1931 Willys-Knight Model 87 Sedan - SOLD
  • Overview & History
  • Specifications
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It co-starred in the 1967 film “Bonnie and Clyde” starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.

One of the things that collector cars do better than almost anything else is provide a sense of history. Not only of the auto industry or the country, but of our culture. Styles, fads, technology, everything is reflected in our rolling stock. It also connects us to a period that many of us haven’t experienced directly but which seems idyllic from this side of the century mark. Cars ARE history, and it can be both intrinsic to the car itself and extrinsic to our society.

So what does all this have to do with this 1931 Willys-Knight sedan? Well, for starters, it co-starred in the 1967 film “Bonnie and Clyde” starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, in a role probably called “stolen car #1.” It was the first car they stole early in the movie, and we have documentation to prove it. For movie fans, this is a really neat piece of history from a film that was a pretty big deal when it was first released.

On the other hand, for scholars of the automobile, the Willys-Knight is a neat footnote in automotive technology, offering one of the very last versions of the Knight sleeve valve engine, an obsolete technology akin to the Betamax in the VHS vs. Beta war—arguably better, but mass adoption of its competition superseded it pretty quickly. You should take a few minutes to read up on the Knight sleeve valve engines, because it’s a really fascinating invention that’s impossible to describe but a glance at a picture makes it clear instantly.

At any rate, this Model 87 sedan was the mid-range Willys-Knight, perhaps akin to a Buick, and in the early 1930s, Willys automobiles were well-regarded as being carefully built and reliable. Following its appearance in the film, it was restored, probably in the early 1970s, and at that time it was given a color change from tan to brown with black fenders and jaunty yellow wire wheels. Even after nearly 40 years, the finish is holding up remarkably well with only minor signs of age and use, mostly because it was a part of a large collection for most of that time and enjoyed preferred status due to its movie background. The bodywork is in excellent order with four doors that close easily with a precise sound and a hood that opens and closes without a lot of wrestling or drama. Clean masking highlights the black beltline trim and window surrounds, which are further accentuated with a contrasting yellow pinstripe that makes the car look long and impressive. The chrome is in good condition, likely restored at the same time, and we especially like the oversized tubular bumpers that give the car a very substantial look. Cosmetic demerits are few: one of the front bumper brackets was missing and a replacement was fabricated, the running board rubber is probably original and starting to degrade, and, well, that’s about it. If you want to pick nits, the top is a little lumpy, but none of these things require immediate attention and do not detract from the car’s overall presentation. Just don’t go thinking it’s a show car and you’ll be fine.

Inside, it’s a mixture of original and restored pieces. We strongly suspect that the front seat has been reupholstered in a period-correct gray/green mohair while the striped upholstery in back is quite possibly original. The door panels may also be original or they were re-created in the ‘70s, but it’s hard to be sure and would probably take the confirmation of a Willys-Knight expert. To our eyes, they look appropriate and are still in good condition. The front seat floor area is covered with a very crudely cut rubber mat that looks like it was made from a door mat and that could definitely stand to be replaced with proper carpets as a middle-market car like this would likely have used when it was new. The gauges are all housed in a woodgrained panel in the center of the dash, and aside from the fuel gauge, they’re all fully functional (the sending unit for the fuel gauge is in the trunk). The row of knobs along the top of the dash are for the choke, throttle, headlights, and spark advance, and the key is on the far right. The toggle switch to the left of the steering column is for the unusual roof-mounted spotlight. We puzzled over how to start the car for quite a while, pushing and pulling everything in sight until we landed on the horn button, which you pull to engage the starter. In the back seat area, there are numerous storage pouches as well as delicate silk shades for the three rearmost windows, offering a modicum of privacy for rear seat occupants. The rear-mounted trunk is in great condition and is an interesting green color that actually works rather well with the brown bodywork and inside you’ll find the original vacuum tank and aforementioned fuel gauge sending unit, as well as an ancient fitted cover that’s probably too far gone to be reused.

Willys used a 178 cubic inch inline-six with the Knight sleeve valve mechanism, and for those familiar with these engines, it should be no surprise that it’s a bit of an over-achiever. We’re guessing that this one has never been apart and externally offers no surprises for the experience hobbyist. The big box on the passenger’s side exhaust manifolds is a heater unit, there’s a bypass oil filter canister mounted up high, and the original vacuum tank has been replaced by a modern 6-volt fuel pump with regulator. We’re not quite sure what the big canister on the driver’s side might be (perhaps an oil cooler?), but everything appears to be intact from the carburetor to the generator to the distributor. With a little choke and a little coaxing, it starts and runs, although due to long-term storage we haven’t explored the outer reaches of its performance envelope. The sleeve valve mechanism will sound a little unusual to those more familiar with poppet valves, but the engine makes good oil pressure even at idle and moves the car around easily. All the fluids have been recently replaced, the radiator was cleaned, and the carburetor was adjusted, but the dedicated ministrations of a hobbyist experienced with these cars would probably enjoy fine-tuning it.

The transmission is a standard 3-speed manual driving a set of 4.89 gears out back, so it’s probably happiest at 40-45 MPH. The suspension rides like most cars of the day and it is in good order underneath with no signs of accident repairs or major rust issues, although there’s some light surface scale on the heavy iron parts. An older exhaust system sounds good and yes, as with all sleeve valve engines, it’s a bit smoky. It offers 4-wheel mechanical brakes and relatively light steering, making it easy to maneuver even in tight areas and the Goodyear whitewall tires are both old and brand new, probably installed in the 1970s but showing so few miles that even the casting flash is still visible on the treads.

The car comes with a binder full of documentation and photos from the “Bonnie and Clyde” film, restoration receipts, and other interesting tidbits that help track its history. You can also look it up on the internet, where it’s been a known quantity for many years. This is not a perfect car, but it’s ideal for the guy who likes unique, interesting machinery and the price is certainly right. Give it a little TLC and go out and tell people all about its history, a story everyone seems to love to hear.

Vehicle: 1931 Willys-Knight Model 87 Sedan
Price: SOLD
Stock Number: 112027
Mileage: 58,595
VIN: 4364
Engine: 177.9 cubic inch inline-6
Transmission: 3-speed manual
Gear Ratio: 4.8899999999999997
Wheelbase: 112.5 inches
Wheels: 19-inch wire spoke wheels
Tires: 5.00-19 Goodyear whitewall
Exterior Color: Brown
Interior Color: Gray mohair
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