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Second Chance Garage

For the Classic Car Restoration Enthusiast

Second Chance Garage


Second Chance Garage

For the Classic Car Restoration Enthusiast

Second Chance Garage

Second Chance Garage

For the Classic Car Restoration Enthusiast

Second Chance Garage

AUTO-BIOGRAPHY

Wills Sainte Claire: A Community-Built Car, Part Two

As word leaked that C. H. Wills and John R. Lee were joining forces, curiosity built as to the product they planned to take to market. Referring to the Wills and Lee enterprise, an interviewer asked Wills to talk about the car before it had taken shape. As reported in the June 7, 1919 issue of the Michigan Manufacturer and Financial Record, Wills responded, "We are not seeking publicity. We are working on our project, and whenever something has reached the point where the news is worthwhile, when it will be of interest, it will be forthcoming. The only thing I will say is that we shall endeavor to place upon the market an automobile that will be found to be as good as it can conscientiously be made. We will start on a big scale, but we expect to become bigger, and that cannot be achieved unless the manufacturer's product is a satisfactory product. So we shall try to satisfy the public to the best of our ability, and we shall rely on this 'satisfied public' to build up our house."

Community First

Wills intended to produce a car based on the most up-to-date materials and processes. His dream, however, was large enough to include as well the need for a model community in which to situate his production plant. Having secured financial backing, Wills and Lee formed a land company to purchase 4400 acres on the St. Clair River, about 45 miles north of Detroit. The area was serviced by rail, road, and river transportation, making it easy to get materials in and finished cars out. There they expanded a small hamlet into the city of Marysville, Michigan, to be known as "the city of contented living" or the "dream city". Planning to spend about $3.5 million for its development, it was to include schools, churches, parks, playgrounds, housing, hotels, stores, and factories. Its picturesque, rural setting was meant to spare its citizens the trials of city living. There would be a bank, one meant to assist lot and home buyers with loans and mortgages, headed by Wills as president and Lee as vice-president. And while there was a post office, chamber of commerce, orchestra, and cinema, there was no jail. There would be a police force to maintain order but there would be no need for punishment in the edenic community.

Immersed in the company town idea of the time, Wills and Lee wanted to create an environment where workers, given everything needed at home (according to the company owner's definition of that need), would also be productive at work. This was critically important since, at times, Wills had his workers work seven days a week, 12-14 hours a day. Given his sociological "improvements" at Ford, Lee took the lead in designing the community. He teamed with the architectural and engineering firm of Smith, Minchon and Grylls to plat out the city streets of uniform width, allowing for nearly a third of the area to be left as green space. Contracts were negotiated for 9,800 homes, with Detroit contractor Walbridge-Aldingen to build many of the mostly-frame dwellings which company employees could either rent or buy on an installment plan. Other firms involved in the construction of buildings within the community were H. F. Fleming Construction Co., Marysville Land Co., Grey Estate, and Govro (who handled accounts for private individuals). Single men were to be housed in ten community houses, each of which would house sixty occupants. The Wills-Lee company set the architectural design of the houses, with Wills expressing this desire for his workers' homes as he thought primarily of families: "I want every worker to be able to purchase a house on a lot large enough to have a vegetable garden."

Single family residences under construction.

Single family residences under construction.


An engineering survey for the community was conducted in June 1919, and road grading began in September. On October 23, 1919, an elaborate ground breaking ceremony for the 100,000 square foot automotive plant took place. And in November there was sewer and water trenching; work began on apartment houses; and the first 66 single-family houses were built.

It would take some time, of course, for the automotive plant to be completed. Although Wills had hoped to be in production by summer of 1920, difficulties with prototypes and his own perfectionism resulted in a delay to March 1921. A well-known stickler for detail, Wills shut down the assembly line whenever he conceived of another improvement to be made. Backers and associates quickly grew weary of all his changes but he was not deterred.

Wills and Lee also encouraged other firms to bring their plants to Marysville. Detroit Edison built a power plant there and some thirteen manufacturing concerns, including Athole Manufacturing (pneumatic tires and convertible tops), Illinois Tool Co., American Bushings Corp. (brass piston bushings), Detroit Gear and Machine Co., Williams Manufacturing Co., Canadian Pressed Metals, and others built plants there. Not only were these relocations good for the city's growth, they provided component parts for the new car.

With initial hopes running high, Wills also dreamt of international markets. In July, 1920, he purchased another large tract about two miles away across the river in Sarnia, Ontario. Since the property had been part of a Chippewa Indian reservation, the purchase was by treaty.

A New Marque

As the community developed, Wills incorporated his business as C.H. Wills Company and focused his attentions on building the car that would bear his name—originally the Wills Saint Clair, quickly renamed the Wills Sainte Claire since Wills thought those extra "e's" added class to the product. Wills himself put up $2 million and, unleashed from Ford fetters, let his creativity flow. Whereas the Model T was a "plain vanilla" car affordable to the masses, Wills wanted his car to be a luxury car, medium-sized and priced, with the newest materials and technologies. His car would have a lower center of gravity than most cars of the day and would be technological marvels. He projected that he could sell the stylish car for $2000, producing 10,000 cars a year. Early estimates had it that production would commence in August, 1920.