Willys technically doesn’t exist but its heritage does and has an Italian co-owner even though it is American through and through.
John Willys founded his company in 1912 as the Willys-Overland Motor Company. He had started out by selling bicycles around New York State and this had lead him to set up a dealership for Overland cars. In 1907 with supply from the factory a major problem, he bought the company and turned the business around to point in the right direction. He then bolstered the business by buying several other fledgling car companies including one of the many companies called Marion and also the Pope Motor Car Company. He restructured these entities into Willys-Overland and in 1913 he bought the Edwards Motor Company that had licensed the Knight engine known as the Silent Knight, a revolutionary internal combustion engine from Daimler in the UK. By the start of the First World War, he was selling Overland, Willys and Willys-Knight branded vehicles and was #2 behind Ford in size and sales.
In 1914 Willys bought the Electric Auto-Lite Company and then the Russell Car Company of Canada in 1916 before restructured again in 1917 to form the Willys Corporation as a holding company for more acquisitions. After the war he bought the Moline Plow company that made tractors and the Stephens branded car plus he also bought the first incarnation of Duesenberg, allowing the brothers to set up a company to manufacture their famous luxury sports models whilst Willys used their old factory to expand output.
With industrial unrest stopping production in 1919, Willys hired Walter Chrysler who sorted out the problems and also started to design his own car – the Chrysler 6. Chrysler wanted the shell of an existing manufacturer to rebadge as his own and tried to oust John Willys. It backfired and Chrysler was the one ousted from his highly paid job. So he used his wealth to buy Maxwell-Chalmers, rebadge it Chrysler and manufacture the Model 6. Little did anyone know that 60 years later the two brands would come together again.
With large amounts of debt in the early 1920s, the bankers forced Willys to sell a factory to William Durant who was rebuilding his General Motors empire and with new finance, Willys went on the acquisition trail again. In 1925 he bought the luxury manufacturer, FB Stearns who were the first US manufacturer to licence the Knight engine, so now he had two brands using this motor. In 1926 Willys dropped the Overland brand and released the Whippet line of cars just as America slid into recession.
The recession took its toll, in 1929 he dropped the Stearns brand, Whippet was dropped in 1931 and the Willys-Knight was discontinued in 1933. John Willys was discontinued himself when he died in New York in 1935.
With yet another restructuring to reduce debt, the company dropped to one model – the Willys 77. They were now called simply Willys-Overland Motors and they bid for the production rights of a new Government sponsored vehicle designed by American Bantam who had a great design – but needed an engine and large manufacturing facilities. Willys along with Ford were awarded manufacturing contracts to produce what would become the Jeep.
The Willys version, badged as the MB and fitted with an in-house designed 4 cylinder motor proved to be hugely successful. In fact Willys produced half of the war time production and applied to register the Jeep name after the war when they continued the military vehicles but also made a new version called the CJ-2A for civilian use. The CJ was the direct ancestor to today’s Wrangler JK/JL series Jeeps and has a special place for me. Not only have I owned a couple of Wrangler TJs here in Australia, but the first car I drove was my fathers CJ-6 in the early 1980s in South Wales. We had one of a handful of Jeeps in the UK at the time.
In 1952 Willys returned to non-Jeep car manufacturing with the Aero, a two door coupe with a six cylinder motor. This would be the last non-Jeep Willys because in 1953 Kaiser Motors bought Willys-Overland and changed its name to the Willys Motor Company as a subsidiary and started to share models and components. The Aero was dropped in the US in 1955 and the tooling was shipped to Brazil where it was continued to be built for many years. In fact that factory in Brazil also did a deal with Renault and produced Willys badged Renaults like the Dauphine and Gordini through to the 1960s, even though Ford had bought the factory from Kaiser.
In 1963, Kaiser rebranded as Kaiser-Jeep and the Willys brand was no more. 8 years later, Kaiser became part of American Motors Corp (AMC) and the Jeep brand was the only part to survive. In 1987, Chrysler bought AMC and the only brand to survive yet again was Jeep. Later with Chrysler faltering and FIAT taking a major stake, Jeep was one of the two platform designs to survive.
So the Willys heritage survives in Jeep, in no part thanks to Renault who owned a chunk of AMC before Chrysler bought it. It was Renault who shrunk the Cherokee and created another winner alongside the CJ and TJ. The older gas guzzling Cherokee, Wagoneer and J10/J20 trucks had been hit hard by the early 1970s fuel crisis and Renault who had a long relationship with Willys developed the new model, only to see it become a Chrysler. Strangely it was the opposite of the Renault Espace – which started life as a Chrysler Simca!
The Willys heritage has split into two. On one hand there is the Jeep brand and on the other is AM General, makers of the Hummer, that came from Kaiser-Jeep via AMC.