In this issue we explore Bob and Sharron Letson's 1940 Willy's Coupe. Current residents of Tehachapi and members of the Tehachapi Car Club and Thunder On The Mountain Car Show Committee, you have no doubt seen this stunningly beautiful car at many of the local car shows. It was also featured on the back of the 2009 Thunder On The Mountain Car Show tee shirts.
According to the 1940 US census, one out of five Americans owned a car, one in seven had a telephone and only fifteen percent of the college-age population attended college. Other statistics revealed that only 75% of American households had a refrigerator or ice box, 60% lacked central heat and three out of four farmhouses were lit with kerosene lamps.
Beginning in 1935 the business coupe was introduced to the American public, typically having a bench seat in front, a small seat in the back and a large, oversized trunk. This was the beginning era of the “Traveling Salesman”, the car interior set up for one or two people in front and the small back seat mostly used for sample cases and inventory. The large, oversized trunk could hold quite a bit of sales inventory allowing the salesman to stay on the road longer before having to return to pick up more. This was the era of door to door sales, the Fuller Brush Man, Hoover vacuums, encyclopedia's, and anything else the American public may want or need, delivered right to their door.
The 1940 Willys was designated the Series 440. It was powered by a 61 BHP L-head four cylinder engine which displaced 134 cubic inches. The car was built in Toledo, Ohio, Joseph Frazer was the president and general manager of Willys at this time, having left Chrysler Corp in 1939. The chassis was on 102” wheelbase. Five body styles were available, ranging in price from $529.00 to $830.00. The 1940 coupe, weighted at either 2146 lbs or 2190 lbs, was priced at $529.00 or $641.00. Production ran nearly 27,000.
Considered one of the ugliest little cars when new, the 1940 Willys earned great respect and following in the late 50’s and early 60’s as the horsepower wars began to escalate and drag racers started looking for the smallest and lightest bodied cars to put their engines into.
Production of the Willys was cut short in 1942 when Willys began building Jeeps for the war effort and didn't resume until 1952 when the Aero was introduced. The Jeep was designed around 1937 and went into production in 1942 for the war effort and the production of Willys auto's all but stopped due to metal shortages.