Willys-Overland: A Company History

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The Willys-Overland Company was founded by John North Willys in 1909. A salesman at heart, Willys fell into automobile manufacturing when the Overland Automotive Company, a firm to which Willys had advanced $10,000 for 500 cars he had planned to sell wholesale, failed to deliver the promised cars. To protect his investment, Willys purchase the floundering Overland Company in 1908 and rechristened it Willys-Overland the next year.

Based in Toledo, Ohio, the Willys-Overland Company produced dozens of models, some for only a single year. These models fall into several lines including Overland, Willys-Knight, and Willys. In 1920, Willys-Overland struggled with financial difficulties, and creditor Chase National Bank brought in Walter P. Chrysler to save the company. The reorganized Willys-Overland rose in value, only to be decimated by the 1929 stock-market crash. In 1933 Willys-Overland went into receivership until 1935. Founder John North Willys passed away that same year.

During World War II, a surviving, if not thriving, Willys-Overland, undertook the production of jeep vehicles for military use, as did Ford. After the war ended, Willys-Overland continued to produce Jeeps for civilian buyers alongside other Willys-Overland models. In 1953, Willys-Overland was purchased by Kaiser Manufacturing and renamed the Willys Motor Company. Jeep production increasingly became the company’s focus, as was reflected by the name change of the entire group, including Willys, to Kaiser-Jeep Corporation in 1963.

Click to view the entire catalog in the Hagley Digital Archives.

Jeeps were so popular that production was established overseas for international markets. In 1954 Willys-Overland do Brasil, a concern of Kaiser Manufacturing in São Paulo, began assembling Jeeps using components from the United States. A similar company, Willys Motors, was established in Brisbane, Australia in 1958. In the next decade, both companies grew to be increasingly independent, eventually fully manufacturing vehicles in-country.

The success of the Jeep came to overshadow Willys, and the name soon was phased out. In 1965, Kaiser-Jeep discontinued the use of the Willys name, and the company was purchased five years later by the American Motors Corporation. In 1967, Willys-Overland do Brasil was purchased by Ford do Brasil, and the Willys Motors Australia ended its operations in 1972.

Click to view the entire item in the Hagley Digital Archives.

Below is a brief chronology:

  • 1908: John North Willys acquires the Overland Automotive Company
  • 1909: John North Willys renames the company the Willys-Overland Company
  • 1940: Willys-Overland begins production of Jeeps for the United States military
  • 1953: Kaiser Manufacturing purchases Willys-Overland and renames it Willys Motor Company
  • 1954: Willys-Overland do Brasil begins production of Willys-Overland vehicles
  • 1958: Assembly of Jeeps begins at Willys Motors Australia
  • 1963: The Willys Motor is absorbed into Kaiser-Jeep Corporation
  • 1965: The Willys name is retired by Kaiser-Jeep
  • 1967: Ford do Brasil purchases Willys-Overland do Brasil
  • 1970: American Motors Corporation purchases Kaiser-Jeep
  • 1972: Willys operations end at Willys Motors Australia

Georgano, Nick, ed. The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile (2 Volume Set) Volume 1: A-L; Volume 2: M-Z. Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000.
“Willys-Overland History.” Willys-Overland Motors. http://www.willysoverland.com/index.php/WO/history/ (accessed May 17, 2012).

Laura Muskavitch is a Graduate Assistant for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.

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