A Jalopnik reader sent me a gift so excellent, I nearly cried upon opening the envelope. It’s a 1925 stock certificate for 10 shares of Willys-Overland, the Toledo-based auto company that built the very first Jeeps—vehicles that, as you know, I love dearly.
The reader, who we’ll call Delmar “Barney” Roos to preserve his anonymity, told me he inherited an enormous box of old stock certificates from his great uncle, who, along with Delmar’s grandpa, worked as a pharmacist in Boston and may or may not have made his fortune selling illegal booze.
Apparently that fortune was quite substantial, because by the time the stock market crash came in 1929, Delmar’s great uncle managed to lose $600,000—which, when converted into modern money, is at least one metric shit-ton. Possibly more.
Anyway, Delmar’s great-uncle left him with a bunch of stocks, including the one you see here, which you’ll notice was issued in 1925, and was signed by the assistant cashier of The National City Bank of New York, now Citibank. At the time, Willys-Overland was coming down from a high that had taken it to the number two spot in the U.S. among automakers by the end of World War I.
The company had made some major investments in the teens, including buying up the Toronto-based Russell Motor Car Company, New Process Gear Company, and Duesenberg Motors Company’s manufacturing plant in Elizabeth, New Jersey. But by around 1920, the company fell on some tough times (in part, because of labor disputes), so creditors hired former GM Vice President Walter P. Chrysler to come in to stop the bleeding, paying him a ridiculous annual salary of $1 million for the two years he stayed with the company.
At around the time Chrysler left in 1921, Willys-Overland sold its New Jersey plant as well as New process Gear Company. The cash from those transactions allowed Willys to start investing again, and by 1925, it bought Cleveland luxury automaker F.B. Stearns Auto Company. A year later, Willys introduced its new Whippet line of cars, and things were looking up.
So yeah, when Delmar’s great-uncle bought these shares in 1925, things were looking good for Willys-Overland. The company was making big investments, and had a new line of cars on the horizon. Of course, four years later, the stock market crash would take the company to its knees. So who knows, this stock may have been part of that $600,000 loss.
The good news for Willys-Overland Motor Company was that in 1936, it re-grouped under the new name Willys-Overland Motors, and started building a nice line of streamlined four-cylinder cars before getting that big contract with the U.S. government to build Jeeps. Willys was eventually bought by Kaiser, re-named and sold to AMC, then Chrysler, and now the spirit of Willys lives in Fiat Chrysler’s headquarters in Auburn Hills, Michigan.
Anyway, by now, my 10 shares are worthless, and yet at the same time, priceless. Delmar told me he has a number of other stock certificates for defunct automakers. Here’s one for Rickenbacker Motor Company, the Detroit-based firm established by World War I fighter Ace Eddie Rickenbacker (the company lasted for only six years, and—rumor has it—its tooling and engines were used to build Audis in Germany in the late 1920s):
Here are two certificates for shares of Fox Motor Car Company, which was based out of Philadelphia, and only lasted from 1921 to 1923.
And here are some stock certificates for legendary Indianapolis-based luxury automaker Duesenberg:
Even if my Willys stock certificate is legally worthless, it may be the greatest gift I’ve ever received. Thank you, Delmar.