Friday, July 30, 2010

Willys Knight

The history of Willys Knight goes back to 1913 when J.N. Willys met up with Charles Y. Knight whilst on a trip to England.  Knight managed to convince him that the sleeve valve engine had some very desirable attributes over the poppet valve motor.  As soon as he reached England, J.N. Willys hired a Knight sleeve valve powered Daimler and covered 4,500 miles of English and Scottish roads in just 15 days - a pretty good test for those days !   In typical Willys fashion, he didn't bother negotiating for a licence to build Knight engines for his own cars, but instead bought the Edwards Motor Co of New York which saved him the trouble as they already had a licence.  Between 1914 and 1933 he was to sell almost half a million of the relatively low priced but high quality sleeve valve Willys Knights.  His love affair with the sleeve valve engine also saw him buy financial control of F.J. Stearns Co of Cleveland, Ohio in 1925.  Stearns automobiles had been using the Knight sleeve valve engine since 1911, but were aimed at the very prestigious and luxury end of the market.  The reason why Willys Overland was the most successful sleeve valve manufacturer lay in the enormous effort spent on redesigning the engine for minimum manufacturing costs.  Although the sleeve valve engine had a number of advantages such as no noisy poppet valves, no valve springs to weaken under load or heat, a hemispherical head and an engine that could actually show measured increases in compression and power due to carbon deposits on the already close fitting sleeves, it was the machining costs of those close tolerances plus the royalty fee to Knight and his partner L.B. Kilbourne that made the poppet valve motor the sales winner.
During the Great Depression, Willys Overland declared bankruptcy and a reorganization plan was implemented to rationalize the line up of models.  This unfortunately spelt the end of Willys Knight and the last sleeve valve car built in America was the 1933 Model 66E Great 6, also known as the Streamline 6 because the windshield was inclined more than the 1932 model.
Believing that the only way to get back precious sales would be in the small low priced area that the Overland 4 and Whippet side valve vehicles had done so well, production was restricted solely to the Whippet replacement - the Willys 77.   True, a companion 6 cylinder model, the Willys 99 was planned, prototyped and even advertised with a choice of poppet or sleeve valve engines, but the tooling was never completed so it never reached production.

Willys Knight models can get a bit confusing, but the following information extracted from the W.O.K.R. Roster (with permission) can help with identification.  The Nominal Prices column gives open car prices till 1926, then closed cars.  Serial Numbers prefixed with a C indicate Canadian origin.

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