(This article originally appeared in Hemmings Classic Car #124, January 2015)
Lilliputians Sell the Willys-Knight
From 1915 – 1933, Willys-Knight sold more sleeve-valve engines than all other manufacturers combined. While their sleeve-valve offerings would end with 1933 model year offerings, advertisers had a unique approach to sell the engine in 1932. During that year, a small campaign featured tiny people who explored the Willys-Knight engine, body and chassis as background characters. Of course these tiny people were too small to actually drive the cars but they did seemingly admire and appreciate the features offered on Willys-Knight vehicles that year.
Willys offered two models with the Knight engine in 1932. The first appeared in the $895 Model 95, a 6-cylinder, 60-horsepower sedan on a 113” wheelbase. The second was the $1,095 Model 66D sedan. The 66D still had a 6-cylinder engine but was rated at 87-horsepower and ran on a 121” wheelbase. In total there were eleven body styles offered that year with a sleeve-valve engine.
Lilliputians appear in at least two catalogs in 1932. The first catalog focused solely on the Model 66D. The catalog measures 8” X 10” and covers eight pages. It explains the sleeve-valve engine concept then goes on to highlight the 66D features including improved freewheeling, streamlined styling, syncro-mesh transmission and Startix; a starting system that simply requires the operator to turn the key to engage the starter. Throughout the pages Lilliputians can be seen examining the engine, viewing the front seat on a ladder, crawling over the frame and even having fun by using the front seat back as a sliding board.
The second catalog is larger, measuring 10” X 10” on eighteen pages. It is billed as “A Feature Presentation in Honor of Willys-Overland’s Silver Anniversary.” This catalog includes the Model 66D and the smaller Model 95. In these additional pages the catalog has the opportunity to use more text to describe and emphasize Willys-Knight features. Here we read that “Willys-Knight 95 models are the lowest priced cars ever built powered by the Twin Sleeve motor” and the interiors offer “plenty of head room, leg room and elbow room, even when the car is occupied to capacity.” Our tiny friends are also given more pages as we see one tiny man climbing a miniature ladder to explore exposed sleeves. The little people also explore the “modern v-type radiator”, horns and fenders as well. Fortunately they don’t explore or appear in photos of the adjustable timing chain and brake drums!
The catalogs do a great job of highlighting the features of the Model 95 and 66. However, throughout the text there is no mention of the Lilliputians. It’s as if they invaded the catalog on their own accord, not caring about the writer or reader. I wish I could have read the mind of a prospect as they saw the catalog for the first time. The pictures of the Lilliputians are creative and fun to look at but I just have to wonder what their purpose was. Taking an academic approach to the catalog you may consider the times. The Great Depression was in full force and people felt smaller than ever. Do our tiny friends represent a feeling of reduced self-worth or did advertisers want the reader to think the Willys-Knight was simply a bigger and better value than all others? Whatever their purpose, the effort put forth by the Lilliputians wasn’t big enough.
In 1922 sleeve-valve engines could be found in over 50,000 Willys-Knight automobiles. By 1932 they represented just a small fraction of Willys’ overall production of 25,898. While a few 1933 Willys-Knight cars would eventually reach dealerships, production of the sleeve-valve engine came to a halt in late 1932 as the company went into receivership and began focusing on lower-priced vehicles.