The Willys-Overland Co. is another interesting story of an early American auto manufacturer. John North Willys started the company by purchasing the Overland Automotive Division from Standard Wheel Co. in 1908 and calling his company Willys-Overland.
It made some interesting vehicles; my favorite was a low-price car called Whippet, made from 1926 to 1931. But its big opportunity came in 1940, when the U.S. government solicited bids for a new, lightweight, four-wheel drive, general purpose vehicle for the Army. Willys won the bid and produced more than 300,000 jeeps used in World War II.
When the war ended and the soldiers returned home, many had fond memories of the jeeps they used and wanted a civilian version. Willys-Overland produced a stripped-down version of the military jeep that included a tailgate that was popular with ranchers, farmers, hunters and some industrial users.
In the years that followed, the company added to its product line, using the basic jeep look to create trucks, a convertible called the Jeepster and station wagons. "They were the first SUV," proud owner Steve McLaren told me. "The exciting thing I found after talking to people about it was that it seems everyone has owned one at some point in their life.
"When I started looking at them, it was just because I liked the body style, and I thought they were cool," the Moraga resident continued.
When the seller has seller's remorse, it is a good indication that the $6,800 McLaren paid for the 1950 vehicle about three years ago was a good price.
"It was in pretty good shape," he said. "There was no rust except a little on the tailgate hinges. The nice thing about this car is everything was pretty much original, the engine and 'three on the tree' transmission, the knobs and the chrome."
When he bought the car, it was painted white, inside and out. "My initial intention was to take it and make it into a woody."
Today, people would probably call this vehicle a Jeep station wagon, but in the 1950s there was a legal fight between Ford and Willys as to who had the right to use the name Jeep, as both built thousands of jeep vehicles during World War II.
Willys ultimately won the lawsuit, but while the legal battle was going on, neither company could use the name, so the vehicles built during that time by Willys-Overland, including civilian jeeps, were only identified as Willys.
McLaren, co-founder of BevMo liquor stores, found Robert Hernandez, a talented man in Sacramento who did a fantastic job painting his vehicle based on some pictures the owner had of a Willys station wagon. The vehicle is now a two-tone burgundy and cream.
The light color simulates the white ash wood that was common in expensive woodies of that era. The mahogany wood grain look is accomplished via a vinyl appliqué. The final result is a head-turner.
Some of the endearing features and functions of the vehicle are pretty basic, which is why McLaren enjoys using it as a daily driver. According to HowStuffWorks.com, the Willys station wagon had a four-cylinder engine rated 72 HP. A simple heater, an extra-cost option, was mounted on the inside firewall near the passenger seat.
The wagon had vacuum windshield wipers so that if accelerating in rain, the wipers would stop until you let up on the gas.
The inside side panels on the doors and in the rear of the vehicle were made of heavy cardboard. One cool feature was an inside push button to release the door lock. There were no door handles, but an arm rest was provided that could be gripped to slam the door shut from inside.
The rear seats could either be folded up or removed for a maximum cargo area of 96 cubic feet. The floor was flat from the driver's seat back, adding to the useful cargo area. The Willys station wagon could hold seven people, even though it is relatively short at 14.5 feet in length.
The seventh passenger sits sideways just inside the tailgate. The seats were covered with a leather-like material that was very durable and plain, like on a school bus.
Price was a selling feature, as it cost several hundred dollars less (about $3,000 in today's dollars) than any comparable wagon. The website summed up the vehicle's features with the statement, "Perhaps most important of all, the Jeep station wagon was simple, dependable, economical and tough."
McLaren has about $15,000 invested in his car and estimates current market value at about $25,000.
"But I didn't buy it to resell it," he said. "I bought it to have fun."
Have an interesting vehicle? Contract David Krumboltz at MOBopoly@yahoo.com