Willys Overland is best known as makers of the original Jeep. With good reason. That little truck helped win a world war. The parent company, however, predated its famous aspiring by 40 years, holding a memorable place in its own right in the annals of automobile history. The original Overland of 1902 was one of the very first cars to employ the front engine, rear drive layout that would become the industry standard for the next half century. Willys was the second bestselling car in America during the 1910s, still #3 by the late 1920s, and its strong performing compact cars of the 1930s dominated that category decades before anyone thought to give it a name. The Willys brand did not survive the industry’s post-war consolidation. But through the Jeep name, passing though no fewer that 7 owners, and counting, the Willys-Overland soul lives on.
A Rocky Beginning
Willys-Overland was born in the infancy of the American automobile industry. The Olds Curved Dash had just burst onto the scene. Its tremendous acceptance by the general public convinced many an industrial visionary that there was a bright future in the automobile. Two of these of these were Charles Minsall and Claude Cox. The former was managing director of the Standard Wheel Company. Minsall smelled big profits in automobiles, even though he knew nothing about the contraptions himself. Cox was a young engineer who had built his first motorcar as a senior thesis at the Ross Polytechnic Institute. Minsall had heard good things about Claude Cox and hired him to design and built a car for the newly created automotive division of Standard Wheel.
It was called the Overland, a runabout like the Olds Curved Dash. Unlike the Olds, and most other early cars, the Overland’s 2-cylinder water-cooled engine was mounted up front rather than under the seat. This configuration would soon become the industry norm. Unfortunately, the Overland’s engineering excellence did not extend to Standard Wheel’s ability to manufacture and sell it. Eighty-two Overlands were built in 1903-05, none of them at a profit. Charles Minsall decided he had had enough of the red ink. Just as Cox was readying to produce a larger 4-cylinder model, he was informed that Standard Wheel was no longer interested in making cars. Had the Overland story ended here it would not have been an uncommon experience. During the first dozen years of the industry, hundreds if not thousands of startup carmakers passed into the annals of obscure history books.
But the Overland story did not end here. A successful carriage maker named D.M. Parry was a major customer of Standard Wheel. Wanting to get into the automobile business himself, and admiring Claude Cox’s work, Parry stepped in to save the day…almost. In exchange for 51% of the new Overland Auto Company, Parry would finance a resumption of operations at a plant in Indianapolis. Production was about to begin when the Panic of 1907 swept the nation. It washed away much of Parry’s fortune, leaving Overland Auto high and dry. Claude Cox found himself with a partially built factory, a pile of parts, several hundred workers, and no money to pay for any of it. The days looked dark for Overland, but another savior would soon appear.
A Salesman and a Visionary
John North Willys was raised in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. John was a salesman and an entrepreneur from an early age. He opened a laundry business in 1888 at the age of 15 and sold it a year later for a thousand-dollar profit. His father urged Willys to use this windfall to study law, a field in which he had no particular interest. Upon his father’s death a few years later, Willys quit the law and in 1892 he became a bicycle distributor in his hometown of Canandaigua, NY. Four years later he had expanded to Elmira. Soon he was selling out the entire production of several bicycle factories. By 1900 his businesses had annual revenue of half a million dollars.
Willys saw his first automobile on a business trip to Cleveland, OH in 1899. He noted the intensity in which crowds viewed this new machine. An astute observer of business trends, Willys concluded that the automobile would one day replace the horse - as well as the bicycles he was now making - as America’s first choice in personal transportation. Within a year he had become a dealer for the Pierce automobile. He managed to sell 2 cars. Undaunted, he took on a franchise for the new Rambler, built by The Jeffrey Co. of Kenosha, Wisconsin. Willys sold 8 cars in 1902. When riding a wave of the future, to achieve success one must be both opportunistic and patient. John North Willys was both. He sold 20 cars in 1903.
Americans were becoming steadily more aware of the automobile. The excitement and freedom car ownership offered was beginning to erode their skepticism. By 1906 Willys was casting about for expanded opportunities. He wanted more than just a new car to sell, but rather one good carmaker for which he could become sole distributor. In the Overland Motor Company of Indianapolis, he thought he had found what he was looking for. Willys paid $10,000 as down payment on a contract for 500 cars – what was to be Overland’s full production run. After many weeks waiting for his cars and a number of unanswered telegrams and telephone calls, Willys was getting anxious. He boarded a train for Indianapolis to find out what had happened to both his order and his money. Upon his arrival at the Overland factory, he found no activity, a few partially-built cars, and one distraught Claude Cox, just recently stripped of his financial backing. Most men would have walked away from the mess and written off their loss. Most men did not have John North Willys’ optimism and drive.
Using his skills of persuasion, Willys first convinced the firm’s creditors to put him in charge of the operation. He then set out to recapitalize the company. He talked suppliers into granting him 90-day terms as he reorganized the factory. Mr. Willys wasn’t afraid to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty. The factory workers respected him for that. It didn’t hurt that he also made sure all of them who stayed on received back pay plus a loyalty bonus. Willys was able to revive Overland’s production and sell 46 cars in 1907. Then he sold 465 in 1908. Overland Motors was reformed as the Willys-Overland Company and earned a $50,000 profit that year.
The new company’s soon found itself constrained by production limitations. So much so that a circus tent had to be set up nearby to house a makeshift expansion. Thus, when a factory in Ohio came up for sale the following year, Willys jumped at the opportunity. All production was moved to Toledo, where descendants of Willys-Overland’s products are still built today.
Some of Mr. Willys’ actions, especially the move to Toledo, did not sit well with his chief engineer, Claude Cox, who resigned in anger. Willys, however, owned the company, which owned all the patents, making Cox expendable.
The first Toledo-built Willys-Overland debuted in 1910. It was called the Model 38. Nearly 16,000 of them were sold that year. By 1912, sales had doubled to 32,000, making the Overland was the #2 selling car in America. The Model 38 used a sliding gear transmission pioneered by Packard making it simpler to drive than the #1 selling Ford Model T with its planetary box. The Overland was more expensive than the T, but it also enjoyed a better reputation for quality. By 1916, Willys’ sales surpassed 142,000, which was good for nearly 10% of the 1.5 million cars sold that year.