In a strange twist of fate, the booming post-war seller's market dealt Willys-Overland a challenging hand. Four years of pent up automotive demand was screaming to be freed. Carmakers were in a mad scramble to ramp up civilian production and sell every car they could build. The seller’s market extended beyond just the manufacturers. Suppliers of everything from components to steel could pick and choose the highest volume contracts with the fattest profits. After a terrific run with the military Jeep, Willys now wanted badly to put on its civvies back on and start building cars again. But no supplier wanted to produce bodies for a small maker, especially one with a couple of bankruptcies under its belt. Frozen out, Willys was forced into the role of scavenger, looking for automotive opportunities wherever they could be found. Fortunately, what better vehicle was there for probing at the fringes than the go-anywhere Jeep?
The Civilian Jeep
The only “car” Willys could produce at the end of the war was the CJ2A, a civilian version of the military Jeep. Joseph Frazer had left Willys Overland before the end of the war to partner on a new automotive venture with Henry J. Kaiser. But not before he had the foresight to secure for Willys a patent on the Jeep brand name. It wasn’t exactly what CEO Ward Canaday wanted, but it would have to do. The Jeep brand was born.
Charles Sorensen was brought in to replace Frazer. Known as “Cast Iron Charlie,” from his early days at the Ford Motor Company, Sorensen was the man responsible for Ford’s implementation of the modern automobile assembly line. That hadn’t stopped an increasingly senile Henry Ford form abruptly fired his old friend. Now at Willys, Sorensen set about finding any means possible to expand the appeal of the Jeep. He soon found a body maker willing to supply Willys-Overland. The only catch was that the bodies would be coming from a plant built for stamping sheet metal for household appliances. Turning refrigerators into cars would require a bit of genius. Fortunately, Brooks Stevens was available.
Stevens was a young industrial designer whose genius was turning useful things into useful things that were elegant. The directive Sorensen gave him was to take what amounted to a little army truck with a washing machine body bolted onto its ass, and make it appealing. What Brooks Stevens created was an entirely new category of vehicle that was 40 years ahead of its time. The 1946 Jeep Station Wagon was a 6-passenger car built on a light truck frame. Today, a vehicle possessing those qualities would be called an SUV. In the late forties most people just called it strange.
There were a few trailblazers who appreciated the versatility the new Jeep offered. It was sturdy, economical and could go most anywhere. The Jeep was also the first all steel bodied wagon in America. After an abbreviated 1946 production run, Willys sold over 33,000 in 1947 - 50% higher than the pre-war Americar. From 1947-51, they made an average of 30,000 Jeep Station Wagons annually.
Despite the Station Wagon’s success, CEO Ward Canady still wanted to build a proper car. The market for cars was red hot and Canady wanted Willys in the middle of it. Charlie Sorensen, the seasoned production man, saw the direction that the post-war auto industry was headed. He knew it would be several years before body capacity freed up to the point where Willys could make cars. Even if he could do so, Sorensen was not sure the wisdom of trying. Independent makers attempting to compete with the Big 3’s economies of scale didn’t stand a chance. He liked the idea of having a much smaller market all to himself. He wanted Willys to focus on Jeeps, lowering costs and making evolutionary improvements. He was content to leave the cut-throat car business to others.
Two strong personalities clashed, and the one who owned the company won. Less than a year after the Station Wagon’s debut, Willys had a new president. That was James Mooney, a former GM man who immediately set about planning for a lightweight compact car that sounded very much like a modern Americar or Whippet. And he ran into exactly the obstacles Sorenson had foreseen. The post-war car boom was still going strong, and Willys continued to be stymied in its quest for suppliers.
In 1948, however, they got a little closer. The resourceful Brooks Stevens was again given a mandate - but few resources - to build a new kind of Jeep-based car. This time it was, as the press releases touted, a “sports-type” vehicle that was “unique and stylish,” if not exactly beautiful. It is “…a sports phaeton whose low and racy appearance reflects the continental concept.” Perhaps that meant that that the Jeepster reminds us a little of an oversized MG-TC. At any rate, the new Jeepster was meant to attract young people who wanted something sportier than a traditional convertible. It had white-wall tires, a chrome grill, and overdrive as standard equipment. Nineteen thousand Jeepsters were built from 1948-51.
In 1949, 4-wheel drive became available on the station wagon. A new “Lightning” F-head 6-cylinder engine was offered as an option on both two and 4-wheel drive models. In 1951, the venerable Go-Devil four was retired after a quarter century of service. It was replaced by a new, more powerful mill dubbed the “Hurricane Four.”
By the end of 1950, the supplier situation had stabilized to a point where Willys-Overland could resume traditional automobile production. Clyde Paton, a noted Packard engineer now gone freelance, had developed a new lightweight car with an advanced unit-body design. Paton pitched his design to W-O. where it was enthusiastically accepted. Within 18 months Willys had its first real automobile in 10 years. The 1952 Aero-Willys had the makings of a winner.
Like most of the Independents, Willys-Overland’s survival strategy in the early 1950s focused on niche markets otherwise overlooked by the Big Three. While Jeep had the light utility market all to itself, its growth prospects at that time were limited. Smaller cars seemed to offer a much larger volume source. For years, the basic cars from Ford, Plymouth and Chevrolet had been getting bigger and heavier. This was opening up a whole new segment of the market called compacts. All the major independents were now speeding to fill the void. Nash introduced its Rambler in 1950, the Kaiser Henry J bowed in 1951, and the Hudson Jet followed in 1953.
The Rambler was a cool little car but its styling was polarizing. The Henry J looked a bit strange as well, and it wore its cheapness on its sleeve. The Jet was a good performer, but its top-heavy proportions made it gawky and graceless. The Aero was easily the best looking of the bunch. Styling came from the pen of Phil Wright, who gave the Aero a clean look with fine proportions and just a spring bud of a pair of tailfins. It had a unit-body design that allowed more interior room, less weight and a better ride. Add to the equation Willys’ new “Lightning” six-cylinder engine that put out a class best 90hp, an it made the Aero the superior performer as well. In fact, with the 1952 Aero weighing in at just 2700lb, had the best power to weight ratio of any car in America that year. Ward Canaday called it “…the nearest thing to flying you’ll find on the highway.”
Had the Aero been a Ford or a Chevy or a Plymouth, many hundreds of thousands would have been sold annually. It was that good a car. But tiny Willys-Overland did not have the economies of scale to be able to price the car competitively. The smaller, lighter Aero cost about 10% more than the full-sized price leaders from Ford, Chevy or Plymouth. Though it was quicker, better handling more economical and nearly as roomy, this was 1950s America. Bigger was considered better, even if it wasn’t. Despite the headwinds, Willys managed to sell 90,000 Aeros in its first two years on the market. Not bad but not enough .
Merger with Kaiser
Kaiser-Frazer Motors had been founded toward the end of WWII by famed industrialist Henry J. Kaiser and former Willys president, Joseph Frazer. They had high hopes of taking on the American automotive status quo. The Kaiser and Frazer brands were the first all-new cars to appear after the war and initial sales were strong. But at the turn of the decade, as supply and demand found their equilibrium, K-F struggled to compete. The two founders clashed over strategy. Frazer resigned. The source of their dispute, the utilitarian compact Henry J unveiled in 1951, failed to meet sales expectations. That same year, the reengineered larger Kaisers were beautiful, well designed cars, but they too were floundering in the marketplace. Consumers were beginning to lose faith in the viability of the independent makes.
Henry J. Kaiser was not used to failure. He had built an empire carving civilization out of the wilderness. The Willys lineup of all-purpose Jeeps that had no competitors, plus a compact car that was superior in almost every way to his namesake small car. By purchasing Willys-Overland, Kaiser could at least partially save face in the auto industry. The $60 million deal went through in April 1953.
The Kaiser-Willys tie up kicked off a wave of consolidation among the Indies, one that would prove to be too little too late. The following year Ford and Chevrolet embarked on a slash and burn sales war that pushed down car prices and laid waste to the independent makers. Hudson was absorbed by Nash. Packard rushed into a disastrous merger with Studebaker. Before the close of 1955, Kaiser Industries simply pulled the plug on U.S. automobile production, after selling just 15,000 more Aeros in its final 2 years.
Jeep soldiered on as a division of Kaiser. Improvements continued to be made. A redesigned Jeep CJ-5 was introduced in 1954. The last vehicle to be developed under Willys-Overland leadership, the CJ-5 was 3 inches wider, 1 inch longer than its predecessor, and had a stronger frame and a better ride. The CJ-5 would spawn many derivatives and consistent profits over its 29 years in production.
Kaiser Industries dropped the Willys name in 1963, becoming Kaiser-Jeep. After 61 years, the storied American brand was no more.
Willys do Brasil
While it was unable to compete in the US marketplace, the Aero was destined to have a very active retirement south of the equator. Its modern, compact design, good looks, sturdy construction and stellar performance made the Aero an ideal car for a newly industrializing country with no automobile industry of its own. The Aero’s tooling found its way to Brazil in 1958. A new Kaiser subsidiary called Willys do Brasil began production of a mildly face lifted Aero in 1960.
Willys do Brazil sought to give their car a more unique identity. For that they hired Brooks Stevens to once again work his design magic on the Willys line. He gave the Aero a modern new body to create the handsome Itamaraty 2600. The Itamaraty came to be the symbol of a Brazilian automobile.
In 1967, Kaiser sold its Brazilian and Argentine operations to the Ford Motor Company, but production of the popular Aero-based cars continued well into the 70s. Willys do Brasil, and later Ford, would sell over 117,000Aeros, Itamaratys and other derivatives from 1960-1974. During its 20 years in production, under 3 owners and on two continents, nearly 220,000 Aeros were produced.
All told, Willys-Overland built nearly 2.5 million cars during its half century as an independent company. Add another half a million Jeeps made between 1941 and 1954, and it’s not a bad showing for a make that didn’t make it.
In the 60 years since Willys was absorbed by Kaiser and the brand was shipped abroad, many millions of Jeeps have been sold. The battle tested Jeep sustained Kaiser for a dozen more years, profitably producing a half million of the rugged trucks. American Motors Corporation bought Kaiser's operations in 1969, where it proceeded to sell a million Jeeps during the 1970s. Finally laid low by the money-losing car side of its business, AMC sold out to Renault of France, who sold another million Jeeps through 1987. Again, Jeep profits could not fully make up for losses from building cars. Renault was forced to sell out to Chrysler Corporation, who only wanted Jeep. They immediately shuttered the AMC car brand. And so it went from Chrysler, to Daimler, to Cerberus Capital Management and bankruptcy in 2009. Fiat merged with Chrysler that year to get hold of Jeep, and now it has put itself up for sale. No one wants Fiat or Chrysler, which are valueless. They only want Jeep. It seems Charlie Sorensen was right back in 1947 about leaving the cutthroat car business to others.
Copyright@2017 by Mal Pearson
This is the third of a 3-part history of Willys-Overland