- The Washington Times - Friday, December 14, 2001

Not many people have heard of Silent Knight automobiles. Built in Chicago between 1906 and 1909, they were powered by Charles Knight's remarkable four-cylinder, 40-horsepower, sleeve valve engine.

The $3,500 five-passenger touring car soon joined hundreds of other new car companies that failed in the early days of motoring. It had several weak points but the engine was its strong point.

Several European automakers such as Daimler, Mercedes-Benz, Panhard, Voisin and Minerva were quick to recognize the value and utilize the advantages of Knight's sleeve-valve engine.

By 1914 the Willys-Overland Co., second in automobile sales only to Ford, obtained a license to build Knight-engined cars. Although the company continued to produce the low-priced Overland with a conventional engine, it used the Knight engine in the mid-priced Willys-Knight until 1932.

The Knight sleeve-valve engine guaranteed a loyal following. However, at the end of the roaring 1920s, the Willys-Knight evolved into a conservatively styled, boxy sort of car with mostly dark blue and black colors.

Amos Northrup, a premier automotive designer of the era, was hired to put some pizazz into the Willys-Knight line of cars.

Mr. Amos redesigned the entire lineup. The new styling was accentuated by bold three and four color combinations, including such colors as lime green, yellow and orange. These were not your everyday colors 70 years ago.

The top of the line was the Great Six, Model 66B which had colored fenders while most of the other cars on the road had black fenders. The Willys-Knight also featured unique pinstriping in a rectangular pattern on the side panels. That unusual striping gave rise to the nickname "Plaidside."

Ever since his undergraduate days in the early 1960s at the University of Minnesota Duane Perrin has been enamored of all the cars powered by the sleeve-valve Knight engine.

"The plaidside roadster is one of the very few Willys-Knights recognized as Full Classics by the Classic Car Club of America," Mr. Perrin remarks.

In 1998, Mr. Perrin was an engineer with Highway Truck Research in the Department of Transportation. He learned that he would be going to Seattle on business in November.

From the Willys-Knight/Overland Registry Mr. Perrin discovered that a rare 1930 Willys-Knight Model 66B Great Six was owned by a Seattle man.

Mr. Perrin telephoned the owner to say he would like to see the car. The owner agreed, but warned Mr. Perrin that the car hadn't been driven in 10 years.

"That car is so beautiful," Mr. Perrin thought when he first saw the apple green and dark green plaidside roadster.

"There were a lot of things that weren't right about it," Mr. Perrin recalls. Nevertheless, he was thrilled just to be permitted to view the car.

Imagine his surprise when the owner solicited a bid for the car. Mr. Perrin agonized over his decision. "I hardly slept that night," Mr. Perrin says.

Morning came and Mr. Perrin made the best offer he could and was amazed when it was accepted.

He flew back to Washington and waited, not so patiently, until his Willys-Knight arrived in March on the back of a truck.

Mr. Perrin believes his car carried a base price of $1,895 when new at the beginning of the Great Depression. Only 7,409 Model 66B Willys-Knights were sold during the 1929-31 model run. They were designed to compete with the bigger Chryslers.

"Exactly know many of them were plaidside roadsters is unknown," Mr. Perrin says, "but it is estimated that fewer than 1,000 were produced. About a dozen are known to exist today."

Mr. Perrin learned that his 3,500-pound roadster was rescued from a British Columbia junkyard in the mid-1950s. After an amateur restoration in the 1960s, the car passed through the hands of a few owners.

By 1998, it had deteriorated considerably, according to Mr. Perrin. Consequently, as soon as the Willys-Knight rolled off the truck Mr. Perrin began a general refurbishing and partial restoration.

"It hadn't been driven enough," Mr. Perrin says, "explaining why there was crud in the block."

The entire car got a thorough going over from the seven-fluted Balcrank tubular front bumper to its twin at the rear.

In a carryover from horse and buggy days, the clutch and brake pedals have stirrup-like edges to keep muddy shoes from slipping off the pedals.

The center of the three-spoke steering wheel is a study in 1930 complexity. Like every other contemporary car, pushing the button honks the horn. Lifting the button up, however, activates the starter while twisting the button one notch turns on the parking lights. The second notch illuminates the 14-inch Glolite headlights.

Not everything on the roadster was so high-tech. Oak bows support the top while glass wing vents direct the air away from beating the occupants. Both doors feature pockets in the leather upholstery. In addition, on the back of the seat is a pouch to hold the side curtains.

The four knobs across the bottom of the dashboard operate, from the left:

•Spark.

•Throttle.

•Choke.

•Heat riser for the engine.

Above the windshield is a single wiper, which although originally vacuum-powered, now works electrically.

Even though the three-speed transmission gear shift lever sprouts from the center of the floorboards, the floor-mounted hand brake is squeezed into the space between the driver's left knee and the left side of the car.

At the rear of the roadster is a backup light, as well as a brakelight which announces STOP when illuminated.

"A comfortable speed for this car is 55 to 60," Mr. Perrin says.

Less than six months after receiving the car Mr. Perrin had his Willy-Knight in presentable condition. Up the right rear fender are two step plates leading to the rumble seat which is unusual in that an apron helps keep the occupants clean.

Mr. Perrin's Willys-Knight is an anomaly in that it has four wheel mechanical brakes and has a Bijou self-lubrication system.

The 255-cubic-inch, Knight-sleeved six-cylinder engine produces 87-horsepower. Its breathing is helped through the four ventilation doors on each side of the hood.

Each time Mr. Perrin drives his plaidside roadster it attracts attention. "Wherever it shows up," Mr. Perrin says, "It instantly attracts a big crowd."

Almost 75 years after the Willys/Overland Co. in Toledo, Ohio, built the chassis and the Griswold Motor and Body Co. in Detroit, Mich., built the body, the Willys-Knight stands as a testament to automotive excellence.

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