John Willys: The Man Who Pushed for Something More
Slideshow: If you are a Jeep fan, then you love the Jeep Willys, but have you ever wondered who Willy is?
John North Willys was born in 1873, on October 25th to be specific, in Canandaigua, New York. Willys started selling bicycles at a young age, which then evolved into building his own bicycles. At the age of 24, John Willys married Isabel Van Wie.
John Willys had a huge passion for his work, which was selling and manufacturing bicycles, and by the time he reached 27 years of age in 1900, he had built his bicycle business to $500,000 in sales. On a visit to Cleveland, Willys saw his first automobile, and he decided that cars will soon replace bicycles for him.
Initial Steps in the Automobile Industry
Willys opened his first dealership in Elmira, New York. His dealership, the American Motor Car Sales Company, was selling popular Overland brands, like the Model 13, Model 15, and Model 18. John Willys excelled at his new job of selling cars, in fact, he excelled tremendously, perhaps too much. John Willys faced a good problem, as he was selling cars faster than distributors could manufacture them.
The Willys Overland Motor Company
In 1907, John Willys found a good solution to his extremely-high-sales problem. He bought the Indianapolis Overland factory, and the decision paid off when he increased the company's profit. Over the course of four years, Willys bought the Marion Motor Car Co. in Ohio, as well as the Pope Motor Car Co in Toledo, and by 1912, he changed the name of his company to the Willys-Overland Motor Company.
The Willys Empire
John Willys wanted to take his automotive empire to the next level, and instead of just buying cars and selling them, he wanted to make his own brand. In 1913, Willys bought the Edwards Motor company, and the business decision gave him the license to build the Knight sleeve valve engine. He started manufacturing the Knight engine and did a solid job keeping the costs down, and the profits up.
In 1915, Willys was one of the biggest automotive manufacturers in America, right behind Henry Ford. He built a seven-story building in Toledo, Ohio, and made it the Willys Overland headquarters. As he grew the business further, he acquired the Moline Plow Co. and he started making tractors, as well as the Duesenberg company, where he started making six-cylinder vehicles.
In 1919, the Willys-Overland was faced with labor issues, which resulted in a strike. The strike resulted in a complete shutdown of the company for various months. John Willys offered Water Chrysler, the vice-president of GM, a job to run the company for one million dollars per year, and after Chrysler unsuccessfully tried to take over the company after a few years, he had to leave and start his own company in 1921.
After the issues with Walter Chrysler, Willys started expanding the company once again when he bought the F.J. Stearns company in 1925, a company that specialized in luxury vehicles. Just one year after acquiring the company, John Willys introduced the Whippet line of vehicles to continue expanding his empire.
The Great Depression
In 1930, John Willys became the very first United States ambassador to Poland, where he served for two years. After he finished serving as a diplomat, the great depression was in full effects. John Willys continued to try to revive the company, but unfortunately, in 1935, he passed away from an unpredicted heart attack.That was the unfortunate end of the Willys empire.
Jeep enters our language
In early 1941 Willys-Overland held a press event in Washington D.C. to show off the capability of the new military scout vehicle that was known as a "jeep" or quad. What followed was the vehicle driving up the Capitol steps driven by Irving "Red" Hausman who was part of the Willys development team. Hausman had also been present when the car was testing at Camp Holabird and said he overheard soldiers there referring to the strange new car as a jeep. At the press unveiling in Washington, he was asked by a Daily News reporter what was the machine called he replied: "it's a jeep". That excerpt can be found for Jeep historians on February 20th, 1941 accompanied by a photo of the Jeep showing off on the steps. That moment is believed to be the origin of the term entering the American lexicon.
The next time you get in your Jeep, smile and say a quick thank you to John Willys. The times are forever changing but the Jeep is forever.
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