Second Chance Garage
All About Car Restoration
Second Chance Garage
All About Car Restoration


Wills Sainte Claire: A Car Ahead of Its Time, Part Three

By Llewellyn Hedgbeth

Mo-lyb-den-um Steel

Just as vanadium steel had been central to the Model T, lightweight, durable molybdenum steel was crucial for the Wills Sainte Claire. During World War I demand was high for "moly" steel, used to manufacture helmets, tanks, airplane engines, and gun shields. Since the U.S. was responsible for 60-80% of the world's supply of molybdenum, the newly-formed Climax Molybdenum Co., in 1918, built complex and expensive mills to refine their ore. Unfortunately, at War's end, the company was left with a glut on the market, little interest in the ore, and rock-bottom prices. By March 1919, the Climax mine was closed.

That didn't keep new company president Brainerd F. Phillipson from believing in its value, though. After all, there was virtually limitless supply; molybdenum had helped America and her allies win the war; and new uses for it were bound to be discovered. Phillipson offered free supplies of concentrate to steel manufacturers willing to experiment with it, but there were few takers. His next tack was to peddle it to automotive manufacturers. There, too, he was rebuffed as Ford and others turned him down. When he met C. H. Wills in 1920, however, he found a man on a mission to build a lightweight, durable car, just the properties his molybdenum could provide. Phillipson sold his "moly" stockpile to Wills "for next to nothing."

Wills was first in the automotive industry to make extensive use of molybdenum, utilizing it for the Wills Sainte Claire's crankshaft, connecting rods, camshaft, gearbox gears and shafts, propeller shaft, frame, springs, front axle, steering knuckles and wheels. There was an aluminum crankcase and cylinder bores were of cast iron but just about any other metal component subject to stress had to be made of molybdenum.

Phillipson and Wills must have struck up a personal friendship, as well, since when Phillipson, in 1921, was invited east to shoot in the Adirondacks, he contacted noted sportsman Wills for advice on the best kind of gun to take with him. Wills, whose gun collection had been wiped out when his yacht Marold II burned at her moorings, looked through the salvage pile, found a bent gun barrel, and sent it on to New York with this message: "I think this is just what you need for shooting around the hills of northern New York State."

Both Phillipson and Wills advertised molybdenum steel in national mainstream publications, dividing "molybdenum" into syllables and accenting the second syllable, i.e., mo-lyb-den-um. When Wills advertised its first touring car, it was heralded as a car made of molybdenum, one combining "great strength with toughness, durability, resiliency and resistance to vibration." One Climax campaign ad highlighted the smart new Wills Sainte Claire car set against a mountain of molybdenum, calling the ore "American super-steel". Another of their ads showed a large armored car with a Wills Sainte Claire just below it, humorously noting, "You Could Build a Car of Cast Iron. But imagine its size—its brittleness—its expense of operation! Parts would break every time you hit a bump. You'd get less than a mile per gallon of gas. A wrought iron car would be little better. A plain carbon steel car would not satisfy today's motoring requirements. Molybdenum—makes possible a new car that is 'a distinct step forward in automobile construction'; axles resist strains of twisting and turning; almost impossible to strip gears."

New Steel Construction for the Wills Sainte Claire.

New Steel Construction for the Wills Sainte Claire.

New Engine Construction

Not only was the steel new for the engine's construction, the Wills Sainte Claire also had the first 8-cylinder engine to use overhead valves driven from an overhead cam shaft. At first the Wills Sainte Claire was available only with a V-8 (Model A-68) 4.3 liter engine inspired by the Hispano-Suiza's airplane engine that had been designed by Marc Birkigt. Rather than the straight bevels of the plane engine, however, the car had spiral bevel gears.

An improved version of the V-8 was introduced in 1924 for Model B-68, with revised firing order and higher horsepower. A further improvement on that version was made available in 1925 with Model C-68. Such improvements were surely testament to Wills's perfectionism. He believed in continuous improvement and was often seen down on the shop floor, clad in corduroy trousers and flannel shirt, listening to a running engine through a stethoscope, trying to better it.

An early ad explaining the ten major engineering advances in the Wills Sainte Claire listed the engine at number one: "One—The Motor—Eight cylinders—V-type—actually twin fours, either one of which can be run independently—brake test, 60 horsepower. It has overhead camshafts and valves in the cylinder head. A construction that gives enormous, flexible power and that with a special steadying device produces a wonderfully smooth, noiseless operation. This construction also makes possible a combustion chamber of such shape and design that carbon deposits are reduced to a minimum and fullest fuel economy is realized."

The engine was set at a 60 degree angle and the overhead camshafts and valves eliminated the need for belts and chains. There was a massive crankshaft that ran on seven main bearings, each bearing crafted of three kinds of alloy steel. Further evidence of Wills perfectionism, the bearings were precision-made through 28 different operations. The engine's declutching fan was an innovation meant to improve fuel consumption: once the car attained a speed of 40 mph, an automatic clutch disengaged the fan (no longer needed since rushing air cooled the engine), resulting in a savings of 6 hp.

Wills Sainte Claire V-8 engine.

Wills Sainte Claire V-8 engine.

Despite these advancements, however, engine maintenance was a bear. Engines of the time accumulated carbon deposits around valves and valve seats. Wills made significant efforts to machine parts that would resist carbon build-up. The car's highly polished combustion chamber, for example, was meant to do just that. Unfortunately, his efforts were insufficient. Because head and block were cast as one, with non-detachable heads, whenever a mechanic needed to get at the valves, he first had to dismantle the entire engine.

In 1925, after the first Wills company (C. H. Wills & Co.) failed and a new one (Wills Sainte Claire, Inc.) was organized, it was plain that there was a need for an engine that was less costly to build and easier to maintain. An inline-6 (W-6, or T-6), long-stroke, overhead cam engine was added to the line. The "6" incorporated a detachable cylinder head and made use of a centrifugal water pump. An Auto Pulse electric fuel pump replaced the vacuum tank. The engine was heavier than the V-8 since its crank case and bell housing were cast iron. Still it showed better acceleration and hill climbing in top gear and could reach a speed of 70 mph.

Other Distinctive Features

In addition to the new-fangled engine, there were other "firsts", as well, on the car said to be ten years ahead of its time. The Wills Sainte Claire was the first American production car to have backup lights. The tail lamp had a double lens, one white and one red. The car also had a "courtesy" light that illuminated the side of the car. Aimed backwards, it lit the area of the rear wheel, making it easier for oncoming drivers to gauge its width and easier for drivers to change a flat at night. Improvements such as Raybestos-lined, four-wheel hydraulic brakes and balloon tires would be added later.

Other distinctive features of the Wills Sainte Claire were these: a then-novel one-piece starter generator; a thermal siphon rather than a water pump; cross-flow induction/exhaust routing; and revs topping anything else on the road, with a top speed of 75 mph. There was also a three-bladed cast aluminum fan, and extensive nickel plating and abundant polished aluminum fittings under the hood. The car was fitted with headlamps with tilting reflectors for high and low beams, controlled magnetically by a ring under the horn button on top of the 17" diameter steering wheel. In addition, there were locks on the gear set lever, a tool compartment under the front seat, a tool pocket in the front door, and a spare wheel on the rear. The Wills Sainte Claire featured three forward speeds, half elliptic springs front and rear, and a 121" wheelbase (though, beginning with the 1924 model year, a 127" wheelbase was available, as well). For open cars, the first produced, overall weight was about 3000 pounds. Due to their modest size and light weight, these cars performed well and handled smoothly. That said, however, quality materials and advanced technology drove their price to roughly $3000. At that cost they competed with Packard, Lincoln, Pierce-Arrow, and others—and with lesser "curb appeal", sales were a challenge.

Many components for the engine and chassis were outsourced, of course, with Delco providing starter and ignition, Zenith the carburetor, Spicer the universal joints, and Willard the battery. There was also a Waltham speedometer and Weston ammeter, oil pressure gauge and instrument board. Budd Co. of Philadelphia, under license from Michelin, stamped out the disc wheels, a trademark feature of the car. 32 x 4.50 cord tires were by Firestone.

While the factory manufactured the engines and suspension systems, a number of coachbuilders were contracted to supply the bodies, among them Gotfredson Body Co., H.H. Babcock, American Body Co., Willoughby, Witham Body Co., Locke and Co. of New York, Smith-Springfield Body Co., Sievers and Erdman, Budd Co., Fisher, and Philips. The bodies were ordered on an "as needed" basis. In October 1923, for instance, Wills placed an order with Babcock to produce 250 7-passenger cars and 200 roadsters in advance of the January 1924 New York Auto show. Following the show, he ordered another 500 roadster and 250 sedan bodies. Customers had their choice of a number of different body types, including roadsters, touring cars, sedans, coupes, and others. While there were three basic exterior colors—maroon, blue and green—customers could select other colors at additional cost. Wheels were painted to match the body color. In 1924, two-tone paint schemes were introduced.

Increasingly concerned that his car needed more panache to compete with other luxury models, Wills hired Amos Northrup as stylist and lead designer in 1924. Until his redesign the cars were fairly conservative in appearance. Although Northrup had designed for Pierce-Arrow, the Wills Sainte Claire was his first important design commission. John Tjaarda, later famed for his design that became the Lincoln Zephyr, also made sketches for Wills Sainte Claire in 1926 while working as design assistant for Locke and Co. of Rochester, New York.

First page of 1924 two-page ad, featuring 5- and 6-passenger sedan, roadster, coupe, and brougham Interior fittings spoke 'luxury' in keeping with the times and dependent upon the model. Customers could select leather upholstery or any number of upholstery fabrics. Woodwork was walnut, finishes were satin silver. For open models top and side curtains were standard equipment. For the sedan, windows were crank-operated and had silk shades. There was a vanity case with mirror, memorandum book, silver-topped bottles in walnut cases, double ashtray and match holder, corner reading lights, dome light and robe rail. When the Cabriolet roadster came out, it featured a compartment for golf bags on its right hand side.

First page of 1924 two-page ad, featuring 5- and 6-passenger sedan, roadster, coupe, and brougham Interior fittings spoke "luxury" in keeping with the times and dependent upon the model. Customers could select leather upholstery or any number of upholstery fabrics. Woodwork was walnut, finishes were satin silver. For open models top and side curtains were standard equipment. For the sedan, windows were crank-operated and had silk shades. There was a vanity case with mirror, memorandum book, silver-topped bottles in walnut cases, double ashtray and match holder, corner reading lights, dome light and robe rail. When the Cabriolet roadster came out, it featured a compartment for golf bags on its right-hand side.

Selling the Michigan Grey Goose

In 1921, as production got underway, Wills hired the advertising firm of Power, Alexander and Jenkins Co., Inc. of Detroit to give the car national exposure. William S. Powers was first a newspaperman, then owner of a Pittsburgh ad agency for fifteen years prior to a 1910 merger with the MacManus ad agency and a move to Detroit. That firm was, in turn, taken over and, in 1915, was reincorporated with a new name. Kirkland B. Alexander was vice-president and general manager of the firm but soon after winning the Wills account, he resigned to become 2d vice-president in charge of sales and advertising with C. H. Wills & Co. Alexander had also been a newspaper reporter and editorial writer who had enjoyed an earlier association with the MacManus firm. The third man in the firm was its secretary W. Hadden Jenkins, Jr. who had worked with ad agencies in New York and Philadelphia. Their agency was said to be the largest between New York and Chicago. The firm had already landed the Paige-Detroit automotive account and was eager to add Wills Sainte Claire to their portfolio, focusing the campaign primarily on newspapers.

Besides Alexander, Wills hired E.C. Morse (who had been with John Willys Export Co.) as sales manager. On September 26, 1921, Morse addressed the first distributors meeting and outlined company sales policies. Early in his tenure he toured western states, meeting with dealers and making sure they were marketing the car. They assured him that the car had strong appeal "because of the unique character of the motor", adding that motorists were more interested in purely mechanical matters than they had been a few years back. One of the sales approaches used was to call on friends and neighbors of recent purchasers, praise their good taste and sound judgment, and ask whether the person contacted might like to join them.

Another Wills sales department employee was Edward A. Batchelor who had been sports writer/editor at the Detroit Free Press and war correspondent in WWI. When the war ended he went with the ad firm of Miller Beasley in Detroit before establishing his own ad firm of Batchelor, Mason and Brown. He would go on to write "Flight of the Gray Goose", a brief account of the 1921 cross-country journey Wills made with Douglas D. Deming, head of the test department; William B. Hurlburt, Michigan distributor of the car; and Batchelor. Ads encouraged interested parties to write in for this booklet and, over the years, others similar to it, i.e., "Fourteen Unseen Things in the Wills Sainte Claire"; a book of complete mechanical details; and a second "Flight of the Gray Goose" booklet, L.B. Miller's travel diary of his 1926 transcontinental ride.

The emblem Wills chose for his company was the gray goose in flight. Known for its "embodiment of speed and endurance", Wills had over the years admired flocks of these geese, native to the St. Clair area, flying south for winter and back again in spring. The wild gray goose, "wisest, freest traveler of the skies" was shown in a round inset depicting a goose flying over pine trees framing a lake. The wild goose emblem appeared in printed literature and ad campaigns but it also found its way to the car's radiator badge, the spare tire cover, and on later models, the radiator cap. The 1922 Spring edition of Printer's Ink, a magazine devoted to those in the advertising business, related that many had questioned the use of the emblem as too far removed from the car itself. Their conclusion, however, was that even though an emblem substituting for the item advertised was a fairly new concept, the goose (in some ads larger than the car itself) "fittingly symbolize[d] Mr. Wills's distinguished achievement in motor car design and construction." With the 1924 model year and later some of the cars were named for the gray goose, as well—the Gray Goose Tourer and the Gray Goose Special (5-passenger touring cars), and the Gray Goose Traveler (4-door phaeton).

Not only did Wills use the ads to match the wild goose emblem with the notion of a speedy car, he also, during the second iteration of his company, called upon famous illustrators to bring the car to life. English author and illustrator George Harper wrote a number of self-illustrated travel books, exploring the English countryside. He also, however, drew for Paige, Cadillac, and Buick. His 1923 ad for Wills Sainte Claire depicted a woodland scene with two men in the front seat while in the back seat two women flanked a man in the center.

In 1925, a series of ads with vibrant yellow backgrounds appeared highlighting the new "6" in red among the flying geese. Some of those were drawn by famous illustrators and while some were signed, others were not. Illustrators Paul Ickes and Myron C. Perley were responsible for the signed ads and, likely, for the unsigned ones, too. The full-page ad campaign featured—and was meant to appeal to—women drivers. The ad copy for these ads was minimal, only a few sentences to express the car's appeal.

Ickes illustrated ads for Smith and Wesson as well as children's books. One of his Wills Sainte Claire ads featured a woman and young girl clad in fur-trimmed coats and colorful hats standing alongside the dark car. Seven geese and the red "6" flew above them. Ad copy read, "Italian in spirit, French in smartness, English in economy of fuel, American in price and power."

Myron C. Perley was enlisted for the same campaign. He had begun with poster art, later moving into advertising and becoming a leading advertisement designer. He had been in charge of the Sunday art department at American Lithograph Co. but joined the William H. Rankin ad firm of New York in 1918. Besides automotive ads for Pierce-Arrow, Willys-Overland Knight, Chalmers, and Stevens-Duryea, he drew for soap manufacturers, radio producers, tire companies, and many others. One of his "6" Wills Sainte Claire ads featured a woman in green cloche hat speaking through the window with a female friend wearing a blue coat and red hat. The car was a two-toned brown sedan with horizontal cream stripe, and the text read: "So impressively superior in stamina and style that first place in exclusive favor can be augured boldly and without reservation." Another Perley ad depicted a woman in wide-brimmed green hat and white gloves driving a blue sedan. This time there were nine geese overhead and copy promising that the car's positive attributes would become "more impressively obvious as the weeks go by."

Wills SainteClaire ad with geese.

Wills SainteClaire ad with geese.

Wills showed his car at a number of car shows, at least those in New York, Boston, Detroit, and St. Paul. But he didn't rely on shows alone to build demand, instead developing a network of distributors. Long-time auto dealer William E. "Billy" Metzger (who'd sold his first electric car in 1899 and who had produced his own marque—the Everitt) joined with W. B. Hurlburt (formerly of Hurlburt Motor Truck Co. and sales director at Maxwell) to represent the car in its home market of Detroit. Their colleagues said, "If they can't sell the car, no one can." Right away distributors were appointed in New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Thereafter some 4000 dealers applied for distribution rights in their territories. The territories could be specific to a city or quite expansive. W. H. Schmelzel for instance, covered Minnesota, Montana, the Dakotas, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Nebraska. One of the more novel approaches taken by any dealer occurred on Chicago's north side when J. N. Loot thought a perfect location for his showroom was across the street from a beach hotel. When there were no showrooms for rent in the area, he pitched a tent and outfitted it with lighting and wicker furniture. His sales record went through the roof.

Wills Sainte Claire temporary tent dealership.

Wills Sainte Claire temporary tent dealership.

International sales were also in the offing. In July 1921, A. E. Thompson of Windsor, Ontario got the first franchise to sell the Wills Sainte Claire in Canada. At the invitation of an English car maker, Wills went to England in May 1924 and took a 5-passenger sedan with him to demonstrate the strength of its steel. On that same trip he hoped to find a representative for the Wills Sainte Claire in England. Exports over the years were strongest in England, Holland, Germany, Belgium, and Spain.

Wills SainteClaire ad with geese.

Wills Sainte Claire in the Netherlands.

Another novelty of the time was the use of tie-in advertising. Climax Molybdenum and Athol, makers of convertible tops, depicted the Wills Sainte Claire in their print advertisements. Athol ad copy noted that "Only the finest products of the automotive and accessory fields may enter into the composition of such a car." In return, Wills Sainte Claire advertised its use of molybdenum steel and when Fisher Body Corp. began to place a small illustration of Napoleon's royal coach (an emblem still in use) on the right side of bodies they made, next to the hood, Wills Sainte Claire asked to have it placed instead on a more prominent position on the cowl. In 1926, Ireland and Matthews, makers of the Auto-Pulse fuel pump, claimed part of the glory for a transcontinental record set by a Wills Sainte Claire. Firestone did likewise, quoting the driver of that car as to the value of Firestone tires, and illustrating the ad with recognizable gray geese. Ads for Biflex Cushion Bumpers praised wills Sainte Claire and "other prominent makers" for using their bumpers to safeguard the car and driver, and ad copy for Philips Custom Body Co. said the company would rather build the Wills Sainte Claire cabriolet body than take on work for a greater number of cars: "At a time when exceptional talent is manifest in the creation of smart and rakish sport roadster bodies, this car stands out alone and is unparalleled in beauty of line and execution."

Breaking Records

From his early days with Ford Wills had learned the sales value of establishing race records and publicizing them. Soon after the cars began rolling off the assembly line, Wills chose one of them and, with friends aboard, set off on August 17, 1921, to prove the car's quality and durability. He made a record run from Detroit, through Canada to Niagara Falls, and on to New York City—689 miles in 20 hours, 26 minutes. He had one tire puncture and had to have the fuel lines cleaned after taking on some poor-quality gas but no mechanical adjustments were required. That might seem a long trip for such a small distance but roads were not the best at that time. Wills Sainte Claire of New York decided another test run wouldn't hurt and staged a run for Wills from New York to Boston and return. That trip took 11 hours, 47 minutes. Vice-president E. F. Miltenberger had plenty to say about the run, starting with an announcement that the New York Company had already sold out of some models and was taking advance orders. He continued in that vein, saying, "Such extraordinary achievements are not merely establishing records; they are demonstrating that for stamina, for endurance, for safety and ease of driving the Wills Sainte Claire is without precedent or parallel in motor transportation. These are concrete accomplishments of molybdenum steel and advanced engineering."

Louis B. Miller, a San Francisco auto accessories dealer, made several well-publicized test runs with his Wills Sainte Claire Six, the car he'd long sought, one with the power, comfort and durability to best the transcontinental driving record. The car was stock except for a 50-gallon auxiliary tank and spotlights. Setting out on July 4, 1925, from New York for San Francisco, he sent a telegram to Wills from Iowa: "The farther the car goes the better it gets." His driving companion was Mr. A. Hanson but L.B. drove all but 750 miles of the 3423 miles covered. Miller beat the record by 7 hours and 44 minutes, the lapsed time for the entire trip having been 102 hours and 45 minutes. Western Union checked the official time. A 1925 ad showed the map of the United States with geese flying around it: "The Most Remarkable Thing a Motor Car Has Ever Done" read the headline. He'd made the trip within a few hours of the fastest express train covering that route without a "single, solitary mechanical adjustment of any kind during the entire trip" and without adding any water to the radiator. In recognition of his achievement, Wills gave him a Wills Sainte Claire coupe. While Wills Sainte Claire cars came with an owner's manual that gave a lubrication chart and instructions for self-servicing at intervals of 200, 500, 1000, 2000 and 5000 miles, it's probably safe to say Miller ignored most of those intervals.

Miller accomplished a much shorter route—San Francisco to Portland, Oregon—in March 1926, breaking another speed record, this time in a Six Gray Goose Roadster. He had become Pacific Coast manager of Victor X-Ray Corporation and had received a telegram from a doctor that patients were waiting because his x-ray machine was on the blink. Miller decided that was reason enough for him to take the parts himself. Along with a repairman and Frank Fenton of Western Motors Co., Wills Sainte Claire distributor, he made it to Portland in 40 hours, 53 minutes.

A little more than a year later, Miller was ready to have a go at the transcontinental record again, this time in a stock T-6 roadster. On August 28, 1926, with Portland mechanic J. E. Wieber as his second, he bested his earlier record considerably, making the trip from San Francisco to New York in 83 hours and 12 minutes and crediting improved roads for the new record. He stopped for gas and oil and at intervals took time to eat a sandwich—but that was all. Averaging more than 40 mph, he broke the best train records by 10 hours. He had lost five pounds but when he reached New York City, he was welcomed warmly by the Wills Sainte Claire New York distributor and C. H. Wills. The Wills Sainte Claire had proven its mechanical superiority and its durability. While some other cars of the day literally fell apart when driven hard, this car came through time after time.

The Past Is Prologue

Wills made a fortune through hard work with Ford, then through shrewd investments in steel companies, and lastly with patents on his scientific discoveries. As he was developing the Marysville community and establishing his own marque, many marveled at his extensive wealth. When a reporter asked how it felt to be a multi-millionaire, Wills related this story. As a young man he'd heard a female friend call another man a genius for saving $10,000 in ten years. Wills met that mark. Then another of his friends said how wonderful it would be to have $100,000, a sum sure to produce an annual income of $6,000 a year. Again, Wills accomplished just that. The new goal became $500,000, then $1 million. And once he had his first million, Wills sat down to consider what it meant. He concluded that he "was in a few more clubs, [his] personal expenses were more, [he] had a few more luxuries—and a few more relatives." But he was no happier and couldn't work any harder or find more enjoyment in what he did. Nor was his future any brighter. It was then that it dawned on him what a fortune really meant. He learned that it gave him "a greater opportunity to serve the community and make life happier for other people by making it possible for them to achieve happiness through their own efforts."

Surely all his efforts weren't altruistic but he did set out to build a utopian community for his workers before he began producing Wills Sainte Claire. And at least a part of what drove him to revive his company after its first failure was bringing a better car to customers—to make their lives better.

While his reorganized company was not to make it through the recession of 1926, he accepted that as another twist of fate, later telling his sons, "That was yesterday"; no looking back. He recovered from that disappointment and went on to work at Chrysler, continuing to make cars better and better—just no longer under his name. Cars were clearly his passion, and he knew he was fortunate in making money at something he loved. As he'd said in 1924, "The automobile has put more money in people's pockets than it has taken out."

Down through the years drivers have continued to enjoy the cars he built on his own or in collaboration with others. As for the Wills Sainte Claire, there's now a Marysville museum devoted to Wills and his car so ahead of its time. Since 2002, volunteers have opened and staffed it. One day a month they display the museum's eight Wills Sainte Claires. They're also on the case when it comes to preserving information about the car. A few years back they purchased the largest known private collection of Wills Sainte Claire documents and artifacts and, just recently, have located an expert to begin processing the collection. That will take a little time, of course, but the expert's work added to that of owners and volunteers alike will continue to ensure more information about the cars comes to light. Once called "America's most loveable car", the Wills Sainte Claire has a very bright future.

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