Curbside Classic Drive Report: 1920 Willys Overland 4

The clock stands still: 1920 Overland 4 in front of the old bank in Harris, Iowa.

(first posted 2/2/2017)    Bill knocked at the shop’s entrance and his brother opened the overhead door. “Here it is” said Scott. Bill followed up with a quick introduction because Scott and I never met before. Scott must be one of those guys who feel amputated unless they have a tool in their hand. 

He pulled a spark plug out of the Overland  4. It must run rich because the plug appeared a bit sooty. I walked around the car and took some shots while he cleaned and installed the plug. We then walked to the counter and paged through the owner’s manual. I photographed it from cover to cover. Scott checked the tire pressure and then he placed the key in my hand. The key resembles a bullet. He mentioned that Willys introduced this anti-theft device.

We walked around the car and Scott and Bill pointed out its design features and issues that need addressing. The pull-out regulators for ignition advance and air-fuel trim are missing. The pull for the choke is present.

Oil level indicator

There is an oil level gauge under the hood. The choke is jury-rigged with some electrical wire. Coming to the front they point out that the lights don’t work.

The bumper is the original 4mph bumper they joked. The mounts are spring loaded and if you open one bolt the bumper will whip around and bust your shins.


The front suspension is a straight axle held by half length semi-elliptical leaf springs that angle from tip of the frame back to the wheels. It looks different and more sophisticated than Henry’s Model T set up. Yet I wonder if it provides any real advantages. I think this set up may produce bump steer. The front wheels have no brakes.  There are oil cups at the steering linkages.

Under the right side hood we have a look at the ignition parts and the starter. “We need to do some research on the spark advance” they say. We move on to the rear.

The special wheel hub wrench in action.

Scott showed me how the wheels are mounted with a central nut. A special wrench is used that pulls back a locking pin before the nut can be moved.

Detail of the undercarriage.

The rear hubs carry band brakes that are operated with rods. It is a solid construction. “The brakes are really weak” they repeated a few times for good measure.

The rear suspension is a mirror image of the front suspension with the springs extending from the end of the frame forward to the rear wheels. It looks very neat and I can imagine it impressed car shoppers of the time.

The lights don’t work but Scott shows concern for safety by putting a red flip-flop sandal over the left tail light housing to make shift for the missing lens.

Battery and tools are located under the front bench.

Scott put the hoods down and secured them. He returned the front seat that was removed to access the battery and tools. Then he motioned me to get in. He sat behind the wheel and checked his pockets for the key.

The patented ignition key.

“Are you looking for this?” I said. He took it with a nod and inserted it. This closes the ignition circuit.

Left to right: clutch, accelerator, lights,  foot brake, hand brake, shift lever. The starter button does not show. It is hidden by the seat cushion.

He pulled the choke and with the heel of his right foot he stepped on the starter button that is mounted on the floor, back towards the seat. After a few cranks the engine came to live. It sounded like any other low revving, low compression (by modern standards) 4 stroke 4 cylinder engine. This is a quiet running engine. We had to raise our voices not too much to continue our conversation, inside the shop no less.

Scott and Bill

With a firm grip and push Scott selected first gear and moved into the driveway. Bill closed the shop’s door and hopped in the rear. Scott turned right onto the street. The gears whined ever higher in pitch as the car collected momentum. A shift into second gear required a coordinated step on the clutch pedal followed by a determined tug back on the lever. He stopped at the intersection and took a left turn to go south out of town.

I admired the view as a passenger. We were passing fields with perfectly straight rows of recently sprouted corn stalks that may be 4 inches high. Legroom was tight in the front. Visibility was fantastic. The wind through the open windows created the most noise and made conversation more difficult. Scott had it in third gear and the car went nicely at around 40 mph, I guess. The speedometer was neither accurate nor precise: it was all over the place.

Scott turned right into the cemetery and stopped for a photo op. He demonstrated how the windows operate. That’s a two-handed procedure. Not too practical, even back then. But it looks classy. Even the cloth covered door catches look classy.

Driver change. Again, I was told how weak the brakes are and that I need to hold on to the steering wheel. The wooden wheel had a nice oval cross section with the flat part on top. It felt comfortable. Scott sat next to me and made sure it was in neutral. He quickly checked that every available adjustment was set and asked me to hit the starter button on the floor. It sprang to life immediately and we took off.

I took two laps on the cemetery road to get a feel for the car. Indeed you needed a strong hold on the steering wheel. You have to return the steering to center by muscle. The steering was very direct. It took less than a turn from stop to stop. The suspension was comfortable. There was less body roll than I expected. Maybe that is the advantage provided by the angled half length semi-elliptical springs. I felt no trace of bump steer. The narrow tires and the gravel road might hide that well. I do agree that the brakes are weak. Actually, they suck. You have to step on them early and hard. In hope of a boost by divine intervention you may also utter a prayer. I exaggerate here, but I wouldn’t want to get into a tight spot for sure.

Since acceleration is hardly better than braking it is advisable to have no oncoming vehicle in sight when entering the road. First and second gear produced some clatter but third gear was quiet. The transmission is certainly a candidate for overhaul. The engine however felt very tight and free of abnormal mechanical noises. The carburetor and the spark advance need attention, but that’s it. Any sludge build up will probably wash out with frequent oil changes using today’s oils. The owner’s manual recommends flushing the engine with kerosene at every oil change.

I drove back into the town and took a loop around a block. Scott instructed me to park  in front of the bank. The guys chatted with some locals then checked out their father’s old business building adjacent to the bank.

As they emerged a few minutes later and crossed the road they looked like robbers on the get-away.

Now Bill took the wheel and gave me a tour of the town. The brothers discussed local happenings all along. Clearly, the back was the place to be. The bench was plush and comfortable, there was ample room for the legs and the view out was perfect.

It was easy to imagine how granddad took his clients into the fields, stopping now and then to answer questions or drawing their attention to the fertile soil.

Bill returned the Overland 4 to the shop, then we went to Scott’s home for a beverage. Scott’s lovely wife Roseanne joint in the conversation. The story of the car is this: In 1920 Scott and Bill’s granddad bought this Overland 4 as a kit and had it shipped by rail from Toledo, Ohio to Harris, Iowa. The local  do-it-all mechanic, fabricator and smith was hired to assemble it. Granddad wanted a nice car, nicer than a Model T, to chauffeur his real estate clients to the farms that were for sale. Unfortunately about a year later he became ill and died. The family kept the car under roof and used it only occasionally. Their dad tried his hand at the car’s maintenance but “a mechanic he was not!” as Bill expressed it. One time he managed to put water into the crankcase rather than the cooling system. He also brushed black paint on some body panels. Yet the car is in remarkably original state.

The Overland 4 fell into Scott’s stewardship because he stayed in Harris and built up his electric installation business. Other family lives too far away and are not interested in the car. There was some thought of selling it but then he feels the car is part of Harris’ history and it belongs here where it has always been.

I hope it stays home with Scott and the Harris community. Furthermore I hope Scott and his friends will find ways to make it a safe to drive classic that can be seen curbside more often.

I like to express my gratitude to the Robertson family for their hospitality and for allowing me this wonderful ride in their 1920 Willys Overland 4. What a treat it was!