Wills Sainte Claire - 10 Years Ahead Of Its Time

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Wills Sainte Claire

Wills Sainte Claire

 1919 - 1927

Childe Harold Wills

C. Harold Wills was one of the most significant figures in the history of the American motor industry: in the early years of last century he was the catalyst who helped turn Henry Ford's ideas into reality. And though he had helped create a revolution in popular transport, it was a precisely engineered luxury automobile that he created as a manufacturer.

Born in 1878, Wills was the son of a Welsh immigrant, a master-machinist who nurtured a passion for the works of Byron, and named his son Childe Harold. All his life Wills tried - unsuccessfully - to hide his first name, and signed himself as C. Harold, or C. H. Wills. Wills, whose boyhood ambition had been to become a machine draughtsman and designer, was trained by his father before signing on for a four years apprenticeship with the Detroit Lubricating Company at the age of seventeen.

Four years later he joined another machine-shop, studying chemistry, engineering and metallurgy at night. He was anxious to progress from theoretical design to practical experience. His opportunity came early in 1902, when his friend Henry Ford (whom he had known since the end of 1900) asked him to come and help him with the development of two racing cars which Ford was building in order to create - hopefully - sufficient attention to attract backers for the car company which Ford was attempting to start.

Ford could not hope to match the salary which Wills was receiving as a draughtsman with the Boyer Machine Company: so Wills took on the Ford job in addition to his fulltime employment. Like Ford, Wills had a seemingly inexhaustible capacity for work, and would happily labour all day and well into the night with little more than a sandwich and a glass of milk at noon to sustain him through the long hours.

Tall, proud and self-confident, good-looking apart from ears which were somewhat too prominent, Wills was a dynamic personality capable of lightning decisions, with a strong persuasive ability: 'He could convince you black was white,' commented a friend. He and Ford were a perfect match: Wills was a natural draughtsman, with the ability to see and correct problems at the drawing board stage, and would become America's greatest practical metallurgist, while Ford had an intuitive sense of design and a consuming vision of the need for a popular car.

If it's in a book, it's at least four years old and I don't have any use for it

Both men had an intensely practical approach to automobile engineering, no bad thing at that early stage of the art, when trial and error was often the best way to solve a problem; Wills kept his distrust of textbooks throughout his career. 'If it's in a book, it's at least four years old and I don't have any use for it,' he would tell his friends. As the racing cars, Arrow and 999, progressed, so his 'part-time' job with the struggling Henry Ford Company occupied more and more of Wills' waking hours; he and Ford would work far into the night in Ford's tiny, unheated first-floor 'factory'. And when the early spring chill became too unbearable, and their numbed fingers could no longer grasp a pencil or a spanner, Wills and Ford would put on boxing gloves and knock the hell out of each other until their circulation was restored.

Henry Ford poses with the legendary 999 racer
Henry Ford poses with the legendary 999 racer.

1922 Wills Sainte Claire A68 Roadster
1922 Wills Sainte Claire A68 Roadster. It was powered by an eight cylinder producing 65 bhp. The price, when new, was $2475.

1925 Wills Sainte Claire Six Roadster
1925 Wills Sainte Claire Six Roadster.

1925 Wills Sainte Claire Six Roadster
1925 Wills Sainte Claire Six Roadster.

1925 Wills Sainte Claire Six 5 Passenger Traveller
1925 Wills Sainte Claire Six 5 Passenger Traveller.
By the autumn of 1902 Wills was working full-time for Ford, and the racing cars proved so successful, especially when driven by the cigar-chomping Barney Oldfield, that Ford began to attract the kind of financial backing he had been seeking. 'Mr Ford's. name has hitherto been connected with his fast-speed freaks,' reported the Detroit Journal, 'but he is preparing to put a "family horse" on the market. He has it practically completed, and in connection with a well-known Detroit business man is now looking for a suitable location for a factory. Mr Ford believes that he will be in readiness to supply the market with a commercial article by next spring.'

By now Ford had broken away from the unsuccessful Henry Ford Company (which changed its name and became Cadiliac) and set up in partnership with a coal merchant named Alexander Malcomson, an association which would result in the formation of the Ford Motor Company on 16 June, 1903. Wills was appointed principal shop assistant of the new venture, and he and Ford began hiring their labour force, one of whom, a young Canadian named Fred Seeman, would later recall: 'I think Mr Wills and Mr Ford got along about as well as any engineering couple I've run across in my life, and I've run across a lot of them.'

Wills, it seems, was a more flamboyant character than Ford and, as he prospered, developed a taste for fine jewels, which he would carry around in his pocket. He had the creative man's dislike for the petty regulations which governed factory life: yet once work got under way in the Ford shop, Wills was the most industrious of all, driving his men so hard that they thought this genial giant, who liked to relax at wild parties among the bright lights, was surly and hard to get along with.

The Ford Family Horse

Work started on the new Ford 'family horse' in October 1902: shortly before Christmas it was completed. Though it worked fairly well, Ford and Wills were not satisfied, and began work on a second design; just as well, for sometime in May 1903, Wills crashed the prototype coming down Mack Avenue in Detroit, and managed to write it off completely.

The general outline conception of the car seems to have been Ford's: but Wills was the man who turned that dream and all its fuzzy edges into reality, and produced the finished design and production plans. And that first Model A proved to be a worthy foundation for the Ford Motor Company which, after some initial financial cliff-hanging, was soon established as America's leading car producer.

When the infant company was looking for some kind of distinctive corporate symbol, the multi-talented Wills was equal to the occasion. Rummaging around in his attic at home, he retrieved a little printing set which he had used to make pocket money when he was 15 or 16, printing visiting cards. Using the flowing typescript of the printing set as a basis, Wills designed the familiar 'Ford' lettering which is still used to identify the company.

Vanadium Steel

Wills's skills as a metallurgist were to have long-lasting effects too: he was the moving spirit behind the Ford Company's adoption of vanadium steel, which rendered their cars tougher than anything the opposition had to offer. When it came to developing the Model T, Wills was responsible, in conjunction with a young draughtsman named Joseph Galamb, for turning Ford's ideas into a workable vehicle; it was he, apparently, who conceived the Model T's planetary pedal-operated transmission.

But, unlike Henry Ford, Wills was not convinced that the Model T was the ultimate automobile, and, sometime around 1911-1912, when Henry was away in Europe, Wills began work on a successor to Tin Lizzie. He made the fatal mistake of ordering suppliers to tool up for production of the new model, which was longer, lower and sleeker than Model T, without consulting Ford, who, on his return, smashed up the prototype and cancelled the orders.

But Wills remained a prime mover in the Ford Motor Company. He had no specific title - Henry Ford did not like his lieutenants to have their duties indicated too precisely, but encouraged them to create their own sphere of activity - but was the only man to receive a portion of Henry Ford's personal dividend. The relationship between the two men was, nevertheless, cooling: since, perhaps 1908, tension could occasionally be observed in their dealings, a tension doubtless heightened by the episode of the unauthorised new model.

Ten Years Ahead of its Time

Ford wanted his Model T to remain inviolate for all time, save for the odd up-dating (though all new or redeveloped components were to be interchangeable with the old); Wills was anxious for change and progress. He yearned to produce an entirely better-engineered automobile. The final break came on 15 March, 1919, when Wills walked out of the Ford factory, with a severance payment of $1,592,128. A few days later, John R. Lee, Ford's labour relations expert, also resigned, and he and Wills soon joined forces in a new motor manufacturing company, which was to build a car 'ten years ahead of its time'.

They bought 4400 acres at Marysville, Michigan, near the picturesque Lake Sainte Claire, and Wills built a model industrial community - he shared similar views on the welfare of his workers to his erstwhile employer Henry Ford - and once again, thrust himself wholeheartedly into his work, only taking brief respites for fishing, hunting or yachting interludes.

The Wills Sainte Claire

He used all his skills in metallurgy in developing a new car, as different in concept from the utilitarian Model T as it was possible to imagine, and named it the Wills Sainte Claire. It was the first car to use molybdenum steel in its construction, and the connecting rods were made from aluminum. In its engineering, it reflected the latest European thinking, and particularly the work of Marc Birkigt as epitomised in the Hispano-Suiza aero-engine which had, among others, powered the SPAD biplanes of the Escadrille Lafayette.

The power unit of the Wills Sainte Claire, which made its debut in 1921, was a 60 degree V8, with a single overhead camshaft for each bank of cylinders. Swept volume was 4343 cc, though the power output was a surprisingly modest 65 bhp. The engine bristled with refinements: its massive crankshaft ran on seven main bearings, and drove the single vertical king-shaft which controlled the overhead camshafts and the cooling fan (which had an automatic clutch which disengaged it at speeds over 40 mph, when it was not needed)

The Michigan Grey Goose

There was a choice of two wheelbases at first, though by 1924 only the longer (127 in) was available. On its radiator, the Wills Sainte Claire proudly bore the image of a Michigan Grey Goose flying over a lake and pine trees (some said that the bird had been chosen as a subtle homage to Birkigt, and the cars were named Gray Goose, too.

Though its engineering was so sophisticated, the Wills Sainte Claire fell down badly in the styling department; maybe all those years working on the utilitarian Model T had dulled Wills' critical faculties, but the Grey Geese were really ugly ducklings whose somewhat ponderous lines were not enhanced, at least by the fashion trends of the time, by the use of massive and clumsy disc wheels with protuberant hubs (judged today we believe most would claim the disc wheels to be far better than the spoked variety).

One ingenious touch featured on some Grey Goose models was a 'courtesy light', a small spotlight fitted in the scuttle on the left side of the body and aimed backwards to cast a pool of light in the area of the rear wheel and thus enable oncoming drivers to gauge the width of the Wills Sainte Claire. Priced at only $2475 in two-seater form, the Wills Sainte Claire Gray Goose Traveler represented excellent value for money, and the 1923 sales figures of 1500 units must have seemed encouraging: that was, however, the marque's high spot, and thereafter the factory's output tailed off slowly but surely .

New York to San Francisco in 83 Hours

A new model was announced in 1925 as a replacement for the V8; this had an OHC straight-six engine of, again, around 4.5 liters. Like its predecessor, this new Wills Sainte Claire was capable of reaching around 75 mph, despite a weight of 30 cwt, even in two-seater form, and several record cross-country runs were recorded, culminating in a coast-to coast dash from New York to San Francisco in 83 hours 12 minutes in 1926. But the change of model failed to avert the inevitable, and the Wills Sainte Claire was just too good for the market: maintenance was difficult and expensive, for few mechanics understood how to repair such a car. So in 1927 the Wills Sainte Claire died, though Childe Harold Wills himself lived on until 1940. It does bring to question whether the V8 configuration in the Wills Sainte Claire had any bearing in Henry Ford's decision to launch a V8 Ford in 1932 - what do you think?
C. Harold Wills and Henry Ford were involved in the building of the Arrow and 999 racing cars
C. Harold Wills and Henry Ford were involved in the building of the Arrow and 999 racing cars.
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