Story and photo by Bill Vance

1926 Wills Sainte Claire
1926 Wills Sainte Claire. Click image to enlarge

Childe Harold Wills (he disliked Childe and always went by Harold) was one of the unsung heros of the Ford Motor Co. He was hired as a draughtsman to help Henry Ford design the racing cars that Ford hoped would gain publicity and financial backing for his company. Wills had another job as a machinist, and for a while worked free for Henry each day before and after his regular job.

Their little enterprise was so poor that Henry couldn’t afford coal for the stove, so they got two pairs of boxing gloves and had regular sparring matches to keep warm.

With financing found and the Ford Motor Co. formed in 1903, Wills became manufacturing manager, and ultimately what we would now call chief engineer, although Henry wasn’t much for titles.

Wills contributed to the development of the famous Model T Ford. He is said to have inspired the fitting of the planetary transmission, and suggested the use of vanadium alloy steel that made the Model T both light and strong. He is also credited with the detachable cylinder head, and even the famous Ford script.

Henry Ford never forgot Wills’s early contributions, and made a verbal promise to pay him, in addition to his salary, 10 per cent of his own dividends. When Wills grew restless and left the company in 1919, Henry was true to his word and Wills departed a wealthy man.

The brilliant and ambitious Wills wanted to have his own car company. He selected as the location the peaceful little town of Marysville, Michigan, on the St. Clair River, just south of Port Huron.

C.H. Wills and Co. was formed in 1920 to produce the Wills Sainte Claire car (named after himself and the river, with the extra e’s to add some class). An admirer of the flocks of migrating Canada geese, he chose as his emblem the Canada or grey goose.

Production was to be under way by late 1920, but Wills was such a perfectionist it took until March, 1921, to get going. But the wait seemed worthwhile because the Wills Sainte Claire was a technically advanced car, with an engine said to have been inspired by the Spanish Hispano-Suiza First World War aircraft engine.

It was a 4.3 litre (265 cu in.) overhead cam, 60 horsepower V8 with such advanced features as full pressure lubrication and a water-jacketed intake manifold. The camshafts were gear-driven as was the cooling fan, which disengaged above 64 km/h (40 mph).

Wills’s keen interest in metallurgy led him to pioneer molybdenum steel in the auto industry, used in such critical areas as axle shafts and transmission parts. Valves were made of three different kinds of steel for the heads, stems and tips.

Wills was ahead of his time in lighting too. The headlamps had magnetic mirror reflectors that lowered the headlight beams at the press of a button. An external light was fitted to the left side of the cowl to illuminate the road beside the car, assisting both the Wills driver and oncoming motorists. A backup light next to the taillight came on when reverse was selected.

Only 500 cars were built in 1921, and the price had risen from the planned $2,000, to about $3,000. This, plus an economic depression, pushed the Wills company into receivership in 1922.

New capital allowed the company to reorganize and resume business as the Wills Sainte Claire Co. in 1923. It was able to offer a full line of models. In 1924 Wills brought out an improved Wills Sainte Claire with a wheelbase of 3,226 mm (127 in.) instead of the former 3,073 (121). A revised firing order gave the V8 reduced vibration, the horsepower was increased to 65, and engine lubrication was improved.

Because the V8 was complex and costly to produce and repair, a six-cylinder engine was added in 1925. Like the eight, it had an overhead cam, and produced 66 horsepower out of its 4.5 litres (273 cu in.) Its sturdiness was demonstrated by a customer named Louis Miller who bought a new Wills Sainte Claire and drove it coast-to-coast in 102 hours and 45 minutes, knocking 7 hours and 44 minutes off the previous record.

Wills managed to continue production through 1926, but by early in 1927 the flight of the grey goose was over. Besides general economic problems, the company failed because Harold Wills apparently didn’t surround himself with enough sound engineering expertise.

During his six-year span in automobile manufacturing Wills produced an estimated 15,000 Wills Sainte Claires. He went on to help develop the front-wheel drive Ruxton, and then worked as a consulting metallurgist for the Chrysler Corp. Wills died in 1940 at the age of 62 leaving a legacy of well engineered cars, perhaps too well engineered for the competitive marketplace.

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