Tag Archives: John North Willys

Overland the one that got away

As far as Indianapolis and Indiana are concerned, the Overland automobile was the big one that got away.

The Overland was the creation of Claude E. Cox, a recent graduate of Terre Haute’s Rose Polytechnic Institute in June 1902. The automobile was part of his senior thesis project at Rose for which he devised a four-wheel automobile.

1903 Overland
1903 Overland
Copyright © 1903 Standard Wheel Company

The revised Overland was tested while he worked at the Standard Wheel Company in Terre Haute in February 1903. By January 1905, the facilities at the Terre Haute were cramped, and Cox moved the automotive department to the Standard Wheel facilities in Indianapolis.

In March 1906, David M. Parry put up the majority of the money to organize the Overland Automobile Company in addition to his Parry Manufacturing Company factory at Oliver Avenue and Drover Street in Indianapolis.

John North Willys, an automobile dealer from Elmira, New York, soon contracted with Overland for 500 of its cars. During the Panic of 1907, he learned that Overland was in dire financial straits and the company couldn’t fill the orders. When he came to Indianapolis to scrutinize Overland’s operations, he learned that the company was essentially one day away from receivership. Willys worked with a local hotel proprietor to raise the cash to cover a personal check to cover Overland’s payroll.

Willys ascended to president and general manager in early 1908, and over 400 cars were produced that year, followed by over 4,000 in 1909. Overland returned to profitability, and Willys acquired the Marion Motor Company of Indianapolis that same year. He also acquired the idle Pope-Toledo factory in Toledo, Ohio, at the same time.

In the modernized Willys-Overland facilities in Toledo, the company soon built over 12,000 cars. Thus, all the Overland automotive operations soon moved to Toledo.

This plant went on to produce the Willys Jeep during and after World War II. In fact, Fiat Chrysler America’s Jeep production is headquartered in the Toledo complex.

That’s the story of Overland’s the one that got away.

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Overland’s Indiana origins

Claude E. Cox demonstrated the first Overland automobile at the Standard Wheel Works at 13th and Plum streets in Terre Haute on February 12, 1903. The Wheel Works was the largest manufacturer of wheels in the world at the time with three plants in Ohio, and one in Michigan, Fort Wayne, and Indianapolis. General offices were in Terre Haute along with a facility that specialized in heavy wheels for wagons and trucks.

Cox designed the Overland as part of his thesis while he was a student at Rose Polytechnic Institute. He also worked at the Wheel Works as a salesman while he was studying at the nearby college. The runabout used a five-h.p., single-cylinder engine and planetary transmission. His design had several innovations and received an unusual amount of attention. Cox placed the engine of his car in the front, remarking that it was the “logical” place for it. Cox also improved the seating arrangement by making the entrance to the rear seat compartment through the sides rather than through the rear of the auto as in earlier models.

1903 Overland
1903 Overland
Copyright © 1903 Standard Wheel Company

The Wheel Works devoted the second story of one of the new buildings to manufacturing Overlands. Demand for the autos increased to the point that it was difficult to produce the necessary quantity at the Terre Haute facility. In January 1905, Overland operations moved to Indianapolis facilities at 900-1300 West Henry Street. Cox went to Indianapolis as manager of the Overland Automobile Department of the Standard Wheel Works. He improved the 1905 models with the addition of a shaft drive and a steering wheel.

More financial backing was required when Standard sold the car and manufacturing rights to David M. Parry who formed The Overland Automobile Company in March 31, 1906. Parry previously had made a personal fortune manufacturing buggies and carriages.

Shortly before the national panic of 1907, John North Willys contracted with Overland to manufacture 500 cars in 1908 and paid $10,000 to bind the agreement. This gave the factory the financial ability to increase its facilities. During the panic, Overland noted that it could not fill its contract nor meet its current payroll. Over a weekend, Willys raised the $350 and deposited it to the credit of the Overland Company.

Bankruptcy was stalled for the moment on the pledge that the company would be reorganized with Willys as president, treasurer, general manager, sales manager, and purchasing agent. Overland resumed production. In 1908, Willys built 465 four-cylinder Model 24 automobiles, paid the most pressing debts, and showed a profit of $58,000.

By September 1909, with the inevitable improvement in credit and the available cash, Willys took over the plant of the Pope auto manufacturing facilities in Toledo, Ohio. This became the home of his Willys auto empire and production started on a new automobile that he named the Willys-Overland.

Willys assembled Willys-Overlands in Indianapolis through the 1911 model year. Then the plant produced component parts for Willys-Overland until 1923.

Claude Cox continued to be affiliated with the automobile industry all of his life. In 1909, he left Indianapolis and joined the Inter-State Automobile Company in Muncie. In two years he left Muncie for the Wilcox Motor Car Co. in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Then, in 1912, he became the director of research for General Motors Company in Detroit, Michigan. At the time of his death in 1964, Cox was president of Bartlett Research, Inc., an automotive research firm in Detroit.

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