He was wealthy, a brilliant engineer, and the manufacturer of a car that was well ahead of its time--the Wills Sainte Claire.
Never heard of the car? You're not alone. Between 1921 and 1926, only about 12,000 were made, of which only about 80 are known to still exist.
My father, an aerospace engineer and hopeless car nut, bought a five-passenger Wills Sainte Claire sedan in the 1940s, drove it on weekends, and, unfortunately, blew the engine. Being an ardent mechanic, he tore down the engine, had the damaged cylinder bank repaired with some artful welding, and--much to the disdain of my mother--failed to put the engine back together again. Thereafter the engine parts were stored in a wooden crate and remained there for another 20 years. The engineless car, meanwhile, languished in several garages, and like some wounded, wandering animal followed us as we moved around Southern California--from Palos Verdes, to Leona Valley, and finally to Palmdale. It was while living in Palmdale that our forlorn Wills Saint Claire--and the crate of engine parts--was sold to a car restorer who had the money and the desire to restore the machine to factory-new condition. When he was finished, he was kind enough to bring the car to our house and show us the results of his labor. Best of all, he started the motor for us.
As sad as this story is, at least it has a happy ending. However, the story of C. Harold Wills and his auto company, does not. While he amassed millions, and created his own car company, Wills was destined to lose it all in the depression.
Wills was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1878. In 1885, his family moved to Detroit, Michigan, where Wills finished his schooling. Wills had an equal interest in mechanical engineering and commercial art. When he was 17, Wills began a four-year apprenticeship as a toolmaker for the Detroit Lubricator Company. At the same time he took night courses in metallurgy, chemistry, and mechanical engineering. After serving his apprenticeship, he quit the job, and joined the Boyer Machine Co., becoming chief engineer in 1901, when he was only 23.
However, Wills was strongly attracted to automobiles, and in 1899 approached Henry Ford (then working as superintendent at the Detroit Automobile Company), offering to work for him part-time. Soon thereafter, the Detroit Automobile Company was reorganized as the Ford Motor Company. By 1902, Wills was working full-time for Henry Ford, helping him build his record-setting 999 and Arrows race cars. In 1903, Wills became Ford's chief designer and metallurgist. While Wills could not afford to buy company stock, Ford generously offered Wills 10% of Ford's own dividend. In turn, Wills worked closely with Ford on the early Ford models. When Ford planned mass productions of cars, Wills saw the importance of lightweight, strong nickel-chrome vanadium steel as a critical part of the mass production process. Ford tasked Wills with producing the necessary quantities of vanadium steel, which he did by creating a mill to produce it. In 1907 Ford used Wills' alloy steel in the production of Ford's first car built for the average American, the Model N.
Wills also contributed heavily in the design of the revolutionary Model T Ford, specifically the design of the planetary transmission, and the Model T engine's detachable cylinder head. At the same time the artist in Wills created Ford's iconic script logo, that would be embossed on the Model T's radiator shell, and is still in use today.
C. Harold Wills and Henry Ford became close as brothers When Wills married, Ford was the best man at his wedding. After that, their relationship began to sour. In 1919, with the Ford Motor Company now firmly established as the biggest and most successful company in the world, Henry Ford began buying out his minority shareholders, and particularly that of his designer C. Harold Wills'. Wills countered by demanding a careful accounting of the profit-sharing he had accrued since joining the company. Henry Ford ultimately provided Wills with a $1.5 million severance package. In addition, Wills had amassed another $4 million from his shrewd investments in steel companies.
With all that money coupled with Wills' burning desire to build the best cars in America, C. Harold Wills founded the Wills Sainte Claire Company north of Detroit, in the quaint town of Marysville, on the banks of the Saint Clair River. The company would not only produce highly sophisticated and luxurious automobiles, it would also be something of a worker's paradise, in which employees were guaranteed free health care. Indeed, Wills created a factory town of expensive homes where employees lived virtually rent free, and enjoyed an inviting community center. Every Christmas season, the Wills' family would give generous Christmas gifts to company employees.
The Wills Sainte Claire Company began building cars in 1921. At $3,000, it was a price few could afford. As a point of comparison, Wills' former employer, the Ford Motor Company was selling cars for $260, while the average house sold for $1,300. In addition, Wills was a perfectionist, who at times would halt the production line to update his cars with some new technology. The company lost money each of its six years in operation
The few backers Wills had attracted saw the mounting debt and, in 1922, withdrew financial support. After going into receivership, a group of Boston bankers reincorporated Wills' car company as Wills Sainte Claire Incorporated in 1923. However, the red ink didn't stop flowing, and when the first stages of the depression hit, C. Harold Wills had no choice but to shut down his company and release all his employees. The last year of production, was 1927. Wills, meanwhile, found new employment working for Ruxton Automobiles in Philadelphia, where he contributed his considerable engineering skills to the development of its new, revolutionary front-wheel-drive car. When that didn't pan out, he worked as a consultant for Chrysler as a metallurgist (note: Chrysler bought Wills' car plant in 1933). His various patents also provided a steady income. In 1940, Wills suffered a stroke and died a short time later at the Henry Ford Hospital. He was a 62.
The Wills Sainte Claire Automobile Company offered a wide range of body styles: five and seven passenger touring cars; two-passenger roadsters and coupes (available with optional rumble seat); four-passenger sedans; and five passenger "Imperial" sedans and town cars. The company logo--the Canadian goose--appeared as a chrome ornament atop the radiator cap on the radiator shell of every car.
Ten years before the Ford Motor Company introduced its famed flat-head V-8 engine, Wills' automobiles were powered by a sophisticated and powerful overhead cam V-8. Other advancements included backup lights, seal-beam headlights, as well as considerable use of expensive metal alloys, including all-aluminum car bodies, several aluminum engine components, and twin stainless steel exhaust pipes. Like most automobiles produced at this time, the Wills Saint Claire did not have front brakes. This was fine in the 1920s when the posted speed limit was 17-miles an hour, and most production cars produced about 25 horsepower, and had a top speed of about 30-miles-per hour. On the other hand, with their advanced V-8 engines, Wills Sainte Claires, produced about 75 horsepower, which meant a top speed in the neighborhood of 70-miles-per-hour. Lacking front brakes (which on modern cars do about 80 percent of the stopping), it be can argued Wills Sainte Claire had too much engine for the cars it was producing.
All told, the Wills Sainte Claire Company produced about 12,000 automobiles, of which about 80 are still known to exist. Eleven of these cars are on permanent display at the Wills Sainte Claire Auto Museum at 2408 Wills Street in Marysville, Michigan.
The Wills Sainte Claire my father purchased was a rare 1926 two-door sedan. Being a fast driver, I suspect my father found his Wills to be a handful to drive, due to the fact it did not have front brakes. (Anything over 60-miles-hour the car was nearly impossible to stop). Note: after the Wills was fully restored, the new owner brought it to our house for us to see, loaded on the back of a trailer. While I can't be certain, I feel sure he declined to drive the car to our house due to non-existent front brakes!
Photo courtesy of the Wills Sainte Claire Auto Museum