January 29, 2023


Still car-crazy after all these years

Lil Willy Make It: Well, Will He?

One of the cars at the very muddy 1970 Detroit Dragway opener was this Willys two-door sedan. This is another car that I only saw once. After that crazy mud-fest, this colorful gasser disappeared; at least as far as I am concerned. That’s too bad because it looks like an old hot rodder’s dream.

Do you remember this Willys Sedan?

I’m hoping some of my readers can ID this car. It appears to be a well-built old-school gasser, but that is all I know about it.

I can’t tell what is under the hood, or what sort of induction system the Willys ran. The car appears to be a Willys two-door sedan. The four-door sedans had visible external hinges that don’t appear on this car.

Studying the photo, it is obvious that this is a well-engineered gasser. The green tint on the side windows indicates the factory side glass has been replaced by plexiglass or light-weight Lexan.

I don’t see any obvious gaps in the front fender and hood seams, which suggests the front of the car is a one-piece fiberglass clip.

Where does this Gasser Hail From?

The lettering on the doors indicates the driver is P.H.C. There is also an address on the hood: 1360 Alexis. There is no city listed, so that isn’t much help. I tried putting that address in map software for Detroit, but I came up empty.

The car might come from anywhere within a reasonable driving distance from Detroit Dragway. Since this was opening day, the owner(s) of the Willys might have been willing to tow a great distance to get back on the track after a long winter.

One small clue; the tow vehicle appears to be an International Harvester pickup. Not much help, but it does eliminate the mainstream Ford and Chevy trucks.

This Willys sedan marks the end of an era

In a way, this Willys symbolizes the end of the initial era of drag racing. Originally, hot rodders would comb junkyards looking for a suitable lightweight shell. Then they would add a big V-8, bolt in a stronger rear end, and fabricate some chassis stiffening.

That all changed in the ’70s. Manufacturers began offering kits that made it simple to upgrade late model muscle cars with new chassis and suspension components. In the past, rodders would use their own ingenuity and ideas to build a one-of-a-kind race car. As these kits proliferated, the staging lanes became filled with cookie-cutter pony cars with bolt-on subframes and wheel tubs. The colorful Bantams, Fiats, Anglias, and T-Buckets were replaced with Camaros, Mustangs and ‘Cudas. The Willys coupes and sedans, long a mainstay of the gasser classes, also fell victim to this trend.

Lil Willy Make It represents the end of an era in another way as well. In 1970, Detroit Dragway was still running class eliminations. Shortly afterward, the track and most of its competitors switched to regular bracket racing. Class eliminations were still maintained at national and regional events, but for week-to-week events, dial your own bracket racing became the only game in town.

There is no reason a Willys couldn’t be a competitive bracket racer, but as bracket racing became mainstream, the classic competition and modified cars fell out of favor.

Were you at Detroit Dragway in 1970?

I know it has been more than five decades since this Willys sedan pulled in the pits at Detroit Dragway, but I am hoping someone will remember this car. If that someone is you, let us know with a comment!

Tom Bonner