By Llewellyn Hedgbeth
Just as vanadium steel had been central to the Model T, lightweight, durable molybdenum steel was crucial for the Wills Sainte Claire. During World War I demand was high for "moly" steel, used to manufacture helmets, tanks, airplane engines, and gun shields. Since the U.S. was responsible for 60-80% of the world's supply of molybdenum, the newly-formed Climax Molybdenum Co., in 1918, built complex and expensive mills to refine their ore. Unfortunately, at War's end, the company was left with a glut on the market, little interest in the ore, and rock-bottom prices. By March 1919, the Climax mine was closed.
That didn't keep new company president Brainerd F. Phillipson from believing in its value, though. After all, there was virtually limitless supply; molybdenum had helped America and her allies win the war; and new uses for it were bound to be discovered. Phillipson offered free supplies of concentrate to steel manufacturers willing to experiment with it, but there were few takers. His next tack was to peddle it to automotive manufacturers. There, too, he was rebuffed as Ford and others turned him down. When he met C. H. Wills in 1920, however, he found a man on a mission to build a lightweight, durable car, just the properties his molybdenum could provide. Phillipson sold his "moly" stockpile to Wills "for next to nothing."
Wills was first in the automotive industry to make extensive use of molybdenum, utilizing it for the Wills Sainte Claire's crankshaft, connecting rods, camshaft, gearbox gears and shafts, propeller shaft, frame, springs, front axle, steering knuckles and wheels. There was an aluminum crankcase and cylinder bores were of cast iron but just about any other metal component subject to stress had to be made of molybdenum.
Phillipson and Wills must have struck up a personal friendship, as well, since when Phillipson, in 1921, was invited east to shoot in the Adirondacks, he contacted noted sportsman Wills for advice on the best kind of gun to take with him. Wills, whose gun collection had been wiped out when his yacht Marold II burned at her moorings, looked through the salvage pile, found a bent gun barrel, and sent it on to New York with this message: "I think this is just what you need for shooting around the hills of northern New York State."
Both Phillipson and Wills advertised molybdenum steel in national mainstream publications, dividing "molybdenum" into syllables and accenting the second syllable, i.e., mo-lyb-den-um. When Wills advertised its first touring car, it was heralded as a car made of molybdenum, one combining "great strength with toughness, durability, resiliency and resistance to vibration." One Climax campaign ad highlighted the smart new Wills Sainte Claire car set against a mountain of molybdenum, calling the ore "American super-steel". Another of their ads showed a large armored car with a Wills Sainte Claire just below it, humorously noting, "You Could Build a Car of Cast Iron. But imagine its size—its brittleness—its expense of operation! Parts would break every time you hit a bump. You'd get less than a mile per gallon of gas. A wrought iron car would be little better. A plain carbon steel car would not satisfy today's motoring requirements. Molybdenum—makes possible a new car that is 'a distinct step forward in automobile construction'; axles resist strains of twisting and turning; almost impossible to strip gears."
New Steel Construction for the Wills Sainte Claire.
Not only was the steel new for the engine's construction, the Wills Sainte Claire also had the first 8-cylinder engine to use overhead valves driven from an overhead cam shaft. At first the Wills Sainte Claire was available only with a V-8 (Model A-68) 4.3 liter engine inspired by the Hispano-Suiza's airplane engine that had been designed by Marc Birkigt. Rather than the straight bevels of the plane engine, however, the car had spiral bevel gears.
An improved version of the V-8 was introduced in 1924 for Model B-68, with revised firing order and higher horsepower. A further improvement on that version was made available in 1925 with Model C-68. Such improvements were surely testament to Wills's perfectionism. He believed in continuous improvement and was often seen down on the shop floor, clad in corduroy trousers and flannel shirt, listening to a running engine through a stethoscope, trying to better it.
An early ad explaining the ten major engineering advances in the Wills Sainte Claire listed the engine at number one: "One—The Motor—Eight cylinders—V-type—actually twin fours, either one of which can be run independently—brake test, 60 horsepower. It has overhead camshafts and valves in the cylinder head. A construction that gives enormous, flexible power and that with a special steadying device produces a wonderfully smooth, noiseless operation. This construction also makes possible a combustion chamber of such shape and design that carbon deposits are reduced to a minimum and fullest fuel economy is realized."
The engine was set at a 60 degree angle and the overhead camshafts and valves eliminated the need for belts and chains. There was a massive crankshaft that ran on seven main bearings, each bearing crafted of three kinds of alloy steel. Further evidence of Wills perfectionism, the bearings were precision-made through 28 different operations. The engine's declutching fan was an innovation meant to improve fuel consumption: once the car attained a speed of 40 mph, an automatic clutch disengaged the fan (no longer needed since rushing air cooled the engine), resulting in a savings of 6 hp.
Wills Sainte Claire V-8 engine.