In the latest MCG Car Spotter’s Guide we take a look at the hot rodders’ favorite, the 1937-1942 Willys.
In February 1936, federal judge George P. Hahn emancipated the Willys-Overland Motor Company from its long struggle with bankruptcy. Finally, the Toledo automaker was free to to invest in new products for the first time in nearly four years.
The first new offering from the company, now renamed Willys-Overland Motors, Inc., was the 1937 Willys 37, which used the running gear of the previous Willys 77 (1933-36) but with new packaging and some much-needed mechanical updates, including a synchronized transmission. The 134 CID L-head four with all of 48 hp remained largely unchanged.
You might never know it from their looks, but the homely Willys 77 and its replacement, the handsome Willys 37, were both styled by Amos Northup. One novel feature of his design was its lack of a traditional radiator grille. In its place was a deep clamshell hood that opened at the front, and the fender-integrated headlamps are fashion-forward for 1937 as well.
While the 77 suffered from a narrow 51-inch track width, which made it both awkward-looking and awkward to drive on roads rutted by mud or snow, the 37 sported a standard track and rounded, pleasing lines. However, the compact 100-inch wheelbase was retained. Decades later, the Willys’ light weight and clean styling would make the car a major hit on the drag strips.
At left with this Willys 37 sedan is Willys-Overland CEO Ward Canaday, celebrating the production of 20,000 units for the new model. The photo is posed on the steps of the company administration building. Across Wolcott Boulevard in the background is the plant’s final assembly building. The ancient factory complex, parts of which dated to 1895, survived into the 21st century but was razed a few years ago.
Except for the change in model designation, the 1938 Willys 38 is essentially the same car as the previous year’s Willys 37, and they are virtually indistinguishable on sight. Rain gutters were added to the all-steel roof and the hood hinge configuration was altered, but these might not be totally reliable indicators of model year, Willys authorities have found.
During the bankruptcy, W-O obtained materials and built cars in batches of a few thousand units at a time under strict court supervision—and thus developed the habit of never, ever throwing anything away. If a component was sitting there next to the line, it was used, apparently, regardless of year or specification. As car spotters know, there are few genuine absolutes when it comes to sorting out years and models, and that’s especially true with Willys-Overland.
Another challenge for car spotters: Willys cars were popular in Australia, but often employed remarkably different bodies from local manufacturers including Holden, T.J. Richards, and others, in styles unavailable in the USA including cabriolets and utility pickups. With vehicles from Down Under, all bets are off. The same for drag cars and hot rods: Since the parts are highly interchangeable, they can be a succotash of various years, often topped off with a fiberglass replica ’41 front end.
Here’s a good example of W-O’s skill at wringing maximum use from every last component and bit of tooling, a Model 38 two-door sedan. This body style was simply a four-door sedan with the rear doors welded in place, seamed, and finished. Also note the sedan’s distinctive rain gutter, which sweeps back across the C pillar.
For 1939 the Willys (now designated Model 39) received a major revamp with a new doghouse up front, a two-inch increase in wheelbase to 102 inches, and Bendix hydraulic brakes all around.
But the biggest change was under the hood. W-O chief engineer Delmar G. “Barney” Roos and staff updated the wheezy 134 CID flathead four with aluminum pistons, shell bearings, and full-pressure lubrication, increasing its output from 48 hp at 3200 rpm to 61 hp at 3600 rpm.
With its shark-nosed hood and lantern-like headlamps, the 39 is a one-year design and thus an easy ID for car spotters. Another big change for 1939 was in branding and marketing: The Model 39 was pitched not as a Willys but as an Overland, and alternately under the Willys-Overland name. Note the hood badging on this sedan with Willys-Overland script. However, the Overland branding strategy lasted only one year and for 1940, the company returned to the Willys name.
In fact, there were multiple Willys lines in 1939: the Overland 39 as described previously, with the longer wheelbase, more powerful engine, and revised styling; and the Willys Model 48 (above), essentially a carryover of the ’37-’38 car with the old 48 hp engine. Some Model 38 production was carried into the 1939 model year as well.
For 1940 the Willys received another facelift and a new model designation, 440 (four cylinders, ’40 model year). Another one-year design, here the easy tell for car spotters is the split, two-piece grille. This is the bare-bones Speedway Coupe, the price leader of the 1940 Willys lineup at $495. (Note the single windshield wiper.) All Willys models now featured hydraulic brakes, the upgraded 61 hp engine, and a new feature for 1940, a column-mounted shift lever.
At $830, the Station Wagon was the highest-priced Willys for 1941. As a Deluxe model, it sports extra strips of chrome trim on the hood (compare to the single belt strip on the Speedway model). Deluxe sedans also had vent windows in the front doors and a bustled deck lid for additional trunk volume.
For 1941, the little Willys received yet another upgrade and a snappy new model name: Americar. The wheelbase was stretched another two inches to 104 inches, and a longer cabin for the sedan with rear quarter windows (above) provided a roomy rear seat and a big car look. Tires, brakes, and shocks were uprated, and through steady development the Willys had moved uptown. It was no longer a cheap small car; now it was a quality small car. Prices for the Americar (Model 441) ranged from $634 to $771, roughly one hundred bucks cheaper than Ford.
Among collectors today, the 1941 model is probably the most popular year, with the coupe considered the most desirable body style (though MCG likes the quarter-windowed sedan). The easy identifier of a ’41 is the beautiful fine-toothed grille, similar to 1940 but one piece rather than two, and with vertical rather than horizontal slats. Note also that the wipers have been moved from the top of the windshield to the cowl for 1941. (You can read more at MCG about the 1941 Willys Americar here.)
Though we don’t usually do this with the Spotter’s Guide series, in this case we couldn’t go without showing our subject in its most familiar context. This is the Arteaga and Hellmuth Willys, a great example of an authentic ’60s gasser. The late Wayne Arteaga was both a prince of a guy and a noted Willys authority, and just to show you that, as noted earlier, Willys drag cars are seldom what they appear, this gasser was born in Toledo as a ’39 Overland and he later equipped it with a ’41 Willys nose.
Through all these years and models (1939 Model 39 excluded, officially) Willys-Overland typically offered a commercial half-ton pickup version—1941 model shown here. Horsepower was increased from 61 to 63 in 1941 and the fuel tank capacity was increased to a whopping 11.5 gallons. Willys owners often enjoyed 30 mpg or more.
For several years, W-O also offered a commercial package van using the same chassis and drivetrain as the passenger car, but with a slightly downrated 59 hp engine. The van bodies were constructed from Plymetl, a pressure-laminated plywood material similar to Duramold and Phemaloid, all products manufactured by the Haskelite Corporation. Howard Hughes’ Hercules flying boat used Duramold in its construction.
Changes for the 1942 Willys Americar Model 442 were minimal—the main visual signifier is the vertical chrome band added to the center of the grille. Only around 3,800 units of all body styles were produced that model year.
Following Pearl Harbor, in January of 1942 all passenger car production was wound down throughout the industry. By that time Willys-Overland was focused on Jeep production, with the Toledo plant producing 10,000 units before the end of calendar year 1941. The Jeep, manufactured by both Willys-Overland and Ford during the war, took a good part of its running gear and hardware, along with its 134 CID engine (L-134, in military lingo) from the Willys Americar. Here are two of the Toledo plant’s best-loved products coming off the line side by side: