It was the car for everyman—that hardly anyone wanted.
“On the reefs of roast beef and applie pie are socialist utopias of every society sent to their doom,” spoke Warner Sombart to the possibility of a Marxist-style revolution of the proletariat here in America. In other words, fat chance. Mark it down to the shortage of proletarians.
And so it went for every automaker that decided that America needed a “proletarian” car. All met their downfall in the creampuff Oldsmobiles on the menu at every used car lot.
There it is, the key to the melancholy sales record of economy cars in America. The real competition is fully equipped used cars. The Workers shun People’s Cars—dinky, bare, and reeking of penury—when with less jack and EZ terms they can buy clean, pre-owned cars with all the mass and deluxe-ness they deserve. What good is a new car if it only makes you look like a piker?
One automaker was perpetually confounded by this fascinating psycho-dempgraphic. Willys-Overland of Toledo produced a succession of models—Champion, Whippet, Willys 77—each one mulishly pointed at the same apparently imaginary market somewhere below the Detroit Three in size and price, and evidently in desirability as well.
John North Willys long admired European small cars and repeatedly introduced variations on them here. Willys died in 1935, but his company—for years a day late, a dollar short, and one mincing step ahead of the bankruptcy courts—stuck to its knitting, and by 1941 perfected its version of a proletarian car. To signal its anticipated appeal to everyman, Willys called it the Americar.
The Americar grew out of the 1937 Willys, itself based on the unfortunate Willys 77 of 1933. Styled by Amos Northup, touted as “European style,” it was really only narrow and stubby. It also had a non-standard track, so on rutted roads the poor 77 driver shambled around with a tilt. For 1937, WIllys returned to a standard track and sent Northup back to his crayons to find smoother lines. For the Americar’s mechanical refinement, the credit goes to Delmar G. “Barney” Roos.
In a rare fit of enterprise, in 1938 W-O hired Roos, formerly of Marmon and Studebaker, as chief engineer. His task: Upgrade the product without spending millions on new tooling—millions the company didn’t have, since CEO Ward Canaday had just rescued W-O from another receivership. One debate between Roos and the pinch-nickel Canaday about production costs ended with Canaday planted in a wastebasket.
Roos started with a tuneup of the 134 CID L-head four, a wheezing legacy of the 1926 Whippet. He modernized the creaky lower end with a counterweighted crank and shell bearings, then improved the breathing to boost output from 48 to 63 hp, all accomplished on Willys’ heirloom tooling.
Roos and crew then installed telescopic shocks and hydraulic brakes, and they stretched the wheelbase to 104 inches for that big-car feel. Quarter windows were added to the sedan to lengthen the look, and the two-door sedan (a four-door with the rears soldered shut, a typical W-O bodge) was dropped. Of course, all these added features came with a price: $720, just a few sawbucks under the cheapest Ford. There was the rub. Willys’ production cost per unit was just too high. At five percent of Ford’s volume, poor little W-O lacked the economy of scale required to compete with the Detroit automakers.
Having failed to deliver a car for the poor, W-O marketed the Americar to the cheap. Advertising touted great fuel economy and long tire life. Hot rodders and sports car builders later would find that the light, tough Willys had nimble handling and a great power-to-weight ratio. But in 1941, no one cared.
Once again, the real competition for the Americar wasn’t new cars. In 1941 in the used car section of W-O’s hometown newspaper, The Toledo Blade, Davis Motors advertised a “1940 Mercury, 12,000 miles, extra nice, $599.” O’Rourke Buick boasted, “Like new! ’39 Buick 61 Sedan, every accessory you could name,” for $595.
Every accessory you could name. Now, what proletarian car could hope to compete with bourgeois decadence on that scale?
An earlier version of this story appeared in the Dec. 20, 1999 issue of AutoWeek.