All posts by stewal46

The Willis Wonder- Part 2

By 1948 Willis had replaced the wire wheels with the cast magnesium wheels to go along with the aero windscreen, relocated headlights, and alloy cycle fenders. His time at Prescott that year was 54.36 seconds.

It was about this time that Willis engaged the help of his son-in-law, Charles Bulmer to help with his next series of modifications. Bulmer was working in scientific research at Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE), in Farnborough. He had met, and become engaged to Heather Logsdon, who was the daughter of Hazel Willis. While Willis provided the practical and creative spark, Bulmer provided the formal engineering and research support necessary to develop the car.

We can measure the effects these improvements were having on the performance of the car by comparing Willis’ times at the BOC Prescott Hillclimb over these years. In his first try in June of 1946, with the car completely stock, his time was 62.5 seconds. By the June event in 1947, with the new fenders, windscreen, and the headlights tucked into the radiator, he improved his time to 54.36 seconds.

Later that summer Willis and Bulmer took the car to its first circuit race, the Ulster Trophy Handicap race in Dunrod, Ireland. The car only lasted 2 laps succumbing to a failed bearing in the engine. This necessitated an engine rebuild, and Willis took advantage of the opportunity to extensively modifying the stock engine. The compression ratio was raised to more that 9:1, and the inlet breathing was improved by replacing the long head bolts that went through the middle of the inlet ports with Allen screws that were relieved flush with the bottom of the intake ports.

With Bulmer’s help Willis also developed a cast magnesium wheels for the car that saved about 12-15 lbs. of unsprung weight at each corner. These wheels became so successful that he was able to sell sets to many of his competitors running 328s and other BMW based specials during that era, including Oscar Moore’s OBM Special.

1948 was not a good year for motorsports in England. The meager gas ration alowed in 1947 was ended completely. This made competing difficult. The one highlight for that year was Bulmer’s first opportunity to drive the car. He wrote of that experience some 57 years later, “I drove the BMW for the first time, and I was captivated by it. The car had unfamiliar, to me, features, like a stiff chassis, springs which moved, and a smooth, high revving, rubber mounted six-cylinder engine. I began to think that my Meadows Nash might have to be replaced by a Type 55 BMW, which it was the following year.” 

For 1949 Willis replaced the heavy steel body with one made from magnesium tubing and magnesium sheet. Here Willis is holding the new tubular framework for the body outside his shop in Loughton.

Willis took the lull in competition to rework the car completely, and when it reappeared in 1949, it looked entirely different. The engine and chassis remained unchanged but the steel BMW body had been replaced with a lightweight body of magnesium tubing and magnesium sheet. The cycle wings and headlights were made to be quickly removable so the car could run in both sports car and formula classes at the same race weekend.

The car now weighed just over 1100 lbs, and Willis found it necessary to remove every other leaf spring in the rear suspension to improve handling. The brakes were also given attention. They were converted to hydraulic operation, and fitted with finned light alloy drums. The lighter weight, coupled with better handling made the brakes very effective for that day.

These changes were a major effort and expense for Willis, but once the car was sorted the gains that he made were noticeable. At the Prescott Hillclimb in June of that year Willis finished second in class to a full race HRG with his time now down to 52.12 seconds, fully 10 seconds quicker than his first effort. At the Gosport Sprint event in October Willis turned a time of 17.95 seconds in the quarter mile.

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.