In the world of hot rods, few cars have the raw "power" image of the '41 Willys. Looking at one, you can almost imagine the designers knew that decades later these cars would be snorting fire from blown motors and tearing up the asphalt with Mickey Thompson's. From day one, the Americar was destined to be a legend.
But it almost didn't happen.
The first Overland was designed by Claude E. Cox, who, with financial backing from David M. Parry, started the Overland Automobile Company in 1906. But no sooner did they get started than they ran into financial trouble as the result of an economic downturn in 1907 that nearly bankrupted the company. The unlikely savior of the company was J.N. Willys.
Willys had sent Overland a $10,000 deposit check for 500 cars. When the cars weren't forthcoming he visited the company and found only some partially assembled cars. He also found that the company didn't even have enough money to meet the next week's payroll. Faced with losing his money, Willys arranged some last minute financing and credit to keep the company alive.
Now a partner in the company, he reorganized it, built a new factory, and by the end of 1908 the Overland Automobile Co. was selling cars as fast as it could make them. By 1912, they had become the second largest producers of autos in the U.S. behind Ford. 1912 was also the year the company name was changed to Willys-Overland Motor Company.
By 1917 buyers had a choice of Overland vehicles badged as either Willys or Willys-Knight, depending on budget and engine choice. The more expensive Knight came with a sleeve-valve engine and was the choice of Mr. Willys himself. But the less expensive, poppet-valved Willys, was the company's bread and butter vehicle, especially during the war years.
The 20's and 30's saw hard times for Willy's-Overland. The one-time auto giant had faded to one of many un-remarkable auto manufacturers just struggling to stay alive. In 1936, bankruptcy forced another reorganization of the company.
1941 was a banner year for the company. First and foremost, it saw the introduction of the patriotically named Willys Americar 441. It was also the year that the now famous 4x4 "Willys" was chosen by the War Department as its light utility vehicle of choice. The "Jeep", as it would become known, was based on an original Bantam design which the Willys company married to a shortened Americar chassis and modified running gear. At the time, the Americar was the lightest full sized car on the road. It was the more powerful engine and heavy-duty chassis that helped Willys win the Jeep contract. Once the Willys version of the Bantam design was accepted, Ford got a piece of the action by building them under license.
After the war, Eisenhower credited the humble "Jeep" as one of the "weapons" that secured victory for US and Allied forces in WWII. It is Ironic that the Jeep, the brainchild of The Bantam Motor Company, would make Willys famous while Bantam would pass into automotive obscurity. For more information on the Jeep, click here.
While the Jeep was winning the war, the Americar was holding down the home front. Both sported the same "Go-Devil" 4-cylinder engine with a 3-1/8 x 4-3/8 bore/stroke. The Americar version was rated at 63-bhp while the Jeep's motor was rated at 61-bhp. The Americar had a 104-inch wheel base, while the Jeep had an 80-inch base.
The '41 and '42 Americar's (441 & 442, respectively), were Willys Overland's last effort at a civilian car before switching over to full war production. In addition to the 2-door coupes, a limited number of 3-door woodie wagons were produced as well as a 4-door sedan and pickup truck. An Americar 441 could be had for about $700.00, depending on the model.
After the war, Willys decided not to resume production of passenger cars, opting instead to concentrate on Jeep-like trucks and utility vehicles. The first postwar Willys product was the CJ-2A, a Jeep stripped of its obviously military features (such as the blackout lighting), and with the addition of a tailgate. The CJ-2A was one of the first civilian vehicles to be equipped with factory 4-wheel drive. It became popular with farmers, ranchers, hunters, and others who needed a lightweight vehicle for use on unimproved roads and trails.