The man behind the Ford Model T transmission built a car of his own

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There are a few things you can absolutely count on in this world: Gravity, the rising and setting of the sun, and that Jay Leno likes to talk about cars. His weekly show was on a brief hiatus while the crew figured out how they could continue filming given pandemic-related gathering restrictions. The solution? Give Jay a camera, tell him to pick out his favorite car that week, and watch the master do his thing.

This week’s topic is extra fun because it features one of Jay’s projects, which we have seen before. The 1922 Wills Sainte Claire is a fascinating car and the backstory of the owner is just as eye-opening. It was built by Model T transmission designer Childe Harold Wills, after his departure from Ford Motor Company.

Wills left Ford right in the thick of Model T production during the 1910s, and that’s perhaps one reason why the car he built catered to the polar opposite end of the market. While the T’s price came in under $1000, the Sainte Claire was more like $4000.

Wills was an engineer, and amid his departure packed his car with items the Blue Oval would have never earmarked for the Tin Lizzie. The Sainte Claire’s engine, for one. Under the split hood is a 67-horsepower V-8, an engine layout Ford wouldn’t touch for another decade. Wills’ design was also double overhead cam and displaced 265 cubic inches, making it sizable and relatively complicated. None of that is readily apparent at first glance, however, and Jay even admits people often mistake the car for a Model A, despite the Sainte Claire being six years older. Wills just didn’t last as a company, and a lack of distinct identity might have had something to do with that.

As Jay points out, the product was fantastic but the pricing and complexity was just a bit much for the burgeoning car market in the early 1920s. Luckily, despite slows sales and the tightly wound engine, this example survived. It is lucky to have fallen into Jay’s hands, especially after its last stretch of life in a storage container. Out on the road, the car sounds great and looks like a blast to drive. A classic machine out doing what it was meant to isn’t something you can always count on, but when it happens, you can count on a much-needed change of pace.

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