22 May 2015

Cars During Wartime: A look at Detroit's contribution to victory

The classic convertibles and military vehicles you may have seen participating in Memorial Day parades and ceremonies are reminders of the enormous role the auto industry played in wartime, particularly WWII. America’s entry into the global conflict profoundly changed the country’s relationship with the automobile for that period and had a lasting impact.

The lack of 1943-1945 model-year cars reminds us that the country’s great auto industry, by government decree, ceased civilian car and truck production in early February 1942 and switched to producing a wide gamut of military hardware. With raw materials diverted for wartime production, carmakers substituted painted trim for chrome on final 1942 models, giving them a drab appearance.

Chevrolet ended the abbreviated 1942 model year in No. 1 position with about 255,000 cars built, (down from 1 million for 1941). Ford was in second with 160,000 (down from 691,000) and Plymouth built 152,000 (down from 522,000). Not all cars went to customers, as the government needed cars and trucks to mobilize here and overseas.

Factories began a rapid changeover to producing everything from airplanes to artillery shells. According to “Chronicle of the American Automobile” by James Flammang, carmakers produced 13 percent of all Allied war material during WWII. A list of what carmakers built for the war would fill pages. Some companies had already been producing hardware, such as Packard’s aircraft engines. “Manning” the assembly lines were also now hundreds of thousands of women, perhaps best symbolized by Norman Rockwell's renowned painting, “Rosie the Riveter.” The woman who modeled for that painting, Mary Doyle Keefe, was a 19-year-old telephone operator. She died this past April at 92.

Detroit also applied its engineering expertise, adapting automotive hardware for tanks while more specialized powertrains were developed. Some tanks used dual Cadillac V-8s and GM’s Hydra-matic transmission, but a Chrysler powertrain adaptation was even more fascinating. Chrysler engineered the A-57 engine for the M4A4 Medium Tank, better known as the Sherman, by essentially building five 250 cu. in. flathead six-cylinder car engines around a central shaft. The resulting 30-cylinder monster produced 470 hp.

Packard also made PT boats and their aero-based engines. Ford built nearly 8,700 Boeing B-24 Liberator bombers at the Willow Run, Mich., factory and then sold them to the government. Willys and Ford together built about 650,000 Jeeps, the iconic light patrol vehicle that had been developed by American Bantam.
Meanwhile, Americans learned to get by with far less car usage. Fuel rationing and restrictions on pleasure travel saw to that. Even maintaining a car became a challenge, as replacement parts production was halted and rubber for tires was used for the war effort.

“Cost-plus” contracts provided profits for carmakers to develop new civilian models after the war. Carmakers (and other suppliers) touted their contributions to war supply in advertising, a kind of brand-centric marketing that helped maintain consumer awareness while also stoking demand for postwar cars.

Peacetime Production

Civilian car production resumed in summer 1945, and the pent-up demand created a seller’s market. The 1946 cars were essentially 1942 models with styling updates. In the race to be the first with all-new designs, the winner was newcomer Kaiser-Frazer. Formed by industrialist Henry J. Kaiser and William Frazer, who had been president of Graham-Paige Motors, the new company leased the Willow Run plant vacated by Ford. Two brands, Kaiser and Frazer, were offered, but just Kaiser after 1951. Howard “Dutch” Darrin penned the designs, including the daring but ill-fated Kaiser Darrin roadster.

Kaiser built cars until 1955 but would ultimately figure more prominently with its acquisition of Willys-Overland. Eventually called Kaiser Jeep Corporation, the company used civilian Jeep production to launch a whole new and long-lasting vehicle category, the SUV.

Some things carried over from wartime production. Crosley’s line of mini cars for a time used the sheetmetal copper brazed (“CoBra”) engine that had powered stationary equipment in the war. Dodge adapted its WC military truck into the Power Wagon for the civilian market and built it essentially unchanged through the 1960s. Four-wheel drive and power takeoffs made these workhorses ideal for big jobs, such as installing electric utility poles.

Wartime engineering results could also be seen in the new high-compression engines introduced in the late 1940s, starting an escalation in horsepower and the focus on performance and racing. Car design was also impacted. For example, the Lockheed P-38 Lightning was perhaps the most sensational looking fighter plane in the U.S. arsenal. General Motors built engines for it, with Cadillac taking credit in a series of print ads. After the war, the P-38’s dual-tail design inspired the emergence of tailfins on the 1949 Cadillacs, and the plane’s triple-fuselage construction influenced the design of Studebaker’s 1950 “bullet nose” models.

20 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Jim Nelson SoCal May 27, 2015 at 13:28
    Studebaker also made engines for the B24.
  • 2
    Denise Brady San Francisco, CA May 27, 2015 at 13:36
    Great article. I am the second owner of a blackout model 1942 Plymouth Special Deluxe convertible originally sold in 1943. I drove it most recently on Monday in the Grand March for the 2015 Memorial Day services at the SF National Cemetery in the Presidio of San Francisco. I am honored to be able to participate in local events honoring Veterans and do so whenever possible. Memorial Day services at the Presidio which was an Army base before and during WW2, is especially fitting because the original owner of my car was a civilian female working for the Army which explains how she was able to qualify to buy a new 1942 post production in 1943.
  • 3
    Denise Brady San Francisco, CA May 27, 2015 at 13:38
    Can I submit a photo?
  • 4
    N J SE May 27, 2015 at 14:00
    Even though it was not made in Detroit I don't understand why you left out Willys and the Jeep contribution to the war.
  • 5
    Jim Benjaminson Walhalla, North Dakota May 27, 2015 at 14:16
    William Frazer? - try Joseph Frazer, formerly a high ranking executive of Chrysler Corporation
  • 6
    Brian R McMahon Burlington, MA May 27, 2015 at 14:47
    Don't forget- Edsel Ford convinced his father Henry to convert the Willow Run plant into an aircraft factory. Half of the 18,000 B-24s assembled during WWII were built there.
  • 7
    MIKE DAVIS Royal Oak, MI May 27, 2015 at 19:50
    The B-24s built by Ford at Willow Run were a Consolidated Aircraft design, not as the article erroneously states, Boeing. If you're going to write about the Arsenal of Democracy, I suggest you refer to my 2007 Arcadia Publishing book, "Detroit's Wartime Industry: Arsenal of Democracy," which has spawned at least four other books on the subject.
  • 8
    Ed Price Chula Vista, CA USA May 27, 2015 at 20:47
    Correction: Packard built the engines for the PT boats (3 engines per boat) but not the boats themselves (the boats were made by ELCO in New Jersey and Higgins on the Gulf Coast).
  • 9
    Frank lundy Williamsport,, pa May 27, 2015 at 20:52
    Packard made the engines - big V12's. The hulls were made by Higgins in New Orleans mainly out of plywood. Read "They Were Expendible". Serving in them was strictly guts and luck. As far as "cost plus" contracts: They were designed to keep costs in line with small allowable markups compared to today's usual corporate profits. Just think, our costs for WORLD war II was less than a year intone middle est. and we won that one.
  • 10
    Ed Sallia Dundee, Oregon May 27, 2015 at 12:52
    Wow! This article completely left out Studebaker who built tens of thousands of wartime trucks, track vehicles and bomber engines. They also beat the other automakers after the war with a completely new car design with the 1947 models. The only mention is at the end when it mentions the P-38 influence on the 1950 "bullet nose" models. I'm disappointed this got left out.
  • 11
    Bill Cornick Creston Iowa May 28, 2015 at 05:54
    Great article, but the 1948 Cadillac, not 49, was the first to use P38 styling cues as it was one of GM's first totally redesigned postwar offerings.
  • 12
    Richard Pattison Rhode Island May 28, 2015 at 09:27
    In the last sentence, the 1st Cadillac to sport the tailfin was in 1948, of which I own one.
  • 13
    FRANK STAGNITTO JOAKLEY, CA May 28, 2015 at 00:03
  • 14
    Bob Laird Plymouth,MIchigan May 28, 2015 at 12:21
    Very nice article. Note: the B-24 was a Consolidated Aircraft design, not Boeing. I am in the process of converting a civilian 1942 Ford sedan to a military staff car. Need some original small interior parts from 42-48 vehicles if anybody has some.
  • 15
    Ed Purinton Atlantic County, New Jersey May 31, 2015 at 20:33
    Terrific article. Wish it was more highlighted. We could never beat the Germans without the automobile companies. The US later packed the Packard to Russia that became the Ziff. The fondly called large "Studie" truck used the Russians advance during the cold hard Russian winters. I wish every student would learn how important the Auto industry was to World War II.
  • 16
    John Mark United States May 31, 2015 at 12:25
    The article stated that Ford "sold" the planes to the gov't.,. Didn't all manufacturers get pd., for their product??
  • 17
    Rob Truslow Connecticut June 2, 2015 at 15:48
    Hercules Engine Company, founded in 1915 in Canton, Ohio also was a large contributor to the effort with engines for trucks and other equipment. Hercules, like others, won several production awards from the Armed Services for their work. I have a number of their advertisements from before and during WWII.
  • 18
    Tim Krawford Green Bay June 4, 2015 at 04:15
    How can one have story relating to 'during and post' war automobile production, Without Mentioning the Tucker?
  • 19
    Andy Morris Bettendorf, Iowa March 7, 2016 at 10:04
    Great article. So fascinating!
  • 20
    Brannon Untied states March 7, 2016 at 10:05
    Nice article ❤️

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