John North Willys

John North Willys

Birth
Canandaigua, Ontario County, New York, USA
Death 26 Aug 1935 (aged 61)
Bronx, Bronx County, New York, USA
Burial Valhalla, Westchester County, New York, USA
Memorial ID 3215 · View Source
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Entrepreneur. He received much acclaimed in the early 20th Century as a United States manufacturer, first with bicycles and then automobiles. Even as a child, he was enterprising buying and selling items for profit. Being very conservative, he saved every penny he earned and only spent money for household needs for his family or clothes and shoes for himself. At the age of fifteen in 1888, he convinced his parents to support him and a friend in a laundry business in a nearby town. He lived in the apartment over the laundry in Seneca Fall, New York. They operated the laundry for a year before selling it for a profit of $1,000. Using his share of the profit, he entered Elmira College studying to become a lawyer, but with the death of his father two years later, he canceled his plans for an education to support his mother and other siblings. Within a short time, he began his own bicycle repair business, which became very successful. From two-wheel vehicles, he advanced to the four-wheel automobile. In 1906 he created the American Motor Car Sales Company of New York, and he paid $10,000 and contracted the Overland Automotive Division of the Standard Wheel Company to wholesale 500 cars for him. He had learned earlier in his bicycle business that the best way to make money was volume. As he was traveling about the country taking orders for his automobiles, he learned that there was a delay at Overland filling the orders. Not one automobile had been produced, but 45 were partially finished on an assemble line, which was standing still. The problem was that Overland was in dire financial stress, could not pay their employees, and was carrying an $80,000 debt, which would be millions in today's economy. The only logical answer to the problem was for him to purchase Overland and have his orders filled as planned. On site in Toledo, Ohio, he managed the building of Willys-Overland's modern manufacturing company. The first year, the company produced 12,000 cars. He created a network of smaller local companies and within a few years, 20,000 employees were receiving a paycheck from his conglomerate. He acquired many other automobile companies as well as parts and tire companies. From 1912 to 1918, his company was the second-largest automaker, only behind Ford. The Overland was a better car than the Ford Model T, with a sliding-gear transmission and higher quality, at a higher price. At the end of 1910, Willys-Overland had a profit of over $1 million and had no debt. In 1916 the “Wall Street Magazine” wrote an article on his successful automobile making empire. With the 1920 economical recession and his employees striking, thus closing the factory for months and causing a heavy debt, his creditors insisted that Walter P. Chrysler of General Motors be installed as executive vice president and reorganize his company with a salary of one million dollars a year for two years. Without much success, Chrysler left the company to start his own in 1922, and Willys continued operating his company. By 1928, his company was third place nationally in automobile sales. With his company strong again, he retired in 1929 before the stock market crash and the start of the Great Depression era. He sold his company for $25 million, but remained chairman of the company's executive board. As a Republican, he was appointed the first United States Ambassador to Poland by President Herbert Hoover from 1930 to 1932. In 1932, he returned to the company in attempt to save it from the Great Depression. Throughout the years, George Ritter, a knowledgeable attorney and personal friend was at his side to guide his company from 1925, but in 1933 the company enter bankruptcy. At this point, his 37-year marriage to Isabel Van Wie was dissolved in 1934; he married Florence Dolan in 1935; and he had a daughter from his first marriage. He became President of the Willys-Overland Company again in 1935. The company planned a comeback for 1936, but he was not at the wheel as his health had declined after suffering a heart attack in the spring of 1935 and in the following August succumbed to a stroke. After his death, the company did rally as planned and his name would continue to be part of the automakers with the Willys MB Jeep becoming popular during World War II. His jeeps continued through the 1953 when Kaiser Motors purchased the company and the name was retired in 1963. He made a mark on the history of Toledo. Owning from 1901 to 1921, his Toledo mansion, the Tillinghast Willys Bell Home, is still a masterpiece of Gothic-inspired Tudor architecture. After selling this home, he built the mansion of Ottawa Hill on 40 acres of land overlooking the river. Later in 1948, the property became the “Willys-Ritter House” with the purchase by George Ritter, but the land was eventually divided into subdivisions . The seven-story Willys-Overland Administration Building, a landmark in downtown Toledo, became law offices in October of 1935 and demolished in 1979. In 2008 he was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.

Bio by: Linda Davis


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  • Maintained by: Find a Grave
  • Added: 18 Jul 1998
  • Find a Grave Memorial 3215
  • Find a Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed ), memorial page for John North Willys (25 Oct 1873–26 Aug 1935), Find a Grave Memorial no. 3215, citing Kensico Cemetery, Valhalla, Westchester County, New York, USA ; Maintained by Find A Grave .