The Willis Wonder- Part 1

WillisWonderLogoNames such as Jim Hall, Max Balchowsky, Colin Chapman, and Bruce McLaren bring to mind men who made their reputations beating the “Big Boys” at the racing game with only their wits, determination, and fabrication skills. I would suggest that we consider adding the name of Ron C. Willis to that list.

In the spring of 1934 BMW introduced their new roadster, the 315/1. The car, designed by Peter Szymanowski, was a sleek 2 seater with a long hood housing a 1,490 cc straight 6 putting out 40 bhp, mated to a 4 speed transmission. The car was light and nimble, with a stiff tubular chassis, rack and pinion steering, hydraulic shocks, and large drum brakes, and was capable of a top speed of 120 kph (75 mph). BMW realized they had a serious contender in the 1’500 cc classes of competition, and so the car was immediately entered into several international competitions.

The Alpine Trial was one of the most arduous and difficult competitions of the year. It covered 1900 miles through five countries over some of the most challenging mountain roads in Europe. To finish at all was a victory, and to finish without any penalty points was almost unheard of.

For the 1934 edition of this event BMW entered a team of three of their newly designed 315/1 roadsters to compete in the under 1,500 cc class against the perennial winners from Frazer-Nash. By the end of the event the BMW team won the Alpine Cup having scored no penalty points.

Denis Jenkinson, in his book From Chain Drive to Turbocharger wrote of their performance, “The BMWs were not only faster up the mountains, but were faster down the other side as well.” The performance of these cars in the Alpine Trial so impressed J.H. Aldington of Frazer-Nash that he decided to seek a contract with BMW to begin importing the cars into Britain, offering them and later BMW models in slightly Anglicized form under the name Frazer-Nash BMW.

A 315/1 with chassis number 51203 was in the last group of 14 cars imported to Britain before the war in 1936. Registered as ANP 904, it was sold originally to Mr. B. L. Bonner of Reigate. It languished until after the war, when it was purchased in 1946 by a garage owner and budding race car builder named Ron C. Willis.

Ron purchased 51203 in 1946 and immediately began to improve its performance.

Willis recognized the superior performance capabilities of the car and began to race it in trials, sprints and hill climbs in its stock form. However, he was not satisfied with the car’s stock performance and so he began a program of modifying the car to make it more competative. Thus began the evolution of 51203 into one of the quickest post-war Formula Twos in England.

The initial set of modifications were aimed at lightening the car and improving its aerodynamics. He began by moving the headlights from the wings to an inset position in the bottom of the radiator. This was followed by replacing the stock steel fenders with alloy cycle fenders. Another change he made was to replace the full width windscreen with a more aerodynamic double screen.

How This Blog Came to Be- Part 2

My father had always been involved in the local SCCA club, participating in and supporting their various activities. In fact, the first meeting of the Land-O-Lakes Region of the SCCA was held in our family living room.

Here I am at Farmington Airport watching my Father's FV compete. 507 alert!
Here I am at Farmington Airport watching my Father’s FV compete. Taken in the early 1960’s. I still have the movie I shot that day.

In the early 60’s he began campaigning a Formula Vee out of his VW dealership. The car was driven by a young, up and coming local driver named Jerry Hansen. Jerry went on to have considerable success, holding the record for the most SCCA national championships ever won.

I got to go along to the races, and was soon completely a-gog with racing. All I could think about doing when I got older was being a race car driver.

Here's the start of the 500 mile race at Road America. Can you guess the year?
Here’s the start of the 500 mile race at Road America. Can you guess the year?

One of my favorite events we went to every year was the June Sprints at Road America. We typically went back for the 500 Mile race in the fall as well. This venue quickly became my favorite track to watch races at.

After getting my drivers license I began to compete in some local auto crosses. Occasionally I was given permission to use one of the used cars from my Father’s lot.

At one event I was able to use a boxy BMW 4 door sedan that went like heck. It was a TiSA he had taken on trade. More on this car in another post.

My brother and I watch the races held around the old Metropolitan Stadium in Minneapolis.
My brother and I watch the races held around the old Metropolitan Stadium in Minneapolis.

Another ‘fringe’ benefit was that I got to drive some of my Father’s cars. Occasionally some pretty interesting cars landed in our garage, including a pair of Porsche Spyders. The first was a 1955 550 RS. The other was a 1960 RS-60. I’ll be doing a post on my experiences with these cars later.

When I turned 18 I bought an NSU 1200TTS that I auto crossed for a few years. The car was quite quick, and often vied for FTD at these events.

I also used this car to begin my formal racing career, which started on ice.

How This Blog Came to Be- Part 1



I am fortunate enough to own and race several vintage BMW’s. These include- a 1935 BMW 315/1 Special known as the “Willis Wonder,” a 1961 BMW 700S, a 1965 BMW 1800Ti, a 1972 BMW 2002, and a 1973 BMW CSL from the championship Luigi BMW team from 1976-77.

Let me tell you a little about myself and how I got to this point in my automotive obsession.

I was born in Minnesota, longer ago than I will admit to. All the while I was growing up my father owned car dealerships of one sort or another.

His first dealership sold British motor cars- MG’s, Allards, Morris Minors, and Jaguars. I still have vivid memories of riding in the back of Morris Clubman wagons with all that beautiful wood and shiny chrome.

A dealer sticker from my Father’s VW dealership.

In the mid-50’s he took on VW,. It was just at the time that they were becoming popular. He had a great deal of success with them, and soon dropped the British cars, all except Land Rover, which still sold well in Minnesota. He also added Porsche to his line-up. He sold this dealership in the mid-60’s, and at the time it was the largest servicing VW dealership in the country.

After selling the VW dealership he became the midwest distributor for BMW. His territory included MN, ND, SD, IA, WI, and IL. He spent his time traveling throughout the mid-west signing up dealers for this ‘new’ German marque.

The importer, Max Hoffman, had a reputation for cutting out his distributors once they had a dealership network up and running. His reputation was well earned, and soon my father was left with just his dealership outside of Minneapolis.

This is the service area from my Father's BMW/Mercedes dealership just west of Minneapolis. It was taken in the mid-1960's.
This is the service area from my Father’s BMW/Mercedes dealership just west of Minneapolis. It was taken in the mid-1960’s.

At this dealership he handled BMW’s, Mercedes, and Land Rovers. Other lines came and went, including Renault, Peugeot, Jensen, and NSU. He ran this dealership until the mid-70’s when he retired and moved to a ranch in Idaho.

During these years I was always around his dealerships working as a lot boy, working in the parts department, or wherever else I could. I became a pro at cleaning off cosmoline from the new cars and doing PDI’s.

Hanging around my Father’s dealerships also gave me a chance to drive some pretty fun and exotic cars- Cobras, Vettes, Sunbeam Tigers, Porsches, MBs, all the BMWs, Jensens, and even Wankle powered NSU Spyders. It was a great time to be a young man growing up  around cars!

More to come in my next post.