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CATEGORIES (articles) > Manufacturers > Mainstream > Willys History

Willys History

1920 Willys-Knight advertisement

Willys (pronounced "WILL-iss") was the brand name used by the United States automobile company Willys-Overland Motors, best known for its production of military and civilian Jeeps, during the twentieth century.


In 1908, John North 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 behind only Ford Motor Company.

In 1913 Willys acquired a license to build Knight Engines (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 he formed the Willys Corporation to act as his holding company. In 1919 he acquired Duesenberg Motors Corporation with a 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 to go was the Willys Six. Deemed an engineering disaster, Chrysler had auto engineers Owen Skelton, Carl Breer and Fred Zeder get to work on a new car - the Chrysler Six.

But in order to raise cash to pay off the debts, all of Willys Corporation assets were on the auction block. The Elizabeth plant and the Chrysler car were sold to one William C. Durant, then in the process of building a new, third empire. The plant would build Durant's low priced Star car while the Chrysler would be improved and modified, becoming the 1923 Flint.

In 1926 production of the Overland ended and was replaced by the Whippet brand of small cars. Following the stock-market crash of 1929 and the economic depression that soon followed, a number of Willys automotive brands began to falter. 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. The firm was forced to sell its Canadian subsidiary, itself in weak financial shape, and entered into a massive reorganization. In it, all but the main assembly plant and some smaller factories remained property of Willys-Overland. The rest were sold off to a new holding company that leased some of the properties back to W-O. The company was thus able to ride out the storm.

In 1936 the Willys-Overland Motor Company was reorganized as Willys-Overland Motors. In the 1920s and 1930s, Willys was an unremarkable automaker based in Toledo, Ohio, one of dozens in the U.S. It was one of several bidders when the War Department sought an automaker who could begin rapid production of a lightweight truck based on a prototype designed by American Bantam.

In 1938 Joseph Washington Fraser had left Chrysler Corporation and accepted a job as head of Willys-Overland. He immediately set about improving the product and pushing the firm into other business areas. One was the Jeep and the second was to improve the Willys 4-cylinder engine so it could withstand the punishment to which the Jeep would be subjected.

Production of the Willys MB, better known as Jeep, began in 1941 with 8,598 units produced that year, and 359,851 units were produced before the end of World War II. 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 Modine before WW2. Whatever the source, the name stuck and, after the war, Willys filed a successful trademark claim for the name.

Willys switched production at the end of the war to a civilian version, called 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 struggled to find a market for the unusual vehicle, and made an effort to sell it as an alternative to the farm tractor. Tractors were in short supply having been out of production during the war. Despite this, sales of the "Agri-Jeep" never took off, mainly because it was too light to provide adequate draft.

However, the CJ-2A was among the first civilian vehicles of any kind to be equipped with four-wheel drive from the factory. 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 later produced the M38 Jeep for the U.S. Army, and continued the CJ series of civilian Jeeps. Another variation of the Jeep was the Jeepster. A more civilized variation, it came with either a 4-cylinder or 6-cylinder engine but came only with two wheel drive.

1953 Willys advertisement

In 1951 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.

In 1953 Kaiser Motors purchased Willys-Overland and changed the name to Willys Motor Company. 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. The last Willys car was built in early 1955.

Willys then shipped the tooling for the Aero to Brazil, where it was built into the 1970's. Brooks Stevens restyled it for 1963, and the Aero continued to be built by Ford after they purchased Willys-Overland do Brasil.

The American company changed its name again in 1963 to Kaiser-Jeep Corporation, at which time the Willys name disappeared.


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 the Jeep products 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 been replaced with the Jeep Wrangler, which had little in common with the CJ series other than outward appearance. DaimlerChrysler still produces Jeep vehicles at the Toledo Complex.

DaimlerChrysler would introduce the Overland name for a trim package on the 2002-present Jeep Grand Cherokee. The badging is a recreation of the Overland nameplate from the early twentieth century.

List of Willys vehicles

Willys cars

1922 Willys-Knight Model 20 in the Petersen Automotive Museum

  • Willys 77 (1933-1936)
  • Willys Four
  • Willys Six
  • Willys Eight
  • Willys-Knight (1914-1933)
  • Willys Americar
  • Stearns-Knight
  • also many early cars with model numbers


  • Overland Whippet (1926-1931)
  • Overland Four
  • Overland Six
  • Overland 93
  • Overland 39
  • also many early cars with model numbers


  • 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 (1960-1969) or Ford Aero (1970-1971) (Brazil)


  • Willys Dauphine (1959-1967), licensed from Renault (Brazil)
  • Willys Gordini (1962-1968), licensed from Renault (Brazil)
  • Willys Itamaraty (1966-1971) (Brazil)
  • Willys Interlagos (1961-1966), licensed from Renault. 1500 produced. (Brazil)
  • Willys Itamaraty Executivo (limousine) (1966-1969) (Brazil)
  • Willys-Overland Crossley (United Kingdom)


  • Willys MA (Original Jeep Concept)
  • Willys MB (1941-1946)
  • Willys CJ2A (1946-1953)
  • Willys Jeep Wagon (1946 - 1965) 300,000 produced.
  • Willys CJ3A (1946 - 1953) 132,000 are produced.
  • Willys Jeep Truck (1947 - 1965) 200,000 are produced..
  • Willys Jeepster (1948 - 1950) 19,000 are produced.
  • Willys M38 (1951 - 1952)
  • Willys CJ3B (1952 - 1968) 155,000 are produced.
  • Willys M38A1 (1952-1957)
  • Willys Jeep CJ5 later Jeep CJ5 (1954 - 1983) 600,000 are produced.
  • Rural Jeep (1958-1969) or Ford Rural (1970-1977) (Brazil)

Body Type Designations

  • Bermuda - Hardtop designation, 1955

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