Automotive War: The American War Machine in Motion


As the United States draws closer to war and the future of Chrysler remains unclear (Automotive News, 2018), it is prudent to think about the relationship between American auto manufacturers and the government of the United States. Understanding this relationship requires going back further than the 2008 bailouts and further back than President Eisenhower’s farewell speech in 1961 in which he warned against a military-industrial complex (United States, 1961)[1]. This paper discusses the symbiotic relationship between the American automotive industry and the U.S. military, with a focus on heavy machinery production in World War II, with the argument that the automotive industry and the U.S. government have a symbiotic relationship that helps maintain a permanent war economy. The first section will go through the development of planes, tanks, trucks, and weapons during World War II. The next is a brief discussion of American societal and cultural entanglements with the automotive industry, and the third section will connect examples from automotive history and/or in the previous sections that exemplify writings from selected academic authors. The appendix includes images from throughout the text.

Even though the focus of this paper is World War II, World War II was not the start of the relationship between the American auto industry and the U.S. military; this relationship was also present during World War I. During the first World War, Packard, Ford, Lincoln, and Marman took on contracts to build aviation engines (Breer, p. 5) such as the Liberty aviation engines. According to Carl Breer, “During World War I, Studebaker along with other manufacturers was required to build track-laying army tanks on which to mount automatic field guns” (1995, p. 51). Many automotive manufacturers shared their wartime office in the northeast corner of Woodward and East Grand Boulevard at Ford Motor Company Headquarters on the tenth and eleventh floors; these companies barely fixed problems with exploding engines just before Armistice Day (Breer, 1995, 51-55). While there was cooperation in this time, the relationship between the U.S. auto industry and the U.S. military is better illustrated by World War II, in which generals – such as General Knudsen – directly dealt with the automotive industry in the development of heavy machinery[2].

Section I. World War II

Some very colorful stories about engineering ingenuity stem from automotive engineering during World War II. Included in these is the story of the multibank tank engine. Towards the middle of the war, the U.S. started to run out of spare radial aviation engines to power Sherman tanks. The Army tasked their automotive suppliers with the challenge to create an engine that was cheap, could be produced quickly, and would be powerful enough to drive a 32-ton Sherman tank[3]. According to the story, Chrysler engineers looked at what they needed to do and what they had available and came to a surprisingly successful conclusion – what do you do when you want the power of five engines? You strap together five engines and have them run on the same crankshaft (Stout, 1946, p. 34-35). Each tank ran independently and given that if the engines were tuned slightly wrong the timing would be way off, it’s a wonder that these multibank engines in the Shermans even worked, let alone beat out the German Tigers and Panthers that had much more armor and firepower.

During World War II, Boeing and a few automotive companies developed the aircraft used by the U.S. military. Wright developed a radial engine for airplane use, and in his autobiography, Carl Breer described these engines as being built by craftsmen rather than engineers, as the technical drawings were not controlled. These radial engines were slow and costly to produce, hence the need for strapping five engines together for Sherman tanks. The most commonly used war plane was the B-29 Superfortress bomber. An interesting facet of airplane development in World War II is the postwar crafting of public perception of these planes. Image 1 shows a tour guide showing a radial engine to families, including children, talking to them about its technical prowess. Image 2 shows an intimidation tactic, with the caption “What we did to an enemy, an enemy might have done to us. The Musashino aircraft engine plant at Tokyo was incinerated by B29-dropped bombs” (Stout, 1947, p. 133). A somewhat extreme example is the inclusion of a photograph of an effigy of a Japanese person in a plant for the purpose of selling war bonds (Image 3). The juxtaposition of these images shows how military planes became a source of pride for the United States as both an engineering marvel and an intimidation tactic against Japan.

Shortly before the US entered World War II, the U.S. military approached the automotive industry to design heavyweight tanks. The M1A4 and M2 got little to no use but did show the government that quick engineering of tanks was possible. The tanks used the most during the war were the M3, M4 (Sherman), T28, and T29 tanks, with each new tank being heavier than the last (Breer, 1995, p. 189). The M4 had slightly less firepower than the M3 due to the positioning of its artillery but was relatively quick for a tank. Both were produced and used simultaneously because they filled different tactical purposes. A notable figure in this tank landscape is General Knudsen, who had been an executive at General Motors and during WWII became the Director of War Production, making him a direct and human link between the automotive industry and the U.S. military. During World War II, all automotive production stopped while the auto industry produced machinery for the United States. During World War II, at least 38 new types of pilot tanks were tested. The A-I tanks were scrapped before the war and replaced by 28-ton M3s, those were replaced by 32-ton M4s, those were replaced by the 43-ton Pershings. At the end of the war, Chrysler had a 65-ton tank in the works that would most likely have been deployed despite intercontinental transportation weaknesses.

The first and largest tank arsenal in the U.S. was the Chrysler arsenal (Stout, 1949), which had displaced a farm that was seventeen miles out of Detroit. The auto industry arsenals at this point were owned by the government and leased out to the automotive corporations while they were working on contracts for the military (Stout, 1946, p. 13). When the automotive companies were producing cars, they used their own plants, and “many war-built plants ended as surplus to the government” (p. 4). Throughout the war, the Chrysler Arsenal became a bit of a tourist spot for world leaders – including President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Some car companies made a point of reducing the cost of their goods for the military. As the war raged on, production quotas kept rising – this could be part of the reason why the United Auto Workers union led strikes against the auto companies. In 1942, tanks were being built 24 hours a day for 6 days a week. In spring of 1943, production exceeded the military’s needs (p. 48), so tanks got shipped to Great Britain as well as the United States. After the war ended, American automotive corporations continued to build tanks for the U.S. military.

During World War II, the automotive industry designed trucks for the military. Dodge designed ambulances and army trucks, and Willys-Overland, Ford, and Bantam developed the Willys MA and MB jeep-type trucks. These trucks, along with early Ford and Bantam[4] trucks, became the ancestors to modern-day Humvees, Hummers, and Jeeps. Trucks were much more similar to the industry’s production status quo than airplane engines or tanks, which made them easier to produce. During WWII, automotive companies developed independent suspensions, 4-wheel drive, 6-wheel drive, made extensive use of interchangeable parts, developed an anti-rust technique, and started experimenting with fuel injection. Up through the 1970s, consumer cars still used carburetors, making this experimentation with fuel injection ahead of its time. Fuel injection and independent suspension could be military technologies that eventually entered civilian life, though for fuel injection this didn’t happen until a few decades later.

In addition to transportation, the automotive industry developed weaponry. Two examples of this are the Bofors gun and the Bazooka. Bofors guns were originally designed by Swedish craftsmen; they took long time to make and had uncontrolled blueprints. Over the course of the war, automotive engineers used a high-speed camera and trial-and-error to reverse engineer and improve upon the Bofors designs. Bofors guns are automatic anti-aircraft double barrel guns that are exceedingly loud. Hundreds of thousands of armor-piercing bazookas were manufactured by automakers for the Army. Army and Navy bazookas had different calibers; the Army’s was slightly smaller (Stout, 1949). In 1944, each rocket cost the military $25, which would be $310 in today’s money. Bazookas have since become a mainstay in warfare and have been depicted countless times in countless media. American markets accepted the bazooka wholeheartedly, eventually leading to the production of Bazooka bubble gum starting in 1947, which included a red, white and blue color scheme to promote patriotism (Newman, 2012).

Section II. Entanglements

Over time, military technology often becomes civilian technology. A broad history of this is given in Technics & Civilization, in which Lewis Mumford discusses how militarization and industrialization go hand in hand. A very specific example is Oilite[5] (Stout, 1949), which is a metal powder that is cast into molds to create parts. Casting into molds creates much less waste than boring into solid blocks. Inventions that the automotive industry sent to the military in WWII include air raid sirens and smoke screen devices. The air raid sirens produced by the automotive industry are powered by an internal combustion engine and can produce sound that would shatter a human eardrum if they weren’t a safe distance away. Modern-day Jeeps and Hummers are descended from Willys MBs. Four more military technologies that slid into civilian life are microwaves, refrigerators, GPS, and drones. Drones are the most recent on this list but are far from the least consequential given the juxtaposition of how many people have been killed using drone strikes compared to the consumer base that uses drones for taking cool videos or for racing. Semaphore telegraphs were first used in war (Mumford, 2010, p. 89), and they were an ancestor to texting, so one could posit that texting originated as a war technology.

A much more recent example of the U.S. military and automotive industry cooperation is the 2008-2009 bailouts of Chrysler and General Motors. Both companies were bailed out through loans, and in the near-decade since they have restructured and paid back the majority of their loans. The support for these bailouts was low, but the government went through with it anyway. This is a prime example of the government backing up the automotive industry during times of economic recession as part of the permanent war economy.

Section III. Academic Analyses

One of the implications of “The Social Construction of Facts and Artifacts” by Trevor Pinch and William Bijker (1984) was that the most successful technologies aren’t always the best. This can be seen across automotive history. A few quick examples are early steam engines, the Model-T (which was not a well-made car, but it was popular because it was cheap), and the turbine engine. In the context of World War II, one could talk about the victory of American tanks over German tanks. German tanks were designed to be perfect, machined by skilled labor, and had superior firepower and armor to American tanks. American tanks were relatively fast, used interchangeable parts, and could go more than two hours without running out of gas. In a one-on-one skirmish, a Tiger could probably beat a Sherman most of the time. However, while Germany was taking its time to make perfect tanks, the United States was pumping them out like a tank fountain. American tanks had some technical advantages (such as being a little quicker, getting much better gas mileage, not overloading bridges, and being a lot easier to fix behind enemy lines), but the real reason why American tanks beat out German tanks was because of the sheer number of tanks pumped out of Michigan.

Lewis Mumford’s Technics & Civilization (2010) was highly relevant to this topic. The automotive industry at the time of World War II had an arm in the paleotechnic phase and an arm in the neotechnic phase of technological history. Mumford writes about war as an aid to industrialization and the regimentation of daily life; this is exemplified in the following quote from page 84: “[T]he complacent characterizations of the First World War, namely that it was a large-scale industrial operation, has also a meaning in reverse: modern industrialism may equally be termed a large-scale military operation.” In this quote, Mumford talks about the reflexivity of industrialism and militarization. This is important in understanding the concept of the military-industrial complex. Mumford briefly discusses how the pressure of war demand has “remained persistent throughout its entire development” (Mumford, p. 90). Mumford also posits that war is the health of both the state and the machine. Mumford makes an interesting point when he says this:

“Now, the weaknesses of a capitalist system of production, based upon the desire to increase the abstract tokens of power and wealth, is the fact that the consumption and turnover of goods may be retarded by human weaknesses: affectionate memory and honest workmanship.”

This quote is quite interesting in that a clear example of a capitalist system of production rejecting “honest workmanship” was discussed earlier in this paper. American automotive engineers wanted to produce many Bofors guns, but because the guns had been crafted by Swedish craftsmen (who used “affectionate memory” and “honest workmanship”), the blueprints were imperfect and without precise measurements. The use of precise measurements in engineering is a step away from traditional craftsmanship in that human variance is no longer part of the design of manufactured machinery.

In The Visible Hand by Alfred Chandler, Chandler talks about how family-owned businesses eventually gave way to impersonal, manager-run enterprises. An automotive example that illustrates this quite well is the story of the Dodge brothers and their company, Dodge Brothers. Dodge was founded by Horace and John Dodge, two red-haired brothers that had specialized in making bicycle parts before focusing more on making automotive parts (McPherson, 1992) – we can thank Horace Dodge for the dirt-proof ball bearing, which he patented with Fred Evans in 1895 (Zatz, 2017). The Dodge brothers permanently moved from the bicycle industry in 1902 and started working with Ransom Olds (the first automaker to use an assembly line) in 1903. For about a decade, the Dodge brothers worked for Henry Ford (for a hefty price because of Ford’s early financial difficulties) and helped develop the Model T. In 1913, after some unreconcilable ideological and managerial differences with Ford, the Dodge brothers split from Ford and founded their own motor company. Ford had been holding back the brothers’ stock dividends, and when the brothers sued Ford in 1916 they got $19 million in back payments from Ford (roughly $454,753,000 in 2018) (Zatz).

While Ford used standard manufacturing business practices[6], Dodge Brothers made a point of treating their employees relatively well for factory work. Employees were given benefits, access to a machine shop called the Playpen that they could use on their own time, social support, and were sometimes given beer on hot days. Both Horace and John Dodge died in 1920, months apart. Their wives promoted long-time colleague Frederick Haynes to run the company (McPherson, 2012). The structure until 1920 was of a founder-owned and founder-managed business, which was common among early automobile manufacturers. After the death of the founders, Dodge was managed by someone close to the family, which falls close to the family-based business model. In 1928, Dodge was purchased by and absorbed into Chrysler, and has since been a distinct brand within Chrysler (Zatz).

As of 1928, Dodge started to fall under the managerial structure as described by Alfred Chandler. Dodge is currently a brand under Chrysler that is controlled by salaried managers rather than the owners, though it didn’t start out that way. Dodge started out as a company run by two brothers who fully controlled their company, and after their death the company passed along familiar ties to an old colleague rather than a salaried manager that was a stranger, bringing Dodge into a system of administrative cooperation. It wasn’t until after Dodge had been absorbed into Chrysler in 1928 that it started to become part of the American war machine.

In Forces of Production, David Noble (1986) focuses on aircraft, electronics, and machine tools, but he does have quite a bit of information on the automotive industry during World War II. According to Noble, more than 14,000 strikes occurred during World War II. This paper’s use of the phrase “permanent war economy” comes from an early page in Forces of Production: “The permanent war economy and the military-industrial complex now affixes the military imprint on a whole range of heretofore civilian industrial and scientific activities, in the name of national security” (Noble, 1984, p. 5). This one sentence nicely pulls together how the military and industry imprint militaristic tendencies upon civilian life. He then goes on to talk about the steps in this imprinting. First was the “emphasis placed upon performance rather than cost in order to meet the requirements of the military mission…,” which is illustrated well by the auto industry’s use of leased property to produce machinery for the military. The next is “insistence upon command…uncompromised by either intermediary error or judgement,” which is most likely why generals were involved directly in the production of military machinery and why Knudsen was drafted as Director of War Production. The final step is the “preoccupation with so-called modern methods, high technology and capital-intensive, to guarantee performance and command objectives and thereby assure the success of the mission: national security against communism.” While World War II was a fight against fascism more than it was a fight against communism, this quote is especially evident in the production of tanks. Every evolution of American tank was stronger and heavier than the tank before it, and these tanks were produced en masse to supply the United States with enough tanks to flood fascist Nazi Germany with Tiger fodder and claim victory via the sheer number of tanks.

Section IV. Conclusions

An egregious omission from the paper is the omission of the wartime labor force. During World War II, much of the automotive industry’s workforce consisted of African Americans and women who were not treated well at all (long hours and six days a week in a factory making weapons is not a great place to work) and were pushed out of both their jobs and their unions when the war ended (Noble, 1984, p. 22). Race relations were poor within the factories; when trying to sell war bonds, one factory hung an effigy of a Japanese soldier with a sign emblazoned with “A GOOD JAP IS A DEAD JAP,” showing clear racism towards Japanese people (see Image 3). Some resentment against Japan is understandable given the atrocities committed by Japan during World War II, but it’s still hard to see an effigy hanging in the middle of a factory. In the publicity pictures shown in the Chrysler books written in the 1940s, there are few if any nonwhite people depicted in good light. They’re either an effigy or a ‘coolie’ putting together a plane by hand. Throughout the four books read, there are few if any African-Americans depicted in any light, despite African-Americans and women comprising the majority of the automotive workforce during World War II (Noble, 1984, p. 22).

Quite a bit of the source material for this paper comes from self-published books written by Wesley Stout for Chrysler Corporation during and after World War II. These books paint American auto manufacturers as patriotic, beneficial, and neighborly entities contributing to their country. While it would be nice to accept this at face value, this corporate narrative of patriotism could have been simply for appearances, as the big three had conducted business in Germany before World War II. A cynic could argue that the auto manufacturers only made heavy machinery because the government paid them to, and not for any humanitarian or patriotic reason. This corporate patriotism and collaboration during World War II has allowed American automotive manufacturers to garner a sense of Americanness – which one could argue allows “corporate actors [to] exploit the façade of the national at the expense of the ultimate third-party …stakeholder: humanity” (Levin, 2012). Put simply, American auto manufacturers use a narrative of patriotism to bolster revenue and to maintain a relationship with the American government.

The ability of the automotive industry to produce planes, trucks, tanks, weapons, and engines en masse allowed the United States to flood Nazi Germany with war machinery. American automotive manufacturers have been historically inextricably connected to the United States government; the government acts as a constant source of demand for the automotive industry and the automotive industry acts as a constant source of supply for the government. This is a symbiotic relationship that helps maintain a military-industrial complex. Because of this relationship, it is interesting to see a decrepit Detroit and an uncertain future for Chrysler when there is war to be waged – perhaps as the U.S. uses less heavy machinery and newer technologies such as drones, it is leaving Detroit behind and American auto manufacturers with it.


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See video at

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Appendix: Images

Image 1. Tour Guide Shows Radial Engine to Families. Great Engines and Great Planes, p. 51

Image 2. Razed Tokyo Engine Plant. Great Engines and Great Planes, p. 133

Image 3. Effigy. TANKS Are Mighty Fine Things. p. 70




[1] This paper will use Chicago Author-Date citations.

[2] Discussion of heavy machinery in this paper includes a lot of tanks.

[3] Sherman tanks ran 30-38 tons depending on loadout.

[4] A “bantam” is a small, aggressive chicken; it’s more likely that this brand is named after the word ‘bantamweight,’ which is a weight class in mixed martial arts.

[5] Oilite was used during WWII but not invented during WWII.

[6] While Ford did offer a $5 a day pay rate, he only did so when workers complied with the requirements of the Sociological Department.