The willowing wind that had thinned the rank of American automotive manufacturers during the Great Depression had become a quiet breeze by 1940. The companies that had survived were once again posting profits as well as sculpting rolling visions of the future in steel and glass. There were, however, storm clouds on the horizon that would forever change the American automotive industry.
In May of 1941, the Office of Production Management moved from administration of Lend Lease to a full scale planning for conversion of American industry from civilian to military production. This challenging task began with a meeting of fifty-six automotive executives and industry leaders to discuss the need for a twenty percent cut in production for 1942 as well as a looming shortage of critical materials.
The attack on Pearl Harbor in December dealt a serious blow to the conversion timetable. On February 2, 1942, the suspension of the manufacturing of automobiles for sale to the public, with the exception being those who needed a new car or truck for war related endeavors, took effect.
A Ford Tudor sedan, the last civilian vehicle to roll from an American factory marked the end of one era and the beginning of another. The new chapter in American automotive history began with the initiation of full mobilization and the daunting task of retooling more than 1,000 automotive manufacturing facilities.
By late January of 1942 Hudson Motor Car Company was building more Oerlikon anti aircraft cannons than automobiles, a stunning accomplishment. To a large degree, this was accomplished with the construction of a new production facility in Centerline so the retooling could be accomplished without confliction.
As the need for war materials increased, the company perfected an improved process for production of magazines for these guns. Additionally the company produced numerous engines, one under license from Hercules, and another from Hall-Scott, numerous engine components for the Wright Cyclone, as well as fuselage sections for the B-29, P-63, and P-38.
Meanwhile, Chrysler produced durable trucks, scout cars, bullets, components for the Superfortress and Marauder. Ford produced Jeeps as well as trucks as it had automobiles. However, the Willow Run bomber facility proved to be truly astounding with peak production in late 1943 reaching one B-24 Liberator an hour!
General Motors cranked out an astounding array of trucks, planes, and assorted components. In the post war years the Hydromatic would prove to be one of the most durable of that generations automatic transmissions, largely as a result of improvement and usage in tanks produced by the company.
During the war Hudson excelled at rapid transition of tooling for new projects, a task for which the company received numerous awards. As a result, the company was in a unique position to resume production of civilian vehicles and initial plans were laid for resumption in time for a 1945 model year, a goal never reached.
Still, the first post war Hudson, a two tone gray Commodore Six, rolled from the factory on August 30th, 1945, mere days before the Japanese surrender was officially signed in Tokyo Bay, as a 1946 model.
This scenario played out in a similar manner with most manufacturers. However, even with authorization to resume limited civilian production shortages of material ensured there would be no 1945 model year.
Even General Motors was stymied with post war material shortages. To a large degree this was the primary reason for the decision to initiate production of civilian trucks several months before passenger cars, as 1946 models.
Some of the most fascinating war time developments with potential for vast and dramatic changes to the entire automotive world, from production to driving, came from the smallest companies. The legendary Kalamazoo manufacturer of cabs, Checker, created some of the most intriguing of these.
A sole representative of the fist endeavor rests among the extensive collection at the Gilmore Museum in Hickory Corners, Michigan near Kalamazoo. This vehicle is an early prototype of the G.P. scout car (Jeep) developed by American Bantam. Among the intriguing modifications developed for this model are four wheel steering as well as four wheel drive.
The company further experimented with unconventional drive train configurations later in the war. These “special projects” were small-scale operations with a goal of developing the “cab of the future.”
The first of these was designated Model B. In early 1945, two of these prototypes with rear engine and transaxle were completed and extensively tested. The stillborn Model C followed.
The Model D capitalized on the technological developments of the Jeep prototype and the Model B. Initial testing of this vehicle, utilizing a transverse mounted six-cylinder engine and transaxle for front wheel drive, led to a green light for development with production to commence as soon as resumption of civilian vehicle was possible.
This would have been an astounding undertaking even for a larger company. For a small company utilizing almost of its resources for the production of military equipment it was a near impossibility as the Model D would feature an entirely redesigned body, interior and mechanical configuration. The death knell for the project came with an emergency federal authorization for the construction of 4,000 new cabs, 2000 to be built by Checker and 2,000 by Desoto.
Again, current pressing needs trumped innovation. For Checker the initiative to be an industry innovator was lost.
The immediate post war years represented the greatest sellers market in automotive history. Subsequently there was little in the way of styling change to differentiate 1945, 1946, or in some cases, 1947 and 1948 models from those of late 1941 or 1942. Interestingly enough most manufacturers redesigned their truck line several years before that of their passenger cars that in turn raises even more questions as well as thoughts about what might have been.
The great “what if” is what prevents a study of history from becoming as dry as an insurance seminar. In the realm of automotive history the greatest “what if” has to be the model year that never was, 1945.
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