|The 1926 Overland Whippet was
introduced in the media with graceful artwork. Note the female driver
is alone in the car, subtly indicating safety as well as
The Willys-Overland Company Limited moved its head office from Hamilton to Toronto when it acquired the Russell Motor Car Company Limited in the midst of the Great War. The latter was a well-established firm that manufactured the luxurious Russell automobile. A conveyance fit for a king, His Majesty George V kept a Russell in his royal stable. The homegrown automaker also imported the upscale Rambler and Jeffery from the United States.
Willys and its low-priced companion car, Overland were eager to expand throughout the British Empire. The deal to purchase Russell was consummated on December 18, 1915. At the time of signing, Russell was up to its elbows in lucrative war contracts. Business was good.
|The Russell factory in West Toronto c. 1911.|
Willys’ primary interest in the Canadian luxury automaker lay in the fact that both Russell and Willys used Knight sleeve-valve engines. Russell had exclusive right to manufacture and distribute these unique engines in the British Empire and Willys coveted that market. Cash rich, the Toledo, Ohio-based manufacturer bought Russell and gave itself a good footing from which to serve consumers.
With a great deal of fanfare the firm announced an entirely new product in July of 1926. The Overland Whippet was introduced. The car that hit Canada’s highways and byways was remarkable. It reflected the latest thinking in automotive style and engineering. The current trend in motoring was light cars and this little beauty certainly fit the bill. It could claim a blended heritage; one that combined the best of European and American engineering. It was attractive and it was fast. The Whippet could zip from 5 mph to 30 mph in only 13 seconds. Company officials claimed the acceleration was 18 percent faster than any other light four-cylinder automobile.
|The stopwatch does not lie. The illustration shows that the Overland Whippet could lope from 5 to 30 miles per hour in a mere 13 seconds.|
The car had been in gestation since 1922 when company president John North Willys laid out a modern engineering programme for his entire corporate lineup. Willys’ master plan was like that of General Motors. The offerings from Toledo would consist of a complete range of products covering the buying needs of virtually every family. Willys insisted that regardless of price, the vehicles employ the most advanced principles of European design, the highest standards of quality and that they be the benchmark of modern efficiency. One-piece windshields, quick-geared window crank regulators and cowl vents were extra-cost items on many other automobiles. These features were standard on Willys-Overland products. The front seats reclined for passenger comfort. “You ride in this car, not on it,” advertising boasted.
At the end of the Great War, gasoline prices rose sharply throughout Europe. Governments slapped taxes on cars for weight, length, engine size and any other identifiable way they could think of to squeeze more revenue from motorists who were perceived as being wealthy. Automakers played cat-and-mouse by responding with smaller dimensions, lighter vehicles and new “intensely efficient” engines. Europeans paid premium prices for these new cars. Overland literature noted that $1,500 to $1,800 was the going rate customers should expect to pay for one of these new cars when purchased outside of the Dominion. It further noted that because of the company’s large domestic manufacturing capacity, the Overland was built and sold in Canada for practically half the price a European would pay.
|John North Willys.|
John Willys touted a new corporate way of thinking, one he called “the absence of mass production.” He instituted a novel apprenticeship programme that carried a human touch. Seasoned workers passed their skills to the younger generation while working in an assembly line atmosphere.
The master plan also called for Willys-Overland products to be cut loose from the herd in terms of style. These cars were to bear modern lines and stand out from the others. ‘Low-slung,’ ‘rakish’ and ‘graceful as a Whippet’ were terms used to describe the petite Overland. Caught off guard, competitors attempted to compete with the Overland Whippet on the cheap by putting smaller wheels on standard-sized bodies. The hurry-up solution brought results that were largely inefficient and ugly. Overland’s advertising promised 35 miles on an Imperial gallon of gasoline at 55 miles per hour. The car boasted four-wheel brakes—another industry first in the light car segment of the market. Braking was good enough to stop the vehicle in two car lengths--from 25 miles an hour.
Available as a Coach, a Coupe and a Touring Car, its exterior dimensions were small enough that the nimble car turned in a 34-foot radius. It was only 5-foot 8 inches high—its lower centre of gravity made it less likely to tip over. Despite the compact size it was still the car with the most legroom in class. It was “designed to look like the custom-built automobiles of America and Europe.” Women were advised to “stand in front of this car and imagine you are on the Grand Boulevards of France. Compared with contemporary, big, bulky cars the Overland Whippet appears smarter and much more graceful. That’s because height and length are in true artistic proportion.”
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Ad copy read, “In the Overland Whippet you have the feeling of riding closer to the ground—with the resultant sense of solidity and absence of that side sway so noticeable in the conventional type of car. The high-up-in-the-air feeling is gone—here is a new kind of riding comfort. Step into this car and you will be surprised to find so much spacious room.”
It was the smallest car available for sale on the domestic market. It was also the only four-cylinder offering in the Willys-Overland stable. The base engine was a 134-cubic inch mill, generating 30 horsepower. It quickly made history on racetracks, as all kinds of endurance runs were undertaken all over North America. A Minnesota trial achieved 44-mile an hour speeds over a 48-hour period while racking up 2,148 miles. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, an Overland scooted up an 850-foot railroad incline on 17th Street in just 45 seconds—from a standing start. A six-cylinder Whippet was quickly offered as a companion model.
Sales of the Whippet were strong. The light car with the European flair was so desirable that they helped to pushed corporate sales into the stratosphere. Dividends were 7 percent on preferred stocks and 3 percent on common stocks that first year.
|Tongue-in-cheek advertising for the 1927 Overland Whippet read, "Speed--too fast. We admit 55 miles per hour."|
In 1927 more than 20,000 Willys and Overlands would be assembled in the Toronto plant. In the US, the company somersaulted to third place behind General Motors and Ford by 1929.
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