willys, It’s like a baby “Spirit of Motion” Graham! I would seriously rock that with modern running gear. I assume that the later “Americar” is the same “innards”, If so, modifications are old news!
“Hometown” ad of sorts (very near Toledo), late 1953:
From the January 1952 release. Clever promotion, noting that the engine shares the F-head layout that Rolls and Bentley use:
Oh My! Wait ’till they tuck their tow on the accelerator of that new tech OHV Buick!!!…Oh, Wait 48 years too late! ??
My mother claims that she almost bought some kind of Willys coupe before she was married, but at the last minute she ended up buying a Chevy 150 Club Coupe.
After the Willys Aero went out of production in the U.S. there was a widespread rumor that they sold the dies to Volvo and that the basis for the Volvo 122 Amazon. This was not true and the Volvo 122 Amazon is a smaller car than the Willys Aero, though there is a certain resemblance.
Your Mum’s story is entirely sound, She likely got a better price on the 150, and it was a bigger car! It wasn’t yet the era for compacts. As much as I like this Willys in hindsight, If I was in the market for a new car at the time, a bigger Chevy,Ford or Plymouth at similar price would be hard to turn down. Even a 150 Chevy in size was about 85% of a Buick or Mercury, So, Why not? ?
My family bought a 1953 Aero Willys four door sedan brand new. Mediterranean Blue, 75hp straight six, three speed column shift. The glove box was extra so we didn’t get it! It was pretty comfortable for a small car and we had 6 people in it on many occasions. Only problem was on a steep hill you might have to stop and downshift to first to get up.
I was 13 and loved washing our first new car. We traded it in 1961 for a new Ford Falcon four door station wagon with 100 hp and three speed shift. Loved that car, one of the best I have ever owned.
Before being bought by Kaiser, did Willys / Jeep ever look at developing their own V8 engine?
Why would they? Their vehicles were all small/compact. Many used four cylinders. V8s back then were for premium/large cars.
Back in the early ’70s a friend of mine had and early ’50s 2wd Jeep wagon. He and his girlfriend drove it for a couple of years, until they got married. Wanting to move up to something more plush, they bought a 1954 Aero Eagle Deluxe 2dr hardtop. It was two tone green and white and had an overhead valve six cylinder with a 3 speed overdrive transmission. They drove this for a couple of years, until it spun a bearing. My friend then gave the car to his dad to tinker with.
It took his dad several years to repair it as he had a hard time finding parts. Apparently it was supposed to have an experimental six cylinder that Willys only offered one year. Which makes me wonder…was his actually a late 1954 or early 1955 with the Continental six? Or did Willys actually have a short lived experimental six? Just curious if any one else had heard of this.
One thing that hasn’t been mentioned is that the Willys Aero was a wide car for its size. It was wider than a full sized Pontiac, Chevrolet, Nash, Ford, DeSoto, Plymouth or Studebaker for 1952.
This completely incorrect. The Aero was 72″ wide; these other cars were all in the 75″-78″ range for width.
I see that you’ve been going through a lot of our old articles and trying to correct them, and I’ve noticed that a number of your “corrections” are false. This is not a service or helpful contribution to the process here. I would appreciate you taking the time to fact check your comments before you post them, or I will start to delete them.
I would have liked the tooling sent to France and this buit by Hotchkiss-Delahaye instead of Hotchkiss “Monceau” and Delahaye “235”, according to the close relations between Hotchkiss and Willys.
Many wise and thoughtful comments here. By 1954, Nash was the independent with the most working capital. That was a result, in part, of the success of the Rambler introduced by Nash in 1950.
By the early 60’s Rambler was third in sales. The first real nosedive for American Motors came in 65 when GM unleashed mid size cars about the same market position as the Rambler Classic.
American Motors (Nash-Kelvinator renamed)lasted from the merger with moribund Hudson until 1987. It never went bankrupt, had a government loan guarantee, or received a bailout. In any discussion of the independents it should stand out.
I was pleased read this interesting article especially concerning Willys Aro Lark. For your information I have a Willys Aro Lark car in my possession in Sri Lanka, which was my parent’s family car. The same was used by me up-till 1996. It is a 4 door saloon equipped with 4 cylinder CJ 5 engine 2200cc 1952 model. Transmission is 3 forward & reverse. However the car was neglected after1996 as i was out of the country for emploment up to 2020.
Mechanically engine, transmission is in good condition & what i can say is that its a very reliable & economical family car!!