The popularity of the 1933 Willys 77 as a gasser within drag racing is a well-documented phenomenon. We say “phenomenon” because for a vehicle that showed such dominance, it was exceptionally rare. When the model went into production during the Great Depression, the company, Willys-Overland Motors, was in receivership. Times were hard for both consumers and suppliers and the first few rounds of Willys put up some pretty unimpressive production numbers.
Now obviously, low production = rare. And rarity = increased interest. But rarity also drives up selling prices, something that doesn’t generally appeal to resourceful and penny-pinching hot rodders building on a budget.
A Perfect Storm
So, what drew these speed enthusiasts to the platform? Well, a few things. While they certainly weren’t plentiful, they were cheap. The 1933 Willys 77 sold for less than $500 when it was first released. While that was still a decent chunk of change for a Depression-era car buyer, it made it the cheapest American car on the market at the time. Fast forward to the late ‘50s when the Gasser Wars took off, and these babies were already showing their age and lack of modern car tech. Many were wallowing in junkyards—the prime scouting location for hungry hot rodders.
But drag racers need more than just a cheap, easily-modified base and luckily the Willys 77 stood ready to deliver. The compact design resulted in a platform set up for a front-mounted engine and rear wheel drive. But the real bonus? The Willys 77 only weighed in at roughly 2,000-lbs, making it expressly well-suited for the sport. Additionally, the car was capable of over 25 mpg and could reach speeds over 65 mph in stock form.
A Rising Trend
With that kind of potential, why go for a gasser? The trend started mid-century when Americans were running the quarter mile in just about anything they could get their hands on. Desired gasser platforms were usually closed-body production cars running from the 1930s through the ‘60s that could be stripped of anything deemed unessential and then jacked up to improve the low weight distribution.
With such a lightweight platform like the Willys 77, it’s easy to see how with some clever tuning and little investment these cars could absolutely dominate in a race. A big block, high-powered engine wasn’t necessary to move this model through the quarter mile like a mini-rocket. And besides, that signature ‘30s styling perched up on a gasser chassis made for a particularly menacing look that fit the sport perfectly.
But what about parts? With such low production numbers it’s safe to assume that even in the ‘50s and ’60s, parts for the Willys 77 were hard to come by. Even with today’s booming aftermarket, enthusiasts who still race these beauties have to get creative. During the rise of gasser racing, most hot rodders were fabricating their own parts—and many do the same thing today.
An Enduring Sport
Quain Stott is a retired world champion Pro Modified racer and current founder of the South Eastern Gasser Association, a nostalgia-themed racing association. He spends the majority of his time building period-correct gassers sticking to the tips, tricks, and build-recipes used by early pioneers of the sport.
The owner of a home-built Willys gasser named The Grand Illusion, Stott fabricated many of the parts himself. Built on a 1941 Willys coupe platform, Stott’s gasser is powered by a 1965 Chevy 331 using a Hightower four-speed transmission that sends power out to a Ford 9-inch rear end.
That’s right, no 454, no five-speed trans, or any other brands or components you would find under a car built today. The engines Stott employs are fitted with Holley carbs and intakes but that’s one of few period-correct names you’ll even find on today’s market. Those early racers simply didn’t have the aftermarket we do now. Instead, they had whatever they could pull out of the yard and an engine shop.
It’s exactly this resourcefulness that inspired Stott to preserve the sport by establishing such strict rules within his association. “Our cars represent the gassers of the 1960s as close as possible. This means exciting wheels-up launches, drivers banging gears with their four-speeds, as well as the car’s appearance while sitting in the pits. The 1960s produced some of the most exciting times in drag racing history and we are doing our best to preserve those times at the track,” says the association’s website.
A Rich Story
In an industry where the sky is the limit when it comes to modifications, and people are building their cars with technologically advanced top-notch products, it’s nice to look back on a time when enthusiasts accomplished similar thrills with basic platforms and raw skill. Seeing people keeping that early spirit alive is equally refreshing.
The Willys 77 gasser is an iconic vehicle with a rich heritage. Despite a fledgling manufacturer, economic turmoil, cheap production, and low volume, the platform not only survived but thrived, fueling a racing passion that still lives. Today, some models can fetch over $100,000. Not a bad ride for a 48-hp economy car, huh?