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The Wills Sainte Claire – “The All Mo-lyb-den-um Car”

In 1919, Childe Harold Wills, metallurgist and chief engineer for Henry Ford’s first car, walked away with a reported $1.5 million settlement from Ford and $4 million he made in other investments, and set out to build a car of his own. It would be a luxurious and mechanically advanced machine, the opposite of the trusty but simple Model “T”. Wills used the relatively new alloy of molybdenum steel on almost every component of the car that would be stressed with the goal of producing an automobile of unequaled durability. To help the public understand the virtues of this new metal and also pronounce it, it was spelled out phonetically in advertisements the way it appears in our title.

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  • Mechanical details from “Automotive Industries” of November 10, 1921

The Model A-68 went on sale in the spring of 1921. Its revolutionary SOHC engine was one of just two in a U.S. production car at the time that we know of and the only V-8, the other being the six cylinder Leach. The Sainte Claire powerplant was a 60 degree, 265 cubic inch affair with integral heads that developed 67 horsepower. Cam drive was by spiral bevel gear and shaft, as seen in the center photo above. Good as the car was, Wills’ relentless perfectionism was problematic. The original target price of $2,000 was exceeded by fifty percent. The first year break even production goal of fifteen hundred units was never achieved, and the company entered receivership in 1922.

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  • An early twenties Wills Sainte Claire Roadster photo courtesy of Shorpy

New financing allowed the development of a new 273 cubic inch inline six cylinder engine with a forged seven main bearing crankshaft and a removable head. Louis B. Miller and J.E. Wieber would set a coast-to-coast record time of 102 hours and 45 minutes in the new car in 1925 only to lose it to Ab Jenkins in a Studebaker in 1926. They would retake the title later that year by a margin of just over 3 hours, but such performances were not enough to make the car a financial success. The company did not survive the recession of 1926 and was forced into liquidation the following year.

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  •      The SOHC V-8 first used in 1921 and the SOHC-six introduced in 1925

12 responses to “The Wills Sainte Claire – “The All Mo-lyb-den-um Car”

  1. Many years ago I lived in Marysville Michigan a stone’s throw from the WSC factory site. It was closed down and aquired by Chrysler. A local told me me that during WWII, Chrysler was making small motor boat engines for the US Navy there. It is currently the site of the WSC museum. If you happen to be in michigan and visit the Henry Ford, it’s about 40 minutes away on I94 east.

    • Actually, the Wills Sainte Claire factory was purchased by Chrysler and is still being used by them for the Mopar. The Wills Museum was a building used by Dow Chemical to test munitions during World War II.

  2. Fascinating piece on a relatively unknown make of car. I was not aware of a SOHC American automotive V8 engine at this early date. Do you think that this was the first such an engine?

  3. David,

    Wills was in charge of Liberty aircraft engine production at Ford, so he would have seen all of the WWI aircraft engine designs. The Liberty was SOHC with rockers similar to the 1914 Mercedes GP engine which they happened to have in the garage. The Wills SOHC V-8 looks very similar to the 1914 Hispano-Suiza V-8, shaft drive, direct cam action. I can’t tell from the drawing if he copied the Birkigt valve clearance adjusters which are very unique.

  4. Sometime in the 70’s I found a cache of antique cars about 30 miles from my home in Bismarck, ND. There were the remnants of a 1921 Wills Sainte Claire sedan. The all aluminum body was just a shell, but the running gear was all there. The mostly complete engine was missing the cam covers, exposing the bevel drive gears. The owner told me that he had contacted some WSC group and was told that there were less than 10 of these V8 cars in existence. Among the cars there was a huge 1932 Nash sedan with a dual ignition straight-8 engine. This car was in excellent condition (at the time) and even had the luggage trunk mounted on the back. Other cars were a 1926 Chrysler, 1934 Oldsmobile, and several Model T’s and A’s. The owner would not part with any of the cars, as he was “going to restore them.” I checked back several times over the next few years and watched the cars deteriorate badly due to exposure. The guy still wouldn’t sell any of them so I just gave up. Hopefully, they did not go to the crusher.

  5. Almost every ‘burg or city has some car hoarder/recluse type who never sell the things
    for one senile reason or other and they all just eventually rot away and there isn’t a thing you can do about it except watch it happen

  6. Overhead cams were not too revolutionary in American production
    autos. Before the teens, Matheson ,Welch, International Harvester,
    Jackson and I would bet others, had them Jackson even did well (until
    it retired) at The Indy 500. American Racing cars were copying the
    successful French Indy winners with overhead cams. In 1916 Chalmers
    produced a medium priced 6. In 1917 Fageol put a 125HP Hall-Scott
    OHC motor in their $9,500 chassis offering. They were also used in
    their buses. So by the twenties, overhead cams had at least narrow
    use in stationary engines, aviation, race cars, buses, boats, and
    numerous production autos. I was told that Morse had them in 1903,
    and that Tincher may have used them in their 90 HP. I’d like to be
    better informed on these two cars.

  7. I was sitting at the bar of a hotel in downtown Charleston, SC this evening and struck up a conversation with this gentleman with the Michigander accent. Turns out his name is Dan Wills and C. H. WIlls was his Grandfather! I did not know the make, but Mr. Wills was extraordinarily knowledgable and interesting to learn from. He mentioned striking up a friendship with Bill Harrah who owned a number of Wills cars. Sadly, Mr. Wills was not the owner of a Wills Sainte Claire Automobile.

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