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AUTO-BIOGRAPHY

C. H. Wills: the Man Who Produced the Wills Sainte Claire, Part One

By Llewellyn Hedgbeth

A true "man of steel", Childe Harold Wills (his mother named him for a character in a Byron poem—but as soon as he had a choice in the matter, he dropped the first name entirely and became C. Harold or, more simply, C. H.) was a metallurgist and a considerable presence in the early development of the automobile. He worked side by side with the young Henry Ford, turning Ford's back-of-the-envelope ideas into finished drawings. As chief engineer at Ford, he experimented with metal alloys and developed innovative mechanical solutions. Once he left Ford, he went on to develop his own luxury car, the Wills Sainte Claire, a car years ahead of the technology of its time. Outwardly it appeared a handsome, moderate-sized car, though certainly not a flashy one. Its real claim to fame, however, came in its state-of-the-art patented processes, precise engineering, and impressive mechanical features. As with any "new to the market" improved version, however, it had a steep sales price—roughly three thousand dollars when the Model T was fetching less than five hundred. From 1921 to 1927, about twelve thousand of these exceptional cars were built. Of that number fewer than ninety are known to survive.

1922 Wills Sainte Claire sedan in Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum, Fairbanks, Alaska
1922 Wills Sainte Claire sedan. Photo courtesy of Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum, Fairbanks, Alaska

The Man Behind the Machine

Born June 1, 1878 in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Wills came from European stock, his grandfather having left Scotland for Canada in 1832. His father John Carnegie Wills, however, later crossed the border into the U.S., first settling in Indiana where he launched a family with his wife Mary Engelina Swindell and began building a career as a master railway mechanic. By 1885, the family had moved to Detroit and C. H., the youngest and only surviving child in the family, went to Detroit public schools.

He began working at age 12, following in his father's footsteps and learning mechanical skills from his dad. As years went by he progressed with those skills but also showed some promise as a commercial artist, particularly enjoying cartooning. He was beginning to wrestle with the dichotomy between his interests in science and the arts. At 17, though, he'd resolved his dilemma in favor of joining the Detroit Lubricator Co. which provided locomotive lubrication and which was the plant where his dad was manager. There he worked out a four-year apprenticeship, starting as a toolmaker at $7.50 a week, and ending there at $10 a week as a finished toolmaker. Although he had been promised a raise every six months, at the end of four years he'd only gotten one of those—so he decided to look elsewhere for employment. He wasn't idle in the evenings, either, taking classes and reading technical journals about engineering, chemistry and metallurgy.

Next, he worked in the engineering department of Boyer Machine Co. (forerunner of Burroughs Adding Machine Co.) at increased pay of $18 a week. After three weeks on the job he was made chief engineer and foreman at $27 a week and in three months he became superintendent with the princely salary of $50 a week. It was from there that he became associated with Henry Ford, automotive pioneer extraordinaire—but more about that later. With the larger salary at Boyer, by 1904 Wills could afford to leave his parents' home to take up residence at Detroit's Plaza Hotel, not that he spent much time there, though. His consuming passion for cars had already turned him into a workaholic.

Wills married twice—first to Mabel Preston in 1907, with whom he had daughters Virginia and Josephine and from whom he divorced in 1913. His second marriage was to Mary Coyne of New York City, that marriage performed on January 3, 1914, with Henry Ford as best man. From that union there were two sons—John Harold and Childe Harold, Jr., and there was also a stepdaughter—Elaine.

Once his lengthy working association with Ford ended, Wills built a team to develop his dream, the Wills Sainte Claire motor car, a car we'll study in much greater detail in Part Two. After that company failed, though, he tried to return to Ford. He contacted George Holley, the man who'd made the carburetor for the Model T and who was a close friend of Ford's. Holley relayed the message and Ford turned the decision over to his chief production manager Charles Sorenson who'd never liked Wills. His response was negative.

While we don't know what Wills had expected that answer to be, a story of redemption he once told gives us an idea of how he might have answered if roles had been reversed. While at Boyer, his boss had talked with him about his future and had given him this advice: "aim high and you'll never shoot low." Wills internalized what he'd been told and built a phenomenal career. Many years later he ran across his former employer, now down on his luck and sponging off relatives. When Wills asked what he'd once looked forward to in retirement, the answer came: "running a chicken farm." A few weeks later Wills returned to see the man, handed him the deed to a chicken farm, and showed him a bank statement with $5000 in the man's account. In 1921, when the story was recounted in Motor Magazine, the man was happily raising 2000 chickens. Wills had viewed the chance encounter as an opportunity to make "deferred payment" for the advice once freely given.

Nevertheless, Ford's answer was otherwise and it left Wills adrift. For a short while he joined other engineers in 1929 in developing the pioneering front-wheel drive Ruxton. Though his involvement with the car was limited to consulting on the prototype, he did serve on the company's Board of Directors.

From 1933 onward, Wills worked as metallurgical consultant to Chrysler, there developing and refining patents on all-steel body construction for cars. He invented a new form of steel, adding aluminum to steel to achieve a metal with sufficient flexibility to form compound curves without tearing. That proved essential for the all-steel bodied Airflow. The sealed-beam headlight was another Wills invention of that era, one he sold to Westinghouse.

Wills was one of the men who gave form to the dream of the American automobile. He invented numerous automotive products and processes. He was responsible for the technologically sophisticated Wills Sainte Claire. At age 62, however, he was felled by a diabetes-induced stroke and died on December 30, 1940.

Chile Harold Wills
Childe Harold Wills

Wills is remembered as a tall, handsome man who was proud, confident, creative, and quick to make a decision. He was also well-spoken and a persuader who, one friend said, "could convince you black was white". That said, however, he never sought the limelight, ducking numerous requests for interviews over the years. One enterprising interviewer asked Ford to arrange a meeting with Wills but Ford replied that he couldn't get Wills to talk even if he "promised him another week's wages."

Never a fan of rules and regulations, Wills was an independent, practical thinker who learned early to distrust much of what he read. More than once he told friends, "'If it's in a book, it's at least four years old and I don't have any use for it." Some said he was less inclined to stick to hard facts than he was to exaggerate or interpret them. Whether based on fact, intuition, or some combination of the two, he was acknowledged to be a mechanical genius with great common sense. He also was brave enough to disagree with the boss, at times openly criticizing Ford.

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