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I spotted a curious sight during a recent stroll through the Henry Ford museum in Dearborn. There among the locomotives, historic airplanes and exotic antique cars, I spotted a powder-blue Willys Coupe.
This wasn’t just any Willys. The chopped top, fat tires and a fiberglass front clip identified the car as a Willys gasser. But this wasn’t just any Willys gasser. Even from a distance the unmistakable shape of the hood scoop told me this was Ohio George Montgomery’s nationals dominating ’33 Willys.
Historic Willys on display at the Henry Ford
How did a historic drag racing machine wind up in the Henry Ford? When I grew up nearby, the place was known as the Henry Ford Museum, and famous gas coupes did not appear among the huge array of vehicles assembled inside.
I’m not sure how long Montgomery’s Willys has been on display at the Henry Ford. What I do know is this little Willys owned the US Nationals like few other vehicles, capturing its eliminator three times, and winning its class at the nationals eight times.
This coupe dominated the US Nationals
Montgomery struck first at Detroit, winning Little Eliminator at the 1959 NHRA Nationals, held at Detroit Dragway. The Nationals returned to Detroit in 1960, and Montgomery captured his second Nationals crown with the Willys.
In 1961, the Nationals moved to Indianapolis. The move had little effect on the Willys, as Montgomery romped home the winner once again.
Besides his uncanny ability to find the winners circle at the Nationals, Montgomery proved his tuning skills by winning titles with three different engines. At Detroit, Montgomery ran a blown Cadillac under the hood of the Willys. Eventually the Caddy mill was replaced with a small-block Chevrolet, which was punched out to 389 cubic inches.
Montgomery won with Cadillac, Chevrolet and Ford power
Ford Motor Company was watching Montgomery as he racked up wins at the nationals, and offered him a Ford SOHC engine. Somehow Montgomery was able to shoe-horn the massive Ford Cammer inside the engine compartment of the Willys. The result: yet another victory at the US Nationals.
The coupe might have continued its winning ways, but Ford wanted more. It wasn’t enough for Montgomery to win with a Ford engine; they thought it would be even more impressive if Montgomery was winning with a Ford body as well.
Obligingly, Montgomery set the Willys aside and built a fantastic Mustang gasser. Although Ohio George continued to win with the Mustang, I never really cared for the car, or any gasser based on a modern body-style.
To me, gassers should be older coupes and sedans like Anglias, Henry Js, forties-era Fords and GM cars from the ’30s. And of course the ultimate gassers were Willys coupes from the ’30s and ’40s.
Drag racing history, available to the public
I am really glad I had a chance to see the Willys at the Henry Ford. It’s nice to know that cars from the drag racing’s formative years are still around to be seen by the public. Don’t miss the photo gallery below.
Official Ohio George Montgomery Website