The twentieth century was the century of the automobile in which this machine went from the plaything of the wealthy to an important part of everyday life for most people. During the first part of the twentieth century, many entrepreneurs began to design, manufacture, and market automobiles. Most of these early manufacturers failed to survive the Great Depression of the 1930s. One of these early companies was the Overland Automobile Company.
When Claude Cox was in his senior year at of Rose Polytechnic Institute, a small private college with a program in engineering, he made a three wheel vehicle for his senior year thesis. In 1902, Cox met with Charles Minshall, the owner of Standard Wheel Company of Terre Haute, Indiana. Minshall was interested in building an automobile, but didn’t know how to build one. Cox seemed to have the knowledge so Minshall hired him to head Standard Wheels’ new automobile department and design the car.
It 1903, Cox designed and built a car with an advanced design at the time. The new car was named the Overland and featured a two-cylinder water-cooled engine that was mounted up front under the hood. The car also featured a removable switch plug so that it could not be driven without it.
The first Overland was a runabout. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the runabout was a common car body style. The runabout was a small, inexpensive, open car.
In 1903, 12 Overlands were built and sales doubled in 1904. By this time, Cox was already designing the 1905 model of the Overland which would have a four-cylinder engine and a steering wheel. With the increased production, the Standard Wheels facilities in Terre Haute were too cramped. In 1905, Overland production was moved to Indianapolis where Standard Wheels had a plant that was not being used.
Work in the new plant had just begun when Minshill informed Cox that the automobile was not proving to be profitable and he didn’t think there was a future in it. Minshill wanted out of involvement with Overland production. This could have been the end of Overland, but David Parry, who had been a Standard Wheels customer, was willing to provide the capital for Overland in exchange for 51 percent of the company. Parry was a carriage maker who had tried to make an electric car in 1892 (it wasn’t drivable). Parry had seen the Overland and was impressed.
During the period after Minshall pulled out of the company and Parry joined it, Cox kept the factory open, employing just a few men and playing with possible new models. In 1906, the Overland Automobile Company was formed and headed by Parry. New production had just begun when the 1907 bank panic hit. Parry lost everything, including his house.
Automobiles were marketed to the general public through a system of dealerships. In Elmira, New York, John Willys had the Overland dealership. He had contracted for Overland’s entire 1906 production and had ordered 465 for 1908. He paid $10,000 in advance for the cars and was concerned when no cars were delivered. His customers wanted their cars. He tried to contact Overland by telephone and telegraph and got no response. To find out what was happening, he went to Indianapolis. When he arrived, he found that the company had gone bankrupt and no cars were being made. Willys immediately took over the factory, did an inventory, and found that there were enough parts to build three cars.
Willys paid off the workers what they were owed. He then erected a large circus tent and restarted the company. With tents grouped around the factory, Willys managed to build 465 automobiles.
In 1909, Claude Cox, who was very unhappy and angry, left the company. Overland’s production in 1909 was 4,900 cars, including some six cylinder models.
In 1909, Willys purchased a factory in Toledo, Ohio and moved manufacturing to this factory. Also at this time, he bought a controlling interest in the Marion Motor Car Company of Indianapolis.
By 1909, the American automobile industry had grown from just 17 manufacturers in 1898 to about 300. In an article in the New York Times, Willys wrote:
“It has been a function of the builders to broaden the usefulness of the car, to increase its field and scope, and to bring it into touch with every phase of national life. The American automobile industry is now firmly established and has passed through its period of infantile diseases and is now ready to take its proper place in the world and lead the way as an American industry should.”
Acknowledging that Europe had been the leader in developing the automobile, Willys concluded:
“The ingenuity of the American motor car builder has been so thoroughly demonstrated upon the automobile world that it is the case to-day of the foreign maker closely watching the development of the American automobile industry, instead of, as a few years ago, the American maker watching the foreign field for new ideas.”
Over the next decade, Overland experienced phenomenal growth. The only car company to have more sales during this era was Ford. During this time Willys merged with Curtis Aircraft and became president of that company.
Shown above is a 1911 Overland Model 49 Touring Car. This car is on display at the Western Antique Aeroplane and Automobile Museum in Hood River, Oregon.
In 1912, Willys bought the Edwards Motor Car Company of Long Island, New York which gave him the rights to the Knight engine. Using a plant in Ohio, Willys began production of the Willys-Knight automobile.
In 1912, the Overland Automobile Company was renamed the Willys-Overland Motor Company.
Shown above is a 1912 Model 59T.
Shown above is a 1915 Overland Model 82 Touring Car. This model was in production from 1915 until 1926. This car is on display at the Western Antique Aeroplane and Automobile Museum in Hood River, Oregon.
In 1917 there was a major strike at the Toledo plant and as a result the 1917 model Overland did not get into production until 1919. To take care of the problems at the Toledo plant, Willys hired Walter Chrysler to run the Willys-Overland operations. Chrysler, who had been vice-president at General Motors, was paid $1 million per year. In 1921, after unsuccessfully trying to take the company away from Willys, Chrysler left to go into business for himself.
In 1918, Willys, through his holding company, acquired the Moline Plow Company which manufactured both farm tractors and Stephens cars. The next year he acquired control of the Duesenberg company.
Overland cars continued to be produced until 1926 when they were replaced with the Willys Whippet.