Q: Greg, I’m a car fan from upstate New York and interested in the Willys car company and also those great Willys drag cars that still compete to this day. Many big name drag racers raced the 1941 Willys as a drag racing machine. Could you write about the 1940 to 1942 Willys coupes, as they are still very popular today on the drag strips? Also, did Willys build cars after the WWII era? Thanks much, Jim S., Syracuse, N.Y.
A: Jim, I’d be happy to answer your questions. To start, the 1940-1942 Willys Coupe was and is a popular choice nowadays for both the street rod enthusiast and/or the serious minded drag racer. And, to make things all the better, several companies manufacturer complete fiberglass 1941 Willys bodies for use on the street or strip.
As for the Willys car company, it was a respected car manufacturer that started production in 1903 and finished second in sales to Ford back in the 1910 decade a total of seven times. The 1940 to 1942 Willys were a good-looking car with a very low entry price, thus the car’s popularity back then.
There were three models available to consumers in 1940, including the Speedway, DeLuxe and Plainsman in coupe or sedan varieties. There was also a DeLuxe four-door woody wagon, which today is a very rare vehicle. A Willys truck built on the same frame as the Willys car was also available, which drag racers scooped up whatever was left in the mid-1950 decade.
In 1941, Ohio-based Willys re-named its car the Americar, which lasted until 1942. Sales numbers in the pre-war era 1941 totaled 22,000 followed by 7,000 more in 1942. Car production ceased and all companies concentrated on building war effort machinery and vehicles through 1946. Notable is that Willys was awarded a military contract for its new Jeep military vehicle in 1941, so many thousands of Jeeps were assembled during the war years. To answer your specific WWII era question, after the war Willys bowed out of car production and did not produce a car in post war 1947 to 1951. However, enjoying excellent popularity with their Willys Jeeps, a new car called the Willys Aero appeared in 1952.
Kaiser Motors then purchased Willys in 1953 and moved production from Michigan to Toledo, Ohio. Kaiser changed the name of the company from Willys-Overland to Willys Motor Company and hoped for success. However, car sales didn’t do as well as expected while the Jeep family prospered. This resulted in the last Willys Aero automobile being built in 1955. Today, the Toledo plant still specializes in building Jeep brand vehicles so there’s a lot of history in this noted Ohio city.
Today, a 100-percent original 1937 to 1942 Willys is a very rare find, as the hot rodders scooped them up through the late 1950s and early 1960s for use on the nation’s drag strips. Legends like Bob Chipper, “Big” John Mazmanian, Stone Woods & Cook, Jack Kulp, K.S. Pitman, the Mallicoat Brothers and numerous others who set records on drag strips in their Willys coupes. Many of these teams initially utilized big-inch Oldsmobile Rocket V8 engines and then switched over to the bigger Hemi V8 engines with superchargers.
These race prepared Willys gassers initially ran in the 10-second zone and then posted nine-second quarter mile times with speeds of 140 or more. As a forerunner to the coming Funny Car boom in 1966, the Willys drag cars ran in classes dubbed A or B /Gas Supercharged and were wild and woolly from start to finish as huge drag tires were not yet the norm in drag racing.
Hope all this helps and thanks for your question on a very popular car.
(Greg Zyla is a syndicated auto columnist who welcomes reader questions on collector cars and auto nostalgia at 303 Roosevelt St., Sayre, Pa. 18840 or email at email@example.com)