Jay Leno’s car collection includes plenty of classic vehicles. Some are relatively well-known, like his vintage Ford Bronco. Others, like his Light Car Company Rocket and Citroen Traction Avant, decidedly less so. And the restoration work on one of these obscure cars has finally finished. You’ve likely never heard of a Willis Sainte Claire, but as Jay Leno explains, its creator was in many ways an American automotive pioneer.
How the Ford Model T led to the Wills Sainte Claire
The story of the Wills Sainte Claire starts with the Ford Model T. It wasn’t the first American car, but it was the first affordable American car. And its main designer, the Henry Ford Museum explains, was one C. Harold Wills.
Childe Harold Wills was one of Henry Ford’s first employees, PistonHeads reports. Along with 2 Ford engineers, József Galamb and Eugene Farkas, he helped Ford adopt the lightweight, corrosion-resistant, and strong vanadium steel design for the Model T. At the time, only high-end French luxury marques like Bugatti used it, Hemmings reports. Wills also designed the Model T’s transmission, parts of its suspension and engine, and the original Ford Blue Oval logo, Road & Track reports.
However, by 1919, Wills thought the Model T was in desperate need of an update. And when Henry Ford disagreed, Wills left with a hefty severance and started the Wills Sainte Claire Company. And in 1921, the first Wills Sainte Claire roadster rolled out of the Michigan factory.
The Wills Sainte Claire cars are fairly advanced for their time, SecondChanceGarage, and Driving.ca report. Instead of vanadium steel, they’re made of molybdenum steel, the kind used to make WWI-era tanks, helmets, and aircraft engines. Speaking of aircraft, the Wills Sainte Claire’s 67-hp 4.3-liter V8 engine is inspired by Hispano-Suiza airplane engines, RM Sotheby’s and Hagerty report. It has modern-esque overhead camshafts, but instead of timing belts or chains, it has long-lived bevel gears.
The Wills Sainte Claire was also the first American car with a reversing light. It also had a side-mounted light to help drivers gauge how close they were to curbs. Plus, it featured a modern-style radiator with a cooling fan and overflow condenser tank, and even high- and low-beam headlights.
Jay Leno’s drive in the 1922 Wills Sainte Claire has been a long time coming
The Wills Sainte Claire in Jay Leno’s garage is a 1922 model; it’s so early in production, it only has brakes in the rear, The Drive reports. He’s been restoring it for over 2 years—but the car itself has sat mobile for far longer than that.
When Jay Leno found this 1922 Wills Sainte Claire, it had been in a shipping container in the desert for decades. Molybdenum steel may be tough, but it can’t quite withstand rodent urine and baking heat for that long. Neither can leather. However, after going through the engine, radiator, body, chassis, and interior, the roadster is finally back up and running. Jay Leno even 3D-printed new tools to fit in the tool compartment.
Although the Wills Sainte Claire is the Ford Model T’s contemporary, it feels significantly more modern behind the wheel. The V8 has 3 times the power of the Model T and pre-dates Ford’s own V8. It has windshield wipers, dual spotlights, an interior light, even a clock. It also runs fairly cool—the radiator never really gets hot enough to burn your hand. Though Jay Leno admits having 4-wheel brakes would make an improvement.
These cars are rare—and they were never cheap
Unfortunately, all this technology and durable design didn’t come cheap. A Wills Sainte Claire cost more than 4 times as much as the Model T. You could’ve bought 2 houses for the price of one, The Drive reports. Plus, not only was the V8 hard to service, but Wills also helped provide housing, healthcare, and holiday presents for his work-force.
As a result, the company folded in 1927 after selling roughly 12,000 cars. It’s estimated that fewer than 80 survive today. But despite their rarity, they’re not as expensive as you might think. True, several Bonhams’ auctioned pristine, low-mileage examples sold for about $150,000. However, RM Sotheby’s has sold several in the past for $40,000-$70,000. Duesenbergs are significantly more expensive.
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