An industry at war
DETROIT - This, the 10th edition of the Automotive News Almanac, records the accomplishments of America's No. 1 peacetime industry in the year and a half since the United States was precipitated into World War II.
It is undoubtedly true that never before in recorded history has one segment of industry been called upon to produce so much in so short a time.
Pearl Harbor found us unprepared to defend ourselves. Then government turned to the automotive industry to double, triple or multiply by 10 its peacetime capacity and employment.
In retrospect, we can see that we were given an impossible assignment, but no one in our industry looked upon it as such. Assembly lines were turned over to war, almost overnight.
So efficient were our executives and engineers that the War and Navy departments soon were demanding more than planes, motor vehicles and marine equipment - they wanted us to build everything from gyroscopes and guns to barrage balloons and landing barges.
The purpose of this edition is to record for future historians how quickly that answer was given.
George M. Slocum
The Automotive News 1943 Almanac lived up to Slocum's promise. It included 65 pages that discussed in detail what 49 vehicle makers and suppliers were doing to help America win the war.
The stories were long on detail and long on pictures of products and in-plant operations.
Assessing the book 57 years later, one wonders how the people of Automotive News escaped the wrath of the folks who were charged with enforcing the war secrets legislation.
In its 100-Year Almanac, published in 1996, Automotive News reflected upon those times:
It was total war. And for the U.S. auto industry, that meant total commitment.
Auto production for civilians ended in February 1942; it didn't resume until World War II ended in the summer of 1945.
In those 31/2 years, the industry produced an unbelievable mass of planes, tanks, Jeeps, other military vehicles, aircraft engines, guns, ammo, the spare parts to keep the machines of war running, and the technological devices to guide the planes to their targets and home again.
The auto industry and its Detroit headquarters were the Arsenal of Democracy. The industry converted its plants to make new products. Heading it all was Knudsen, using his GM experience to direct the nation's war production.
Before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the auto industry was doing some 'defense work,' as opposed to 'war work' after the attack. In January 1942, the industry was producing military material at the rate of about $2 billion a year. A year later the rate was $8 billion.
How much was a billion dollars in those days? Well, a hamburger cost a dime (sometimes 12 cents). A Coke was a nickel. A 1941 Chevrolet Special Deluxe sedan was $850. If you paid $10,000 for your new home, you were in a pretty comfortable income bracket.
Aside from the truck companies, the industry's plants were building completely unfamiliar products. Ford constructed its Willow Run plant in a cornfield near Ypsilanti, Mich., to produce B-24 Liberator bombers.
It made only 56 planes in 1942; but in 1944, Willow Run was turning out one per hour at 40 percent less cost than in 1942. Ford built 8,685 of the four-engine Liberators.
The story was repeated everywhere in autodom. Cadillac made tanks. Packard put aside its stately machines to make engines for PT (Patrol Torpedo) boats and aircraft.
Willys-Overland turned out the do-everything Jeep; so did Ford. Oldsmobile specialized in aircraft cannons and anti-aircraft shells. Chrysler Corp. had 555 war contracts. Nash-Kelvinator was big in aircraft propellers and helicopters. GM delivered more than $12.3 billion worth of war goods.
Every automaker had its specialty; and almost always, it was a specialty the company had mastered overnight. There wasn't time for study; there wasn't time for prototypes. The order of the day was 'Just do it!'
And the auto industry did.