Leading the charge
One Chevrolet factory in Michigan, renamed the Saginaw Service Manufacturing Plant, produced for all of GM vital replacement parts needed to keep the nation's privately owned cars and trucks running.
But Chevrolet devoted the rest of its capacity to the military. Plant 2a in Flint, Mich., for example, split its 407,000 square feet of space among making aircraft engine parts, 90 mm cannon barrels and the 14-ton four-wheeled Staghound scout car, according to a hand-drawn floor plan in the archives of Kettering University.
By late 1942, as the military production tooling Chevrolet had set up started to hit full production, GM Chairman Alfred Sloan said GM had 400,000 employees at 112 plants devoting 95 percent of company output to the war effort. GM had boosted output 50 percent above prewar levels, he added.
Detroit automakers, with much energy and long experience in quick tooling and technology changes, were leaders in America's war mobilization. So much so, that in December 1942, the U.S. War Production Board announced that Detroit had built such a stockpile of trucks, tanks, weapons and munitions that it was diverting some critical war materiel elsewhere to increase output of ships and planes.
As 1942 was ending, Detroit's manufacturing focus was less on tooling up and more on maintaining and increasing war production.
But car dealers' headaches were just beginning. Shipments had dried up quickly after civilian car and truck production stopped in February. Most Chevy dealers started conserving new cars and beefing up their service departments.
On Aug. 18, the U.S. Office of Price Administration dropped a long-anticipated triple whammy of rationing: no new-car sales to nonmilitary personnel, price limits and mandatory indoor storage of unsold new cars.
In effect, with no new cars likely for years, the government wanted to be sure the few left -- it had counted 532,000 in February -- would be hoarded and doled out slowly to the people critical to maintaining public safety and keeping the war effort going. The initial list of people allowed to buy new cars included doctors, police and fire departments, critical war workers and traveling salesmen.
By Dec. 1, nationwide rationing started for gasoline and, more critically, tires. The war in the Pacific cut off most sources of natural rubber. Scientists and manufacturers were frantically trying to develop synthetic rubber strong enough for tires, but despite heavy government financing, production of enough of it to meet demand was at least two years away.
Dealers were in a bind. New-car shipments had stopped. There were price caps on what few cars were left. Key replacement parts were scarce. And they had often lost critical personnel to enlistments or the draft.
Chevrolet had seen it coming. Between May and October 1941, months before Pearl Harbor, Chevy General Sales Manager Bill Holler held 14 three-week schools in Detroit that trained 732 field men in the basics of business management, accounting, service management and merchandizing. Those field men were dispatched to spread their knowledge to Chevy's 8,000 dealerships, giving those often mom-and-pop small businesses modern tools to help them navigate the coming storm.
Chevy's message was in the campaign's slogan: "Service to Survive."
Dealers were focused on survival. In 1942, McEleney Brothers in Clinton, Iowa, now McEleney Chevrolet-Buick-GMC-Toyota, converted its new-car showroom to a six-lane bowling alley for the duration.
115,000 tons of scrap metal
Back in Texarkana, Guss Orr traveled to buy cars and parts in the Northeast. But as he watched the local Buick and GMC stores close, he bought out the local Cadillac dealer and added the franchise to his Chevy store. He also converted his service department into a 24-hour, seven-day operation, a practice that lasted until 1950.
"Oh, yeah, service revenue was important during the war," son David Orr said.
But staffing around the clock was tough. Orr still chuckles recalling his father's service manager's desperate conversation with a young mechanic one Sunday: "'Sir, I told you I can't work today. I'm getting married this afternoon.' he said and the manager said, 'But can't you work a few hours this morning?'"
By March 1943, Holler said that before the war, most Chevrolet dealers expected service to generate no more than 60 percent of total fixed costs but now Chevy dealership service departments covered an average 97 percent of monthly overhead.
Chevrolet also created the Victory Service League for its dealers, open to anyone who owned a car, as a way of making its dealerships a community focal point for war bond rallies and scrap metal and rubber drives. In the 12 months ending Aug. 31, 1943, Chevy dealers collected 115,000 tons of scrap metal for the war effort.
As the war dragged on, it got harder to keep the service bays staffed. Chevrolet-sponsored staffing drives added 10,000 new mechanics in three months in 1943, but a second drive in early 1944 netted only 4,000. By then, the only dealership service personnel not subject to the draft were women, men over 38 and discharged (often wounded) soldiers.
The pool of unsold new cars was shrinking fast. In May 1944, the Office of Price Administration said only 47,000 were left, less than 9 percent of the original 1942 pool, even after salesmen had been struck from the eligible list in January.
Even before the Allies invaded Europe in June 1944, Americans were dreaming of postwar new cars. Twice that year to dampen public expectations of highly advanced designs, GM President Charles Wilson publicly said cars would have to be warmed-over 1942 models for a few years.
And they were. Just before the European portion of the war ended in May 1945, the War Production Board authorized output of 200,000 new cars in the fourth quarter.
Chevrolet resumed building civilian trucks Aug. 20, just days after the Japanese surrendered to end the war. Chevy car output of 1946 models began Oct. 3.
"The 1946 and '47 Chevys were just '42s with new grilles and trim," said vintage car restorer Stephen Kassiss, owner of The Filling Station in Lebanon, Ore.
But with short supply and big demand, dealers often loaded them with aftermarket accessories for which they could charge extra.
"Years later in the vintage car parts trade, you'd find boxes full of unused stock hood ornaments from '47 and '48 Chevys," Kassiss said.
Most Detroit automakers didn't have all-new designs until 1948 or 1949. But thanks to early development work in 1941 before the shutdown, Chevrolet launched a new 1947 pickup that reached dealers in May 1947 with a bigger cab and box and a wider seat big enough for three passengers.
All new Chevy cars followed for the 1949 model year, effectively closing Chevrolet's World War II era.