The 1933 Willys 99 was cancelled before it was ever produced, but not before thousands of beautiful color sales catalogs were printed and distributed. Here’s the odd story of the stillborn six-cylinder Willys.
As the 1933 model year was tooling up and America’s economy was spiraling into deep depression, Willys-Overland was bankrupt and nearly out of business. From a record 315,000 vehicles in 1928, sales at the Toledo company had fallen straight down a mineshaft to only 27,800 units in 1932.
The company’s managers and receivers, led by founder John North Willys, were hoping that two distinctive new models, a four and a six, would revive the company’s fortunes. However, the federal judge supervising W-O’s bankruptcy, recognizing the carmaker’s desperate situation with $35 million in debt, allowed only the smaller four-cylinder model to move ahead. That was the car we know as the Willys 77, the favorite of hot rodders and drag racers. Here we focus on its lost sibling, the Willys that died in its tracks, the six-cylinder 99.
Before the Willys 99 project was cancelled, as many as 15 prototypes reportedly were constructed, including the sedan above, seen here parked next to a time clock at the Toledo plant. As we can see, in exterior appearance the 99 was essentially a longer, wider rendition of the Willys 77, as created by designer Amos Northup. There were hopes of offering two different six-cylinder engines, a conventional L-head and an improved version of the Knight sleeve-valve engine with lightweight steel sleeves instead of the cast-iron sleeves used in the traditional Knight design. (The Knight patent was just then expiring.) Note that this test mule rolls on conventional wire wheels instead of the stamped disc wheels introduced on the 77.
Since none of the prototypes are known to survive, much of what we know about the 99, apart from period newspaper and trade journal accounts, is based on the car’s colorful sales brochure, which was apparently distributed in the thousands. (Copies frequently appear on eBay and elsewhere.) The attractive catalog art above shows a conventional X-frame chassis with leaf springs front and rear and a 113.5-inch wheelbase. While the 213.3 CID inline six hit a dead end in the 99, the engine did live on in a series of pickup trucks Willys-Overland produced for International Harvester. I-H then acquired and continued the engine as the Green Diamond six.
Bodies were of all-steel construction that required no wooden bracing inside, an advanced feature for a company of W-O’s meager resources. Just two body styles were proposed for the 99: a two-door coupe and a four-door coach as shown below. When the six-cylinder car was cancelled the company struggled along for several more years, building the cheaper four-cylinder model in runs of a few thousand at a time under the supervision of the bankruptcy court. A much-improved four-cylinder Willys replaced the 77 as the company emerged from receivership in 1937, and when W-O won the contract to produce the Jeep at the beginning of World War II, the company was reborn. And of course, Jeep continues to this day as the kingpin division of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.