1953 Willys Aero advertisement. It was the company’s 50th anniversary.
When we think of Willys, we most often associate the company with the Jeep. This is natural because the company built more Jeeps than it ever built cars. But Willys built cars for 35 years before it built its first Jeep. Today’s Gear Head focus is not on the Jeep, but on a splendid compact car Willys introduced in 1952, the Aero. In the U.S., the Aero ran for four model years. Then the tooling to build it was shipped to Brazil where it was built into the 1960s. Before detailing the ’52-’55 Aero models, we will review Willys’ history.
Willys has its roots in the early days of the car business. There was a time when it was the second largest-volume producer, bested only by Ford. The company was founded in 1907 when an Elmira, New York car dealer, John North Willys, bought the ailing Overland Motors from Standard Wheel Company in Indianapolis. In 1908, Willys added his name and the company became Willys-Overland. Shed of its Overland division, Standard Wheel concentrated on its main business: making wheels for the auto industry.
Willys moved the company to Toledo when he acquired the plant that had built Pope automobiles. His four cylinder Overland sold well, ranking second in volume only to Ford’s Model T.
Willys entered the 1920s with an expanded model line, adding six and eight cylinder cars to the line while continuing with the four cylinder model. In 1925, the four cylinder model became the Whippet. It remained the company’s volume leader. Six cylinder Whippets were also offered at a $100 + premium over the four cylinder model. The Whippet name comes from a fast running breed of dog related to the Greyhound.
The Depression took an increasingly large toll on auto sales including those of Willys and sales of the Whippet fell sharply. In 1931 the Whippet name was dropped and the cars resumed using the Willys name which had continued on cars they produced with larger engines while they were building the Whippet.
An association with visionary engineer Charles Yale Knight led to the Willys-Knight. Knight’s engines replaced conventional valves with two sleeves (between the piston and the bore) that moved up and down in the cylinders.
1927 Willys-Knight. Note the Packard-like grille and headlights.
When slots in the two sleeves aligned either an exhaust or intake port was opened. The Knight’s sleeve-valve engine had a great advantage in smoothness and silence of operation compared to conventional engines of the teens and ’20s. As an added bonus carbon buildup made sleeve-valve engines run better, while other engines of the time required frequent “carbon and valve jobs” to remove carbon.
Knight engines were offered by European luxury makes such as Daimler in England, Voisin in France, and even Mercedes in Germany. Willys sold more sleeve-valve engines than anyone.
Early ’30s Willys-Knights were sixes offered in two series. Smaller models had 178 cid, 53-60 bhp, and wheelbases of 113 or 115 inches; the larger ones used a 255-cid engine with 72-87 bhp in 120- and 121-inch chassis. As with the Whippet, demand dropped quickly as the Depression dug deeper into the American economy. Also by that time conventional engines were as smooth and quiet as the more expensive-to-produce Knight engines.
Willys’ production withered to only 27,000 cars for ’32. With that, J.N. Willys, who had held the largely honorary post of board chairman since 1929, resigned his recent appointment as U.S. ambassador to Poland and returned to rescue his company.
J.N. chipped in $2 million of his own money and personally assured dealers and creditors that all would be well, but Willys-Overland was forced to declare bankruptcy. The company was reorganized and resumed production, but managed only about 13,000 units in 1934. It would not emerge from receivership until 1935, days after John North Willys succumbed to heart troubles.
Willys-Overland decided to bet its dwindling bank on a new low-priced small car, which it managed to develop for next to nothing. Called the Willys 77, it was unveiled in June 1932 with a 100-inch wheelbase and an ultrathrifty four-cylinder engine making 48 bhp from 134.2 cid. It was the only car Willys would sell from early 1933 through 1936.
1932 Willys 77
The 1933 reorganization ushered in a new chairman, Ward Canaday. A pillar of the Toledo business community with a strong sense of loyalty to his employees, Canaday ached to get things moving again.
At Canaday’s behest, the 1937 models were restyled and the model offerings expanded. The styling of the ’37s was controversial. The prow of the ’37 Willys unwittingly foretold the even more controversial “Sharknose” Graham of 1939.
Above: the ’37 Willys; Below: a ’39 Graham “Sharknose.”
The names of the models now changed with each year, thus the 1937 cars were “Model 37” The Model 37s met with some success. Model-year volume shot up to 63,467. But 1937 was a recovery year for most of the industry, so despite building twice the number of cars it had in ’36, Willys only improved from 15th to 14th in the overall industry standings.
The 1938 recession resulted in dramatically lower sales, pushing Willys back to 16th. Changes for that year’s Model 38 were few, but offerings expanded with a pair of two-door sedans called Clipper, a name Packard would pick up for a new Dutch Darrin-designed car three model years later.
For 1939, former Studebaker engineer Barney Roos coaxed extra power out of the old four cylinder engine via higher compression, an improved carburetor, and a new camshaft. Dubbed the “Go-Devil,” this rugged engine would soon impress the Army and go on to power wartime Jeeps. But total Willys production for 1939 was only 17,839, a worrisome decline in a year when most automakers did better than the year before.
It was in 1939 that Joseph W. Frazer, the dynamic sales manager of Chrysler Corporation, went to Willys-Overland as president and general manager; Canaday remained board chairman. Frazer ordered styling for 1940 to become more orthodox than the still controversial design introduced in 1937. Still, it’s doubtful even Frazer could have saved Willys’ passenger cars. Willys needed a product that was distinctly different. No one at the time could foretell what that product would be.
The method of designating models was updated again beginning with the 1940 models. The 1940 Willys were designated Series 440 – for four cylinders, 1940. Frazer’s revised models were essentially ’39 Overlands with sealed-beam headlamps and revised front end styling. Model-year production improved to nearly 27,000 – the same as the deep-Depression figure of 1932.
1940 Willys Deluxe Coupé
That sad production figure was spread over seven models including a “woody” wagon, a half-ton delivery van and a pickup truck, the pickup being similar in concept to the Studebaker Coupe-Express – a pickup bed attached to a passenger car front clip.
Frazer and his staff made further improvements for the following year’s Series 441. All models were dubbed “Americar,” providing patriotic appeal. The ’41 models gained two more horsepower and two more inches in wheelbase. Models expanded to seven with the addition of a new Plainsman coupe and sedan. The Plainsman name was picked up in the mid-1950s for a Plymouth show car.
Above: 1941 Willys Americar; Below: the Plymouth Plainsman show car from the mid 1950s was one of the more unfortunate styling exercises of the time. The Plainsman name had first been used by Willys.
In winning (along with Ford) the contract to build Jeeps for with the United States having entered the war that was sweeping the world, Willys’ 1942 model year was even shorter than for most other U.S. automakers. Just under 29,000 of the ’41 and ’42 models combined were built before Willys-Overland shifted entirely to war production. Frazer would leave Toledo in 1943 to take over Graham-Paige. As we’ve seen recently, after the war Frazer helped found Kaiser-Frazer. Taking over as Willys-Overland president was Charles E. Sorensen, the famed former production boss at Ford. “Cast-Iron Charlie” then stepped aside in 1946 for James D. Mooney. The Jeep was just the ticket for the survival of Willy-Overland after the war.
With the war ended, Willys wisely postponed returning to passenger car production, resuming peacetime production with Jeep-based vehicles instead. These included the inevitable civilian version of the military Jeep, plus two variants. The first variant was a station wagon designed by Brooks Stevens. Introduced in 1946, the wagon was destined to live on for 20 years. Though usually considered a truck and not a car, it arguably qualifies as the first modern all-steel wagon. In any case, it was Willy’s main civilian product through 1947.
Brooks Stevens (above) designed the postwar Willys Jeep wagon. It was the first all-steel station wagon. 388,000 of them were built between 1946 and 1965.
Willys had found its niche with the Jeeps. After the success of the wagon, in 1948 Willys introduced the second variant of the regular Jeep and another Brooks Stevens creation, the Jeepster. Like the wagon, the Jeepster remained in production with few changes for some 20 years.
Above: Brooks Stevens’ sketch of the Jeepster. Below: an ad from 1950.
Willys could likely have lived just fine on Jeeps, Jeep wagons, trucks, and military vehicles. But the high optimism and booming seller’s market of the early postwar years made returning to the passenger-car business seem like a no-lose proposition.
The compact Nash Rambler spawned imitators: Kaiser’s Henry J, the Willys Aero and the Hudson Jet. The market for compact cars in the early to mid 1950s wasn’t ready for so many choices. Nash had the only real success in the market segment at that time.
Chairman Ward Canaday, who had taken over as president in 1950 while continuing as chairman, entertained numerous ideas for Willys’ re-entry into passenger car production. No doubt encouraged by the success of Nash’s compact Rambler, Canaday’s final choice was a trim 108-inch-wheelbase unitized body proposal engineered by the distinguished Clyde Paton and inventively styled by Phil Wright. The two door hardtop version was particularly handsome. The new car was ready for the road by 1952, when it was trumpeted as “The Revolutionary New Aero-Willys.”
The painted ads for the Aero-Willys don’t really do the car justice. It is a good design and the design shows better in photographs than in the paintings. Below is a better rendering.
Below: With its clean lines and good proportions, the compact Aero looks larger than it actually is. Note the ’53 Ford beside the Willys. The overall styling of the two cars is similar, but that is not to suggest that the Willys is by any means a copy of the Ford.
The new Aero-Willys was a fine effort. Fashionably square and slabsided, the Aero was relatively light (2500-2600 pounds), roomy, and blessed with good handling. There were four models at first: Aero-Eagle hardtop coupe and three two-door sedans. The Aero-Lark used the 75-bhp, 161-cid six-cylinder engine from late Jeepsters; Eagle and the Aero-Wing and Aero-Ace sedans ran an F-head version with 90 bhp. Though small, the 161 cubic inch six delivered good performance, plus fuel economy on the order of 25 miles per gallon. Willys had a knack for picking names for its models that would be used later by other manufacturers: Clipper, Plainsman, Eagle and Lark. The 161 cubic inch six would soon be used in the Kaiser-Darrin.
1952-model year production was 31,363 cars; the midrange Aero-Wing accounted for well over a third of that.
Above: 1953 Willys Aero hardtop. Below: the four door version arrived for 1953.
Offerings expanded for 1953, when appearance changed only in detail – notably red hubcap emblems and a gold-plated “W” in the grille, honoring Willys’ 50th anniversary. Aero-Wing was retitled Aero-Falcon, another Willys name to be picked up by another manufacturer later – in this case Ford. For 1953, a new four-door sedan arrived in Lark, Falcon and Ace versions. Helped by the end of government-mandated curbs on consumer production instituted because of the Korean War, Willys had another modestly good year, selling about 42,000 Aeros.
1953 Willys “double truck” (2 page) ad in The Saturday Evening Post
The situation changed in 1954. During 1953 Willys-Overland was purchased by Henry Kaiser, who combined it with ailing Kaiser-Frazer to form Kaiser-Willys Sales Corporation. Kaiser-Frazer sold its sprawling Willow Run, Michigan plant to General Motors (which would use it into the 1990s), and Kaiser production was transferred to Toledo.
The Kaiser takeover didn’t immediately affect the ’54 Aero-Willys, which was a ’53 with larger taillights and a revised interior. But March 1954 brought a raft of changes. Chief among them was the Continental 226-cid L-head six which had been used in all Kaisers. The Continental six was shoehorned in as optional power for Ace and Eagle. There were also new Ace and Eagle Customs, which were the standard Ace and Eagle with a “continental” spare tire added.
With the Continental-built engine from the Kaiser stuffed under the hood, the ’54 Willys advertised it had 27% more power. Although in its third season, the design still looked fresh.
Though heavier than the Willys 161, the Continental-built Kaiser 226 cubic inch engine produced a useful 25 extra horsepower that made the Aero relatively fast. Top speed was little higher at 85 mph, but the Continental six dropped typical 0-60 mph times to around 14 seconds. As an experiment, a few Aeros were fitted with 140-bhp supercharged Kaiser Manhattan engines, which company engineers claimed, made the lighter Willys a performance match for many contemporary V-8 cars.
All ’54s handled much better than earlier Aeros, thanks to a revised front suspension. In all, the best Aeros yet failed to convince many customers, and production dropped to 11,717. As was the case all across the auto industry, the price and production war between Ford and Chevrolet in 1953 and 1954 took its toll on Willys, too.
By early 1955, Kaiser-Willys decided to abandon the U.S. car market. No longer called Aero, the ’55s comprised Custom two-and four-door sedans and a Bermuda hardtop (formerly called Eagle). Engine choices did not change save for deletion of the Lark’s 134-cid four, but prices were drastically cut in a last-ditch effort to attract sales. The Bermuda, for instance, was slashed to $1895, and was thus honestly advertised as America’s lowest-priced hardtop.
1955 Willys Bermuda hardtop
Sales considerations also prompted an ambitious ’55 facelift by Kaiser stylists Buzz Grisinger and Herb Weissinger. The restyles’ main elements were a two-tier grille (replacing the simple horizontal-bar motif of prior years) and Z-line side moldings that made for an odd two-toned appearance. In the meantime, a neat hardtop wagon was in the works for 1955-56, and designers “Dutch” Darrin and Duncan McRae were conjuring more ambitious restyles for the years beyond. But Willys wouldn’t live to see them, at least not with passenger cars. So after a final 5986 units for 1955, most carrying the 226 engine, Willys returned to making nothing but Jeeps in the U.S.
The Buzz Grisinger/Herb Weissinger facelift on the Willys for 1955
Happily, the Aero would live a good while longer in South America, where Kaiser’s Willys do (of) Brasil subsidiary took over the Aero dies and offered a cleaned-up ’55 with F-head Willys power during 1960-62. Designer Brooks Stevens then applied handsome new square-rigged outer panels, and the car continued through ’72, first as the Aero-Willys 2600, then the Willys Itamaraty, and finally the Ford Itamaraty (Dearborn acquired Willys do Brasil via American Motors in 1967). That’s eloquent testimony to the sound basic design of the original Aero-Willys. A pity it wasn’t more appreciated in its native land.
Above: Brooks Stevens worked his magic on the Aero in its South American incarnation. Note how the roof line and the general shape of the vehicle prefigure what Stevens did for the ’64 Studebaker Cruiser (below). The Studebaker shown is an unrestored example. The badge on the front fender and on the grille tell us that this is a very rare Avanti-powered model.
Below: Another view of Stevens’ Willys do Brasil design. Note the similarity of the wheel covers on the Willys to those on the Studebaker. Stevens was good at recycling his design ideas.