1953 Aero Willys
1953 Aero Willys. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

Although Willys-Overland was more famous for its Jeeps than for its passenger cars, it built cars far longer than it did Jeeps. The Willys-Overland name went back a long way. In 1907, Overland dealer John North Willys of Elmira, N.Y. became alarmed when his supply of cars stopped arriving from the factory. He went to the Overland headquarters in Indianapolis to investigate.

To his dismay Willys found the plant in disarray and the Overland Co. in financial ruin. About all that was left were the parts for three Overlands. The entrepreneurial Willys took charge. He placated creditors, reinvigorated plant staff, and organized the assembly of cars in a large circus tent until he could get a proper factory. In 1908 Overland built 465 cars.

Willys moved the operation to Toledo, Ohio, changed its name to the Willys-Overland Co., and was soon doing so well that from 1912 to 1919 only Ford’s venerable Model T outsold Willys-Overland’s cars.

A brush with financial disaster in the early ’20s caused the bankers to bring in management wizard Walter P. Chrysler, recently retired from General Motors, to revive the company. Once Chrysler had accomplished a turnaround, it was returned to John Willys and again flourished producing its Overland, Whippet and sleeve-valve engined Willys-Knight cars.

The products were renamed Willys in 1932 (Overlands would appear briefly in the late ’30s), and the company managed to survive the Depression. During the Second World War, W-O prospered building military Jeeps.

In 1945, Willys-Overland by-passed passenger cars in favour of a civilianized version of the famous general purpose, 1/4 ton, four-wheel drive Jeep. The company turned out peacetime CJ (Civilian Jeep) versions, as well as Jeep trucks, all-steel Jeep station wagons, and sporty four-passenger Jeepster convertibles, the industry’s last phaeton model.

When Willys-Overland re-entered the car business in 1952, it chose to offer a product that was smaller than the standard Ford-Chevrolet-Plymouth. The trail had been blazed by the Nash Motor Co., which pioneered with its attractive little 1950 Nash Rambler. It was followed in 1951 by Kaiser-Frazer’s small Henry J.

The new Willys car was based on a concept presented to Willys-Overland chairman Ward Canaday in 1948 by an independent engineering consultant named Clyde Paton. Paton, assisted by ex-Pierce Arrow and Packard stylist Phil Wright, was largely responsible for the new car’s design.

Unit construction, then relatively new to the American industry, was chosen, and the new Aero-Willys was a fully modern design. Its attractive envelope body had a level fender line running front to rear, and stylish little vestigial fins housing the tail-lights. The grille was a single, chromed horizontal bar with a big W in the middle.

With a wheelbase of 2,743 mm (108 in.) and an over-all length of 4,572 mm (180 in.), the Aero-Willys was conveniently sized. Weight was just under 1,179 kg (2,600 pounds). It was offered initially as a two-door, with a four-door soon added.

The new 1952 Aero-Willys came in four series: Aero-Lark, Aero-Wing, Aero-Ace and Aero-Eagle. Power came from a 2.6 litre (161 cu in.) six-cylinder engine. The Lark’s had side valves, and developed 75 horsepower. The others had the same basic engine, but with an F-head conversion (inlet valves in the cylinder head, exhausts in the block), good for 90 horsepower. An F-head 134 cu in. (2.2 litre) four became available in the 1953 Lark, but the six was always the overwhelming favourite.

Performance with the F-head six was fairly competitive with similar cars. Road & Track (6/52) reported a zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) time of 22.5 seconds for an overdrive-equipped Aero-Wing. Top speed averaged 130 km/h (81 mph). Comparative figures for the six-cylinder overdrive-equipped Henry J (R&T 1/52) were 20 seconds to 60 (96), and a top speed of 129 km/h (80 mph).

While the Aero-Willys had acceptable style, performance and economy, it suffered from one serious disadvantage: price. Willys-Overland priced its new car at over $2200, which was $200 to $300 above the larger Fords and Chevrolets.

The ever forthright Tom McCahill of Mechanix Illustrated magazine liked the Aero-Willys, but pulled no punches when he opined (6/52) that Willys-Overland should be awarded the “Greaseball Oscar for the year for introducing the most overpriced car in America.”

First year Aero sales were 31,363, climbing to 42,244 in 1953, the year in which Willys-Overland was acquired by Kaiser Industries and became Kaiser-Willys.

In spite of the availability of the 3.7 litre (226 cu in.) 115-horsepower side-valve Kaiser six for the Ace and Eagle, 1954 sales
slid to 11,865. Even with the addition of a smart, two-door hardtop “Bermuda” model, 1955 sales of only 5,905 convinced Kaiser to withdraw the car from the North American market. The operation was moved to

Another attempt to launch a new car had failed. While the Aero-Willys was probably as good as its competition, its high price had hurt it from the beginning.

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