Knudsen led the switch to a wartime economy
When FDR called, GM's president helped transform America's manufacturing might into a military supply line for World War II
In May 1940, the United States was still at peace, but war was raging in Europe. Knudsen, a Danish immigrant, gathered family members in his Detroit living room and announced he was leaving GM to head FDR's new National Defense Advisory Commission.
The family was dumbfounded, said automotive historian and author Michael W.R. Davis. Then one child broke the silence to ask her father why he was doing that.
"This country has been good to me, and I want to pay it back," Knudsen said.
"Big Bill" Knudsen, who had become famous for his expertise in mass production, would lead a mobilization of U.S. industry to build the nation's defense arsenal.
No company answered the call to arms as completely as his former employer. By the end of World War II, GM was the nation's largest defense contractor, delivering an estimated $12.3 billion in material to the war effort. (That equals about $147 billion today.)
Overnight, it seemed, GM took plants that had been producing Cadillacs, Pontiacs and Oldsmobiles and turned them into tank, munitions, aircraft and military transport factories.
"It has been called the greatest industrial transformation in history, with all of the General's 200-plus North American automotive plants shifting to production of airplanes, tanks, machine guns, amphibious transports and other military vehicles within a matter of months," wrote William Pelfrey in Billy, Alfred, and General Motors.
The duck was a marvel
GM's war production ranged from Browning machine guns to aircraft propellers and TBF Avenger torpedo bombers. "It built more Grumman torpedo bombers and fighters than Grumman did itself, historian Davis said in an interview with Automotive News. "They did a lot of things like that."
Some products GM designed itself, under government supervision. Those included tanks, armored cars, aircraft engines and one of its most famous war products, the amphibious GMC and Chevrolet trucks known as DUKWs or "ducks." The DUKW was a truck wrapped in a boat hull. Davis called it "an incredible invention."
Each division of General Motors joined the war effort. Pontiac made anti-aircraft guns, Cadillac made tanks, Oldsmobile made shells and assembled cannons. Military vehicles roamed the expanse of GM's Milford Proving Ground outside Detroit, where technicians tackled the problem of excessive noise in combat vehicles.
The war forced automakers to work together. Davis' book shows photographs of a GM DUKW being tested at Ford Motor Co.'s Rouge plant in Detroit and a Ford-built Sherman tank being tested at Milford.
The war effort also paid dividends for future products. Following up on GM's work on aircraft engines, Cadillac engineers in 1949 introduced a landmark engine, a high-compression V-8 that could efficiently use the high-octane gasoline that became available after the war.
In the dealerships
Production of vehicles for civilians ground to a halt in early 1942, leaving GM dealers wondering what to do next. Ironically, they did then what they do now to survive: They relied on used cars and service.
Pontiac ran an ad in Automotive News in 1945 saying its factory-dealer team was doing "an entirely different, but equally important, type of War Work."
"Pontiac dealers are doing their share — and more — to keep America's industrial wheels turning by keeping the wheels of the nation's system of privately owned automobile transportation turning," the ad read.
A stubborn footnote in the mostly heroic tale of GM during World War II is the story of its German unit, Adam Opel.
As storm clouds gathered in Europe, GM was able to thrive in Germany by keeping German citizens, rather than Americans, at the helm of Opel. While still under GM, Opel even produced 3-ton trucks for the German military.
But once war broke out, Adolf Hitler nationalized Opel, leaving General Motors with no control. Its U.S. personnel fled, and Opel, using forced labor, began producing materiel for the Nazi war effort.
In a decision that would prove controversial, the U.S. government in 1942 allowed GM to write off its $35 million investment in Opel.
Davis said that after the war, GM Chairman Alfred Sloan wanted to bring Opel back into the GM fold, although the British had "bombed the hell" out of the plant in Ruesselsheim, Germany, and Russian troops had stripped a plant near Berlin.
Although it re-entered Germany three years after the war, GM never regained its prewar footing in Japan. Pelfrey wrote that before the war broke out, GM was the leading car seller in Japan, having established General Motors Japan in 1926.
"In 1927-39, it consistently accounted for more than 42 percent of Japan's vehicle market," Pelfrey wrote. "That was a greater share than General Motors had in the U.S. market at the time, a situation that was to flip-flop dramatically by the end of the 20th century because the U.S. companies were not allowed to manufacture automobiles in Japan after World War II."
Out of a job
The man who started it all, Knudsen, rejoined the GM board of directors after the war but tried in vain to get his job back, according to Pelfrey. He wrote that Knudsen, whom Roosevelt had named an Army lieutenant general, privately asked Sloan whether he could come back to GM.
Sloan, an opponent of FDR's New Deal who had opposed Knudsen's departure in the first place, refused to take him back. He cited Knudsen's age: 65.
Sloan was 70.
But author Davis said Knudsen's role cannot be diminished.
"My feeling is that General Motors' greatest contribution to the war effort in World War II was not its tanks, its airplanes, its trucks, its DUKWs, its guns and so forth, but, rather, Big Bill Knudsen."
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