Article and photography by Richard Butschi
Whether you pronounce it “Willis” or “Willies”, John Willys purchased the Overland Automotive Division of the Standard Wheel Co. in 1908 and turned it into a major player in the American auto industry. Between 1912 and 1918, Willys-Overland was second in production to the Ford Motor Co. Over the years they expanded production, creating many brands including Willys, Overland, Aero-Willys, Willys-Overland and the iconic Jeep. Kaiser Motor Co. bought Willys-Overland in 1953, who sold out to American Motors in 1970.
Among the more popular Willys models was the “77” (1933-’36) and the “Americar “(1940-’42), offered in sedan, coupe, station wagons and pickup models. They were especially prized by the hot rod and drag race crowds for their aggressive, yet classic lines. So classic were the coupes that they are now offered in lightweight fiberglass replicas and seen at the track as straight axle “gassers”.
Rick Wolfe, of Marion, along with wife Carrie, is an eclectic car collector, buying, selling and trading for whatever seems to trip his trigger at the time, including a couple older Ford pickups, a Pontiac Tempest, a ‘66 Chevelle and a ‘56 Chevy show car named “Showtime”. Now in his stable sit a ‘67 Chevy II Nova resto-mod and a mind-blowing ‘41 Willys coupe. Wolfe, like many car guys, was always attracted to vintage Willys and ran into this one on the internet.
A gentleman in Orange County, CA was in the final stages of the multi-year build at Pete’s Rod & Custom, when he passed away. His widow decided to sell it through Classic Car Marketing, a consignment dealer, after its Air Ride Technologies suspension was completed. The buyer wasn’t Wolfe, but a big-time collector in St. Cloud, MN, who stored the Willys for quite a while, but added less than 100 miles to the odometer, citing that “it just didn’t suit him”. Wolfe later spotted it on-line and sealed the deal, getting it home on December 8th, 2018.
The chassis and fiberglass body are by Dennis Taylor, adorned in “Orange Burst” paint by House of Color. The paint matches Wolfe’s toy model that is sometimes displayed atop the air intake – sprayed by Rock-n-Roll Customs of Anaheim, CA. The engine is a Chevy Ram Jet 502 with an 871 polished blower by The Blower Shop, CA, with dual Holley 750 cfm carburetors. This hooks to a Hughes Performance 3-speed TH 400 transmission with a 2500 rpm stall converter and on to a Ford 9” rearend with 3.90 gears. It has disc brakes all around, with massive rear tires (31” dia. and 18” wide tread) by Hoosier. The interior has Vintage Air a/c and heater, JVC stereo, VDO gauges, power windows, door, locks and trunk release, with Dakota Digital Billet Specialties trimmings.
Word of the Willys spread quickly in the off-season and it, along with his Nova, was invited to the 50th Annual Rod & Custom Show held in Monticello this past February. Wolfe and the ‘41 drove away with hardware for Best Street Rod, Best Interior and Best Engine, while his ‘67 Nova garnered the 2nd place spot in the Street category. In 2017 at the International Show Car Association’s “World of Wheels” show in Milwaukee, the Nova took the Best Overall Street Achievement Award. This past month, the Willys topped some heavy competition at the Swisher Men’s Club taking “Best of Show”.
Wolfe tips his hat in thanks to Brian and Jesse Havlik at Havlik Auto Service, SW CR, who tuned the Holley carbs and added the electric cut-out exhausts, and also to friend Ross Michaelis who has helped with body fabrication. With cars like this, it’s usually a team effort.