Indeed, the Whippet was small, said to be America's smallest car,
having a wheelbase of only 2546 mm (100.12 in.), and a 30
horsepower four-cylinder side-valve engine with just 2.1 litres
(130 cu in.) of displacement. But the swiftness would be achieved
more by the six cylinder Whippet introduced early in 1927.
One of the sixes was taken to
the Indianapolis Motor Speedway where it averaged 91 km/h (56.52
mph) during a 24-hour endurance run, establishing a new American
record for cars costing under $1,000. It was advertised as "the
world's lowest-priced six."
The Whippet got off to a good
start selling 110,000 cars during its first year. Continued
success helped pull the Willys-Overland company into third place
in sales in 1928 behind Ford and Chevrolet. And it was a pioneer
in the popular priced field by offering a convertible with wind-up
windows as early as 1927, although Ford had produced its soft top
Model T Coupelet model with lift-up windows beginning in 1915.
Willys-Overland was one of
the first manufacturers to recognize the importance of exporting.
By the early teens the company that traced its beginnings back to
the first Overland in 1903, was selling cars in some 37 countries.
It also built cars in Canada.
Willys-Overland took over the
old Russell plant in Toronto after the Russell Motor Car Co. went
out of the car business in 1915. Willys built cars there from 1916
to 1933, with a brief interruption during World War I to make
The Canadian Willys-Overland
plant produced Whippets, and only the Canadian plant could build
both left-and right-hand models, probably because of its
relatively small production rate. The Toronto factory built the
right-hand drive Whippets for export to countries such as
Australia and New Zealand where vehicles were driven on the left
side of the road.
In this era of "smart
switches" and powered push-buttons, we tend to think we have the
latest in gizmos, but the Whippet had a pretty slick gadget, too.
It was called "finger tip control," a button in the centre of the
steering wheel that not only sounded the horn when pressed, but
also switched on the lights when it was turned clockwise - parking
first, then headlamps - and activated the starter when it was
Unfortunately, all of the
wiring connections for this magic button were located at the
bottom of the steering column under the carburetor where it wasn't
shielded from dripping gasoline. The result was numerous fires and
frequent re-wirings. Needless to say, right-hand drive Whippets
didn't suffer the same fate.
The Whippet had a rear fuel
gauge located on the left end of the gasoline tank, a not uncommon
feature of that era. It also had four-wheel mechanical brakes,
although it appears that the company didn't quite finish
engineering the system; some had external contracting bands on the
rear wheels and internal expanding ones at the front.
Although Willys-Overland did
very well with the Whippet, selling 315,000 in 1928 and 242,000 in
1929, it, like many others, suffered badly with the 1929 stock
market crash and ensuing Depression. The company shifted its
emphasis to one model in the lower priced field, the Willys 77,
really a reworked Whippet, and discontinued the Whippet name early
The parent company in Toledo
was in deep financial trouble and the Toronto operation ceased
production of Willys cars, including the very quiet running
sleeve-valve Knight-engined Willys-Knight, in 1933.
The U.S. operation would
later be revived and would go on to gain fame by building hundreds
of thousands of Jeeps during World War II, and then successfully
converting this sturdy military general purpose vehicle to
civilian use. The Jeep was the product that would enable the
company to survive; it was taken over by Kaiser in 1953, followed
by American Motors in 1970, and most recently by Chrysler in 1987.
The Whippet had come on the
automotive scene quickly, had sold well for a short time, and had
disappeared just as quickly. It is still remembered by many
people, however, as the car whose name was inspired by a dog.