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Willys-Overland Motors
Type Car & truck Manufacturing
Industry Automotive
Genre Military Jeeps (MBs) and civilian versions (CJs)
Founded 1908
Founders John Willys
Headquarters Toledo, Ohio, United States
Factory in Toledo, Ohio, about 1915

Willys was the brand name used by Willys-Overland Motors, an American automobile company best known for its design and production of military Jeeps (MBs) and civilian versions (CJs) during the 20th century.


  • Early history 1
  • Depression era 2
  • World War II and the Jeep 3
    • Origin of "Jeep" 3.1
  • Post-war struggles 4
  • The 1950s 5
  • Brazil 6
  • Legacy 7
  • List of Willys vehicles 8
    • Willys cars 8.1
    • Overland 8.2
    • Aero-Willys 8.3
    • Willys-Overland 8.4
    • Jeeps 8.5
  • Body type designations 9
  • Advertisements 10
  • See also 11
  • References 12
  • External links 13

Early history

Overland Model 91 Touring 1923
Willys Six 97 4-Door Sedan 1931
Willys Six 4-Door Sedan 1931
Willys 77 4-Door Sedan 1936
Willys Overland 4-Door Sedan (Model 39) 1939. This example has a body built in Australia by Holden that differs from the American model in having an additional window behind the rear door

In 1908, John Willys bought the Overland Automotive Division of Standard Wheel Company and in 1912 renamed it Willys-Overland Motor Company. From 1912 to 1918, Willys was the second largest producer of automobiles in the United States after Ford Motor Company.

In 1913, Willys acquired a license to build the Charles Knight's sleeve-valve engine which it used in cars bearing the Willys-Knight nameplate. In the mid-1920s, Willys also acquired the F.B. Stearns Company of Cleveland, Ohio and assumed continued production of the Stearns-Knight luxury car as well.

John Willys acquired the Electric Auto-Lite Company in 1914 and in 1917 formed the Willys Corporation to act as his holding company. In 1916, it acquired the Russell Motor Car Company of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, by 1917 New Process Gear, and in 1919 acquired the Duesenberg Motors Company plant in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The New Jersey plant was replaced by a new, larger facility and was to be the site of production for a new Willys Six, but the 1920 recession brought the Willys Corporation to its knees. The bankers hired Walter P. Chrysler to sort out the mess and the first model to go was the Willys Six, deemed an engineering disaster. Chrysler had auto engineers Owen Skelton, Carl Breer and Fred Zeder begin work on a new car, the Chrysler Six.

In 1917 Ward M. Canaday, who had been doing advertising for the company, became a full-time employee.

In order to raise cash needed to pay off debts, all of the Willys Corporation assets were on the auction block. The Elizabeth plant and the Chrysler Six prototype were sold to William C. Durant, then in the process of building a new, third empire. The plant built Durant's low priced Star, while the Chrysler Six prototype was improved and modified, becoming the 1923 Flint.

Walter Chrysler moved on to Maxwell-Chalmers, where in January 1924 he launched his own version of the six-cylinder Chrysler he had been working on, based partly on elements developed at Willys. (In 1925 the Maxwell car company became the Chrysler Corporation.)

Depression era

Willys-Overland dealer in Arkansas, ca. 1930-1945

In 1926, production of the Overland ended and the marque was replaced by the Whippet brand of small cars. In the economic depression of the 1930s a number of Willys automotive brands faltered. Stearns-Knight was liquidated in 1929. Whippet production ended in 1931, its models replaced by the Willys Six and Eight. Production of the Willys-Knight ended in 1933.

At this point Willys decided to clear the boards and produce two new models — the 4-cylinder Willys 77 and the 6-cylinder Willys 99 — but the firm was on the verge of bankruptcy again, so only the 77 went into production. It was forced to sell its Canadian subsidiary, itself in weak financial shape, and started a massive reorganization. Just the main assembly plant and some smaller factories remained the property of Willys-Overland. The other assets were sold off to a new holding company that leased some of the properties back to W-O. The parent company was thus able to ride out the storm. In 1936 the Willys-Overland Motor Company was reorganized as Willys-Overland Motors.

In 1937 Willys redesigned 4-cylinder model. It gained a semi-streamlined body with a slanted windshield, headlamps integrally embedded into the fenders and a one-piece, rounded hood transversely hinged at the rear.

For 1939 the Model 39 featured Bendix hydraulic brakes, a two-inch increase in wheelbase to 102 inches and an improved 134 DID four cylinder engine with power increased from 48 hp 61 hp.[1] The Model 39 was marketed as an Overland and as a Willys Overland rather than as a Willys.[1]

Whippet 4-Door Sedan 
Whippet Model 96A Touring 1929 
1930 Whippet 96A sedan 
Whippet Model 96 Coach 1927 

World War II and the Jeep

A Willys MB, better known as Jeep, at Military Vehicle Show, War Memorial Museum, Newport News, VA, Sun., Sept. 24th, 2006

Willys-Overland was one of several bidders when the War Department sought an auto maker that could begin rapid production of a lightweight truck based on a design by American Bantam.

In 1938 Joseph W. Frazer had joined Willys from Chrysler as chief executive. He saw a need to improve the firm's 4-cylinder engine to handle the punishment to which the Jeep would be subjected. This objective was brilliantly achieved by ex-Studebaker chief engineer Delmar "Barney" Roos, who wanted
"an engine that could develop 15 horsepower at 4,400 r.p.m. and run for 150 hours without failure. What he started with was an engine that developed 48 horsepower at 3,400 r.p.m., and could run continuously for only two to four hours ... It took Barney Roos two years to perfect his engine, by a whole complex of revisions that included closer tolerances, tougher alloys, aluminum pistons, and a flywheel reduced in weight from fifty-seven to thirty-one pounds".[2]

Production of the Willys MB, better known as Jeep, began in 1941, shared between Willys, Ford and American Bantam. 8,598 units were produced that year, and 359,851 units were produced before the end of World War II. Willys-Overland ranked 48th among United States corporations in the value of World War II military production contracts.[3] In total, 653,568 military Jeeps were manufactured.

Origin of "Jeep"

The origin of the name "Jeep" has been debated for many years. Some people believe "Jeep" is a phonetic pronunciation of the abbreviation GP, from "General Purpose", that was used as part of the official Army nomenclature. The first documented use of the word "Jeep" was the name of a character Eugene the Jeep in the Popeye comic strip, known for his supernatural abilities (e.g., walking through walls). It was also the name of a small tractor made by Minneapolis-Moline before World War II. Whatever the source, the name stuck and, after the war, Willys filed a successful trademark claim for the name.

Post-war struggles

After the war Willys did not resume production of its passenger car models, choosing instead to concentrate on Jeeps and Jeep-based vehicles. The first post-war Willys product was the CJ-2A. The CJ-2A was an MB stripped of obviously military features, particularly the blackout lighting, and with the addition of a tailgate.

Willys initially struggled to find a market for the vehicle, first attempting to sell it primarily as an alternative to the farm tractor. Tractors were in short supply, having been out of production during the war. However, sales of the "Agri-Jeep" never took off, mainly because it was too light to provide adequate draft.

The CJ-2A was among the first civilian vehicles of any kind to be equipped with four-wheel drive from the factory, and it gained popularity among farmers, ranchers, hunters, and others who needed a lightweight vehicle for use on unimproved roads and trails.

In 1946, a year after the introduction of the CJ-2A, Willys produced the Willys "Jeep" Utility Wagon based on the same engine and transmission, with clear styling influence from the CJ-2A Jeep. The next year came a "Jeep" Utility Truck with four-wheel drive. In 1948, the wagon was available in four-wheel drive, making it the ancestor of all sport utility vehicles.

Willys planned to re-enter the passenger car market in 1947 with the Willys 6-70 sedan. Its name came from the fact it was powered by a 6-cylinder engine that produced 70 hp. The 6-70 was touted as the first stock car in America that offered independent suspension on all four wheels, but it never entered production.[4]

In 1948 under a contract from the US Army Willys produced a small one-man four-wheeled utility vehicle called the Jungle Burden Carrier which evolved into the M274 Utility ½-ton vehicle.

Willys later produced the M38 Jeep for the U.S. Army, and continued the CJ series of civilian Jeeps. One variation was the Jeepster, which came with a 4-cylinder or 6-cylinder engine but only with two-wheel drive to the rear.

The 1950s

Willys FC150 Truck 1963

In 1952 Willys re-entered the car market with a new compact car, the Willys Aero. At first available only as a two-door sedan, it was available with either an L-head or F-head six-cylinder engine. Export markets could get the Aero with a four-cylinder engine. A four-door sedan and a two-door hardtop were added for 1953 along with taxi models. The Aero cars were called Lark, Wing, Falcon, Ace or Eagle depending on year, engine and trim level, except for a small production run in its final year (1955) with models called Custom and Bermuda. The bodies for the Willys Aero were supplied by the Murray Body company, which also made the bodies for the short-lived Hudson Jet. Also in 1952, CJ3B Jeeps went into production. By 1968, over 155,000 were sold.

In 1953 Kaiser Motors purchased Willys-Overland and changed the company's name to Willys Motor Company.[5] The same year, production of the Kaiser car was moved from Willow Run, Michigan, to the Willys plant at Toledo, Ohio. Although Jeep production was steady, sales of the Willys and Kaiser cars continued to fall.[6] Willys established an assembly plant in Brazil in 1953, after the government prohibited the import of assembled vehicles as part of an import substitution program.[7] In 1954, the CJ5 debuted at the start of its three-decade run.

1969 Willys Ford Itamaraty

After the last Willys passenger car was built in 1955, Willys shipped the Aero's tooling to Brazil, where it was built from 1960 to 1962, almost unchanged. Brooks Stevens restyled the Aero for 1963, and it was built by Ford(which bought the Willys factory) until the 1970s.

In America, the company changed its name in 1963 to Kaiser-Jeep Corporation; the Willys name disappeared thereafter.


Willys-Overland established its Brazilian operations in 1953, just before the Kaiser-Frazer takeover.[7] The tooling for the Aero went to Brazil, where it entered production in 1960. In 1956-1957 Brazil's Executive Group for the Automotive Industry (GEIA) had approved Willys-Overland for production of the Aero, the Willys MB Jeep, a truck version of the Jeep called the Rural, and the French Renault Dauphine small car.[8] The Aero-Willys replaced an earlier plan by a company called Chrysler-Willys do Brasil S.A. to build the 1956 Plymouth Savoy there.[8] The Dauphine was a result of Kaiser's Renault connection, and was produced by Willys do Brasil from 1959 until 1968. Willys held a market share of around 30 per cent in Brazil from 1960 until 1966, its last full year as an independent, mostly Brazilian-owned company.[9]

In 1962 Willys started building the French Alpine A108 as the Willys Interlagos. It was produced until 1966 and was the first Brazilian-made sports car.[10] It was also the car in which many Brazilian racers cut their teeth, including greats such as Emerson Fittipaldi. Willys also designed and showed a larger sports car called the "Capeta" (Devil) in 1964, powered by the 2.6 litre six-cylinder Aero engine.[10] In 1965 Willys Overland do Brasil and Renault began collaborating on a new front-wheel drive car, called "Project M" and meant to replace the aging Dauphine. Developed in parallel with the Renault 12, which it pre-dated, the car eventually saw light as the Ford Corcel.[11] Early Corcels had "Willys" stamping in the glass, and the Corcel line (which continued in production until 1997 as the Ford Pampa) always showed its French origins in its characteristic three-bolt wheels. In 1967 Ford took a controlling interest in Kaiser and thereby gained control of Willys-Overland do Brasil.[12]

The Aero-based Itamaraty continued in production until the early 1970s, in latter years wearing "Ford" badges. Dauphine production ended in 1968, but the Willys Rural/Pickup and its derivatives were built as the Ford F-75 until 1983. The only visual difference is that the post-1970 cars have a tailgate with "Ford" rather than "Jeep" stamped in it.[13] There was also a military version of the Jeep Pickup, called the F-85.


Kaiser-Jeep was sold to American Motors Corporation (AMC) in 1970 when Kaiser Industries decided to leave the automobile business. After the sale, AMC used engines it had developed for its other cars in Jeep models to improve performance and standardize production and servicing.

Renault purchased a major stake in AMC in 1979 and took over operation of the company, producing the CJ series until 1986. Chrysler purchased AMC in 1987 after the CJ had already been replaced with the Jeep Wrangler (also known as the YJ and later TJ), which had little in common with the CJ series other than outward appearance. The Jeep marque, owned by DaimlerChrysler and later Fiat, produces Jeep vehicles at a new Toledo Complex.

DaimlerChrysler introduced the Overland name for a trim package on the 2003 Jeep Grand Cherokee. The badging is a recreation of the Overland nameplate from the early twentieth century.

List of Willys vehicles

1922 Willys-Knight Model 20 in the Petersen Automotive Museum
Brazilian made Aero-Willys 1960
1957 Willys pickup (four-wheel drive)

Willys cars


  • Baby Overland
  • Overland Whippet (1926–1931)
  • Overland Four
  • Overland 59t (1911–1912)
  • Overland Six
  • Overland 90
  • Overland 91
  • Overland 93
  • Overland 39
  • also many early cars with model number


  • Aero-Willys JT (1951)
  • Aero-Willys Wing (1952)
  • Aero-Willys Scout (1953)
  • Aero-Willys Lark (1952–1954)
  • Aero-Willys Ace (1952–1954)
  • Aero-Willys Falcon (1953)
  • Aero-Willys Eagle (1952–1954)
  • Aero-Willys 2600 ((1963)

1960–1969) or Ford ) (Brazil)

  • Aero Willys Brooks Stevens´ design



Body type designations

  • Bermuda - Hardtop designation, 1955


A 1918 Willy's Knight advertisement - "Sleeve Valve Motor" - Syracuse Herald, May 8, 1918
1920 Willys-Knight advertisement

See also


  1. ^ a b MCG Car Spotter’s Guide to the 1937 to 1942 Willys,
  2. ^ Hartwell D The Mighty Jeep American Heritage Magazine, Vol 12 No 1, December 1960
  3. ^ Peck, Merton J. & Scherer, Frederic M. The Weapons Acquisition Process: An Economic Analysis (1962) Harvard Business School p.619
  4. ^ "Willys Springs A New One", January 1946, Popular Science. Retrieved 2011-01-09. 
  5. ^ Herman, Arthur. Freedom's Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, p. 343, Random House, New York, NY, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4000-6964-4.
  6. ^ Herman, Arthur. Freedom's Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, pp. 342-4, Random House, New York, NY, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4000-6964-4.
  7. ^ a b Shapiro, Helen (Winter 1991). "Determinants of Firm Entry into the Brazilian Automobile Manufacturing Industry, 1956-1968". The Business History Review 65 (4, The Automobile Industry): 884.  
  8. ^ a b Shapiro, p. 897
  9. ^ Shapiro, p. 936
  10. ^ a b "O primeiro carro esporte nacional" [The first national sports car]. Carros do Passado (in Portuguese). Best Cars Web Site. Retrieved 2013-09-08. 
  11. ^ Castaings, Francis. "Páginas da História: R12 francês, um sucesso mundial" [Historic Pages: France's R12, a Global Success] (in Portuguese). Best Cars Web Site. Retrieved 2013-09-08. 
  12. ^ Shapiro, p. 935
  13. ^ "Willys do Brasil Pickups". The Jeep Pickups Page. Retrieved 2013-09-08. 

External links

  • History of the Willys company
  • Dauphine Willys on Dauphinomaniac
  • More Links and Info
  • Willys-Overland-Knight-Registry Registry of vintage vehicles still running
  • Willys models in Brazil
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