How Detroit Won WWII

WWII cars to Tanks

Think what Detroit meant in 1945 and what it represents today.

Once the very symbol of American prosperity and the American Dream, Detroit has run out of gas.

For decades the Motor City was the greatest manufacturing city in the world, unmatched in industrial strength, no more so than during WWII.

Detroit was the place that America once knew as the Arsenal of Democracy. “Like England battles were won on the playing fields of Eton,” Walter Reuther of the UAW famously said, “American’s were won on the assembly lines of Detroit.”

Obama bailed out the auto industry four years ago, reviving a once flourishing industry, but there was a time when the Detroit Auto Industry basically  bailed out the US Government.

During WWII Detroit was at the center of the greatest concentration of applied science and technology the world had ever seen. Factories broke every previous production record and poured forth a flood of goods, unleashing  American productive and technological genius.

The wartime transformation of Michigan’s automotive industry and its massive contributions to winning the war are well worth remembering.

Arsenal of Democracy

vintage editorial cartoon WWII Uncle sam

Vintage Ad Okonite Insulated Wires & Cables

A year before America  entered the war, while Hitler ominously goosestepped across Europe, President Roosevelt challenged the nation to become the worlds “arsenal of democracy.” In a speech delivered at the end of 1940, FDR made a “call to arm and support” the Allied Powers, imploring Americans to stand up as the arsenal of democracy as though it were their own war.

As American industry rushed to respond, GM, Chrysler, Ford and others rose to the occasion in a big way, producing both “guns and butter” until out of the blue came December 7, 1941 and the industry shifted to all out  war supplier.

After Pearl Harbor what had been defense production became war production as the  car manufacturers turned entirely to the manufacturing of military trucks, planes, engines, weapons, and ammunition.

Torpedoes Before And After

1940 Car Pontiac Torpedo

Another Big Year For Pontiac Torpedo- Vintage 1940 ad for Pontiac  announces “Now there’s a Torpedo for everybody. Pontiac’s new line of cars for 1941 start with the DeLuxe Torpedoes!”

WWII Pontiac 43

Pontiac was still producing torpedoes only now it was volume production of Aircraft torpedoes, the deadliest weapons of the sea and the most difficult to make.
Vintage ad Pontiac 1943 “Building Fast and Building well! Building aircraft torpedoes what Navy officials describe as a “slippery messenger of Death”

Oldsmobile  Volume Producer of Fire Power for USA

WWII Oldsmobile ad

Vintage ad Oldsmobile 1942

“Ever since a year ago last March (1941) Oldsmobile has been a leading mass production arsenal for the USA,” we are proudly informed in this  1942 ad from Oldsmobile .

The copy goes on to explain, “Long before Pearl Harbor, months before the nation went on a full-time war basis, Oldsmobile men and machines were pouring out “Fire Power “ in volume.”

“Thousand upon thousand deadly automatic cannon for Americas fighter planes! Millions of high-caliber shell for the field artillery and for tanks! Today Oldsmobile offensive is getting results. Oldsmobile “Fire Power is dealing powerful blows to the enemy.”

“Oldsmobile’s on the Offensive! –with a vast non stop production drive that has already speeded thousands of cannon and millions of  shell to our armed forces everywhere.”

“Keep ‘em fighting” is Oldsmobile’s biggest job in 44 years! Keep em fighting will be the war cry- and the determination– of every Oldsmobile worker until the war is won.”

Pay-off for Pearl Harbor

Vintage WWII Ad Cadillac 1944

Vintage WWII Ad Cadillac 1944

“Three years ago the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor found America unprepared to defend its rights.” begins this 1944 ad from Cadillac.

“Yet even at that early date,”  the copy explains, “Cadillac was in its third year of building aircraft engines for military use. The Allison engine is used to power such potent fighters as the Lightning, the Warhawk, the Mustang, the Aircobra and the new Kingcobra.”

“In addition to our work on the Allison which has included more than 57,000,000 man hours of precision production we assisted Army Ordinance engineers in designing the M-5 Light tank and the M-8 Howitzer.”

“We are building other weapons which utilize some of Cadillacs peacetime products. We can’t talk about all of them yet- but we are confident they will prove significant addition to Allied armor.”

A Crushing Superiority

WWII Pontiac 1940 1943

vintage car 1940s illustration WWII Bomber

(L) Vintage Ad Lincoln Zephyr V12 1941
The crown Jewel of Detroit’s brilliance was the bomber plant built by Ford at Willow Run 27 miles from Detroit. By 1944 they were employing 42,000 people turning out a B24 bomber an hour. The Axis could count on there being “a Ford in their Future.”

WWII DeSoto car ads

(L) Vintage ad De Soto 1941 -Bigger, more luxurious, has new rakish rocket body!
(R) Vintage ad De Soto 1943 De Soto helped build these B-26 Marauders. De Soto war production included the precision building of airplane wing sections, bomber fuselage nose and center section, assemblies for anti aircraft guns and general Sherman tanks

WWII Chevrolet ad

Who’s got all these features…Chevrolet! (L) Vintage Chevrolet ad 1939  (R) Vintage Ad 1945 Chevrolet- “Chevrolet is making its mark everywhere, Volume for Victory!”

In a speech to Congress in January 1942, FDR called for “a crushing superiority of equipment”  setting a staggering production goal for America. Civilian production was soon halted and manufacturers converted to war production.

A month later, the last big shiny American  cars rolled off the assembly lines, and car loving Americans would have to make do with their pre-war models for the duration.

What were once busy factories, bloomed into enormous plants that made parts for planes, cars, ships and tanks,

Vital To Victory

WWII Chrysler ads

Vintage WWII Chrysler Ads (L) 1943 (R) 1944

Ol’ Tojo, may have thought he hit us below the belt, gloating that: “American’s exercise of freedom to choose” had made us soft and weak and unfit for war making…but boy what a sucker he turned out to be! Masters of mass production, Americans began  retooling to become masters of mass destruction. Manufacturers were  working night and day, turning radios into radar, and Fords into fighter plane. American manufacturers sure weren’t pullin’ any punches. They were working head over heels, night and day, building essential war materials.

More, Better, Sooner

Vintage cartoon WWII Uncle Sam

Vintage Ad Philco 1942 illustration by Rube Goldberg

By 1943 , “More, better, sooner” was the war cry of Detroit’s soldiers of production.

“We have a job to do..the biggest job that has ever faced the minds and muscle of American industry”, stated the copy an ad that ran in 1942 that pretty much sums up the determination felt by all American workers.

“ This is the time for our workers to prove we have earned our reputation as the worlds masters of mass production. This is the time for the genius of our industrial scientists and engineers to preserve their gift to America, the worlds highest standard of living. And preserve they will, gloriously and decisively. “

“Production, in the American way, is the key to victory.”

War unleashed and mobilized the powerful energy of American production it gave workingmen jobs and made them part of a quest whose goal was the killing of the hydra-headed Fascist monster.

This Ones For You Tojo!


(L) Vintage 1939 Nash Ad A Million Miles From Nowhere- carried away on the magic wings of a Nash you’ll see distances dwindle”

The Nash Kelvinator ad from 1943 begins – “Listen Tojo, when you hear that karrump some night and the factory walls start sliding into the sea- look out, its one of those new “ice cubes” from Nash Kelvinator.”

“They’re coming, Tojo- coming from men who in building last years refrigerators and automobiles thought only of a nation’s health and happiness. But now, its hate and vengeance and the remembrance of a thousand Axis wrongs that are guiding their hands…beating every production record.”

Fighting…. Every working Minute

Vintage WWII Ad Oldsmobile 1942

Vintage WWII Ad Oldsmobile 1942

“I feel as if I’d blasted a Jap out of the sky every time I finish up one of these cannons!”  explains the war worker in this Oldsmobile ad from 1942 .”That’s the way one Oldsmobile worker describes it and that’s the way all of them feel. They’re mad-fighting mad! They want to do their part and they’re doing it with a lot of “fight “ in it.”

“They’re working fast and they’re working well…Shift after shift…24 hours a day…168 hours a week.”

“Some of these men have been in arms production for well over a year,” the copy explains.” Long enough so that they frequently hear that the cannon and shell they’ve been building are already “ dishing it out” to the Axis. No Americans cant lose. Not when our great armed forces are backed up by men like these.”

Blood Brother to Yesterdays Cadillac

WWII Cadillac Ad 1944

WWII Cadillac Ad 1944

When it came to tanks, you wouldn’t you really rather have a Cadillac?

“The tough hard-hitting Howitzer Motor carriage doesn’t look much like a sleek beautiful Cadillac car,” this 1944 ad points out. “But they’re blood brothers. They were both built by Cadillac.”

“Months before the last 1942 Cadillac rolled from the assembly line, Cadillac was working with the US army ordnance engineers- adapting the famous Cadillac V-type engine and Hydra Matic transmission for use in tank design. The first tank produced with this “power train” was the celebrated M-5 built in volume by Cadillac.”

“Cadillac is proud that its peacetime V type engine and its Hydra-matic transmission could be adapted to provide the Arsenal of Democracy with such important new weapons.”

© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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  1. My affinity for this era of US history forces to to say this is one of your best post. Wonderful.


  2. dm10003

    Postwar European factories were smoldering heaps which should be taken into account of your overall picture.


  3. Joe Latshaw

    …and the fact that those European and Japanese factories were in rubble meant that they were rebuilt – with American assistance – using newer technology and greater efficiency than the American plants. Modern steel plants in Japan and Europe helped put American companies out of business.

    Perhaps the American worker would have been better off had we let the Soviets take Western Europe and Japan?


  4. David Dempsey

    What killed the American motor industry was the same thing that killed the UK motor industry…poor management and hidebound unions ..the refusal to see the writing on the wall…that’s why people loved Honda’s and Toyota’s…reliable and cheap…not everyone wanted a 7litre SUV..


  5. The U.S produced some 3 million trucks and countless parts in WWII. They went through the Army’s Fort Wayne Ordnance Depot in Southwest Detroit and its subsidiary locations, a historic site now called Historic Fort Wayne, which I manage. Three of our 1942 warehouses are still being used by the Detroit Historical Society. Thank you for your beautiful website documenting our area’s role in saving our way of life!


  6. Pingback: Remembering Pearl Harbor | Envisioning The American Dream

  7. michael heit

    The destruction of Japan and Germany’s factories have NOTHING to do with American prosperity after the war. Contrary to wide spread belief all our prosperity was based soley on domestic production and consumption. America never had a very big export economy until the 1970’s.
    As for Unions causing the deline, David Dempsy and Sallyedelstein are totally wrong.
    Bad management and engineering did the industry in. Cars made in the latter part of the 1960’s on ward were designed like crap; Rusting at 20,000 miles, engine leaks, etc. Also managements refusal to change in the face of the gas crises.


  8. David Dempsey

    I part say that..but I quote an article by Martin Hutchinson.

    .”There are three reasons for GM’s decline, none of them easily reversible:

    The first is notorious – GM has a major cost disadvantage: When foreign automakers had no automobile factories on U.S. soil, GM could – and did – allow the United Auto Workers (UAW) union to ramp up costs ad infinitum. Any cost disadvantage that GM thereby acquired compared to foreign brands produced in cheaper-labor economies could be overcome through careful lobbying to provide barriers against excessive imports.

    However, the arrival and establishment of foreign-owned manufacturers in America’s less-unionized states – combined with the inexorable aging of GM’s former and current work force, which greatly increased the U.S. automaker’s health and pension costs – shackled GM with an impossible cost disadvantage against its competitors. Some of that disadvantage is now being slowly negotiated away, but without a GM bankruptcy it seems most unlikely that the company’s costs can be brought down to competitive levels.

    Second, GM has been bedeviled by government regulation: One great example is the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFÉ) standards introduced in 1975. As a specialist in the traditional large cars that the U.S.-consuming public favored, GM was badly affected by the CAFÉ standards that, by mandating average fuel economy ratings for the entire fleet, enormously benefited Japanese and other makers that specialized in small cars. Eventually, GM and the other U.S. manufacturers found a loophole, and developed the sports utility vehicle (SUV) that, being based on a truck chassis, was not subject to the CAFÉ restrictions. By the time Chrysler, Ford and GM made that discovery, however, the damage – in terms of market share – had been done.

    A further round of tighter CAFE restrictions introduced in 2007, this time including SUVs, has once again imposed gigantic development costs on GM, making its entire product range obsolete. A moderate gasoline tax, particularly one introduced over a lengthy period, would have been far less disruptive to the market, and to GM’s operations. It would also probably have achieved rather more in terms of fuel economy and combating global warming. “Cap-and-trade” regulations, as proposed by the Obama administration, will further increase GM’s costs, providing the biggest relative benefits to manufacturers in such low-wage countries as China and India that are not subject to such impositions.

    However, the principal threat to GM’s competitive position, one which Wagoner’s departure will intensify, is the “culture war” between the upscale bi-coastal opinion formers and the general U.S. public: In 1970, the standard upscale car for all but the very rich was a Cadillac, a Lincoln, or a Chrysler Imperial. This was as true in New York as it was in Detroit or Dallas; only a small minority of consumers bought top-of-the-line foreign cars, generally with academic pretensions. Equally, for the upper-middle bracket, Buick or Mercury was the choice of the vast majority.

    Today on the East and West coasts, consumer tastes are very different. Saloon Cadillacs and Lincolns are rare; the upscale driver generally chooses a Mercedes, BMW or Lexus. Only among those with families (such as the Obamas) is a large SUV sometimes chosen, although generally an imported one. Buick now sells far more cars in China than in the United States; the traditional Buick or Mercury driver on the East or West coast has migrated almost entirely to import models.


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