By on May 29, 2011

Chrysler A57 Multibank 30 cylinder Sherman tank engine made from five inline sixes

Memorial Day is a time set aside to remember those who gave their lives in military service to the United States. Today, even as we are fighting two wars and have men and women in harms way in yet other places, though, a relatively small fraction of Americans serve in the military. Few civilians, except military families, understand the sacrifices necessary to protect our country. There was a time, though, when the military conflict was genuinely existential and just about every able bodied man was drafted or enlisted, while virtually the entire civilian population was directly involved in the war effort, either through their jobs in military production, or more personally, because just about everything was rationed giving the military a higher priority for things like vehicles, tires, fuel and food. With the dawn of total war, the plants and proving grounds of Detroit became a new kind of battlefield, in which the tools of economic prosperity were turned into munitions and machines that would change the course of history.

The other day I heard Andrew Roberts discuss his book, The Storm of War, and he described how the Nazi high command grossly underestimated the United States. Only one member of the Nazi elite had visited the United States and the consensus among them was that it would take so long for the Americans to be able to convert their industries to a war footing that it would be decades before the US would be able to mount an invasion of fortress Europe. Hitler declared war on the United States immediately after Pearl Harbor, a foolish strategic mistake.

Already a year earlier, in December of 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt had given a speech that coined the phrase “arsenal of democracy”, describing how the United States would mobilize its industrial base to make weapons for England, then trying to withstand the German onslaught. Surely German spies must have noticed how quickly American industries, both basic and heavy like steel, and more consumer oriented like the automobile industry, were starting to convert to military production.

In fact, the automobile industry and its supply base in southeastern Michigan embraced military production with such fervor that by the end of World War Two Detroit itself had become known as the “arsenal of democracy”. Rosie the Riveter isn’t just a vintage propaganda poster around Detroit, Rosie and her fellow riveters were our mothers and grandmothers.

Actually, the extent of the industry’s commitment to the war effort can be seen at any vintage car show, meet or concours. Does anyone really need to explain why, except for army staff cars, there are no 1943, 1944 or 1945 model year cars? The fact that there were so few 1942 models shows how quickly the auto industry responded to FDR’s clarion call. Cars for the 1942 model year would have been developed long before Pearl Harbor, and that Japanese attack took place a quarter of the way into the model year. By the time the US had entered the war, domestic civilian vehicle production had already been slowed, impacted by the conversion to making war materiel.

It now almost 70 years after the US entered the war. Over the past 6 months or so I’ve been visiting a variety of automotive related sites in southeastern Michigan to shoot 3D content for Cars In Depth. The Detroit area has no shortage of public and private automotive collections and museums, and virtually every one has artifacts or displays about the domestic auto industry’s contribution to the war effort.

I recently covered the spring open house at the Packard Proving Grounds, north of Detroit. Like many Detroit automakers, Packard had a long history of supplying marine engines and there were a number on display at the open house including a Packard 4M 2500 V12 engine like the one that was original equipment on US PT boats.

Packard V12 PT Boat Engine

In wartime you sometimes have to make do with what you have, so some of those Packard V12s were replaced in service by 2000 cubic inch 6 cylinder “Invader” engines made by Hudson, though that engine, licensed by Hall-Scott, was more likely to be found powering landing craft. The Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum has a Hudson built Invader 168 in their collection.

Hall-Scott Invader engine built under license by Hudson Motors

Since the car companies didn’t make a lot of cars between 1942 and 1945 it’s possible that they had a hand in making more boats, tanks, and planes than cars for the duration.

With its gleaming one of a kind show cars and historically important production cars and trucks, the General Motors Heritage Center is not a place where you’d expect to find the tools of war, but in the center’s display of significant General Motors’ engines is a massive 45.9L 18 cylinder Pratt & Whitney “Doube Wasp” radial engine. GM’s Tonawanda plant made thousands of them for US warplanes.

Pratt & Whitney R-2800 “Double Wasp” 18 cylinder radial engine built by General Motors.

The Walter P. Chrysler Museum, an independent non-profit institution located on Chrysler’s Auburn Hills campus, has a number of artifacts relating to the industry’s war effort, including a Willys MB jeep, a Dodge Power Wagon 4X4 truck, an experimental aircraft V16 that was Chrysler’s first “hemi” engine, and an amazing frankenmotor, a 30 cylinder monster made up of five 201 cubic inch Plymouth inline sixes, used in the Sherman tank.

Ford also made an engine for the Sherman, an aluminum DOHC V8 that was well advanced of anything they’d put in a car for decades. There isn’t one of those on display around Detroit that I know of, but there are ample artifacts of Ford’s production for the war effort. There’s a motor mall off of Maple Road in Troy, just down the road from the site of a former Ford tractor factory. The Ford dealer there has long displayed some restored Ford tractors as well as a couple of Ford produced jeeps. One is a standardized military jeep, the result of competition between American Bantam, Ford and Willys, while the other is a rare, earlier jeep, Ford’s entry in that competition. That competition took place, by the way, before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Germany’s declaration of war on the United States.

Rare 1940 Willys MA, the Toledo based company’s entry into the Army’s competition. Walter P. Chrysler Museum.

To commemorate Memorial Day, over the weekend we’ll be taking a look at the American car companies’ involvement in World War Two. Later today we’ll look at the Big 3 and on Monday we’ll cover the independent automakers.

To veterans of the American armed forces I would like to say “thank you for your service”. To families who have made the ultimate sacrifice, know that your loved one did not die in vain.


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22 Comments on “For Memorial Day: The Arsenal of Democracy...”

  • avatar

    Nice article! I really should go to the Ottawa war museum soon…

  • avatar
    John Fritz

    How in the hell did they ever get the timing right on that A57?

    Leaf owners won’t be able to look at that picture without their eyes melting.

    • 0 avatar

      LOL @ the Leaf comment. Photos of the Wasp Major (38-cylinder monstrosity found on B-29’s) would finish the job.

      Timing? Not too bad… one crank, five camshafts? That’s not much worse than one crank, four camshafts on a modern DOHC V8.

      • 0 avatar

        I didn’t know that some of the B-29s had the Wasp Major. According to my research, most B-29s were powered by Wright Cyclone 18 cylinder engines.

        Figuring out how to cool an aircooled 28 cylinder engine (you made a typo) must have been quite a task. The R-2800 Pratt & Whitney that GM built, required sophisticated machining to be able to make the thin, deep cooling fins.

        Was weight the reason why none of the radials seem to be water cooled?

      • 0 avatar

        It looks to me like it actually has 5 separate crankshafts. Maybe connected with a chain or something? Otherwise, from the looks of it, the connecting rods would be 2 feet long.

      • 0 avatar

        I stand corrected; the Wasp Major is 4 banks of 7 radial cylinders (each with 2 sparkplugs) that was used on the post-war B-36 and B-50. The B-29 used something else.

  • avatar

    An appropriate topic, and a fascinating and extensive one to boot. The history of the Jeep and its trickle-down to the CJ and modern 4×4’s could fill a small blog by itself.

    But, referring to the first paragraph, let’s keep this to The Truth About Cars (and their history), and not The Truth About American Military History and its impact on civilian life here and abroad. Questions of the necessity of sacrifices to “protect” this country belong on a political forum, not here.


    • 0 avatar

      But, referring to the first paragraph, let’s keep this to The Truth About Cars (and their history), and not The Truth About American Military History and its impact on civilian life here and abroad. Questions of the necessity of sacrifices to “protect” this country belong on a political forum, not here.

      The introductory paragraph was not meant to be political. I don’t believe that Memorial Day is a political event. I know that some of the B&B don’t believe this, but those of us who contribute to TTAC work hard to keep our personal partisan political ideologies out of our posts (though I certainly don’t abide by that rule in the comments). We may not always succeed but none of us wants to use our TTAC posts as a political soapbox. Ultimately, as you inferred, this is a car site.

      I think regardless of which side of the aisle we sit on, I think we can agree that those in the military and their families must make sacrifices in order to protect us. It was a general comment, not a reflection on any particular military conflict. This is a day when we remember those sacrifices, particularly those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

      An article devoted to how extensively the domestic auto industry converted to military production during WWII (as you point out, an apt topic for a car site on Memorial Day weekend) will necessarily address how that affected civilian life. Still, I tried to keep it in the wheelhouse of TTAC and on automotive topics. While discussing this series of articles with our esteemed ed Ed, we decided that I’d emphasize the automotive angle, for example how Chrysler’s automotive Hemi was a descendant of an experimental V16 aircraft engine.

  • avatar

    WoW–that A57 Chrysler engine is incredible! In effect, Chrysler
    created a water cooled radial engine!

  • avatar

    Semi-political comment? Yep.

    Also a comment on modern-day USA heavy industry; that includes auto/truck manufacturing.

    I believe a future WW2-like conflict requiring massive amounts of heavy industry to provide the “tools of war” would either lead to a USA defeat due to the inability to build those tools OR…

    a requirement to resort to “the most bang for the buck;” nuclear weaponry.

    Ramifications of that impossible to guess at but if the target possesses nukes….. well……

    “Would you like to play intercontinental total nuclear warfare?”

    Severe undesired after-effects likely even if the target can not retaliate.

    • 0 avatar


      Charlie Wilson predicted the problem that you cite so he recommended to Pres. Truman that we needed a permanent defense industry. He knew that future wars would not have the luxury of the time needed to convert from consumer and industrial production to military goods. Eisenhower may have warned about the dangers of a permanent “military-industrial complex” but he made Charlie Wilson his Sec. of Defense and it was under Eisenhower that Wilson’s dream of a dedicated munitions industry came to fruition.

  • avatar

    Very serendipitous. CanadianDriver (I will not countenance had a piece on the multibank engine, and to a lesser degree, on similar technology and the social conditions that spawned it not too long ago.

  • avatar
    Mark out West

    If WWII happened today, all we could do is throw crateful of worthless bonds at the enemy in a lame attempt in burying them in paper.

    America’s greatness ended with the last flight of the X-15. After that it was all navel-gazing, discoing, coke snorting, granite countertops, Sub-Zeros in every kitchen and CDOs. In otherwords, the baby-boomers.

  • avatar

    Cars guys have to be interested in the 28 cyl R4360 Pratt Whitney. 4,360 cubic inches, 167 cubes per cyl. 3,000 HP @ about 2800 RPM. Prop was 17 ft in diameter. It was used on the C-97 and the Kc-97 which had the same wing as the B-29. It had a big turbo, as well as an internal centrifugal supercharger, water injection, roller cams, lotsa stuff that eventually found its way into automobiles of today. It was cool.

  • avatar

    I think the American auto industry’s role in WWII is a very appropriate topic for TTAC on Memorial Day.

    You can’t give enough credit to FDR for US industrial ramp up in WWII. He was a smart and well-connected man, connected to other smart and well-connected men. He rammed through Congress a series of defense authorization bills in 1940-41, prior to Pearl Harbor that laid the framework for the weapons that won the war, including the Essex-class carriers and the B-29 bomber.

    Not just after, but before Pearl Harbor, deals of all kinds were cut with large manufacturers to diversify into defense production. In some cases, The government paid for a new plant to be leased by the company. In some cases, the company built the plant to be leased by the government. Basically it was whatever was needed under the circumstances. The people who hated Obama’s auto bailout would have really had a problem with the deals Roosevelt’s people cut. But the proof is in the results. General Motors built more Avenger Bombers and Wildcat fighters than Grumman. Chrysler made a good portion of America’s tanks. Ford’s Willow Run plant built thousands of B-24 bombers. Packard built engines for PT Boats and P-51 Mustangs.

  • avatar

    My Grandfather served in the ‘REME’ (Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers) fixing Shermans for the 11th Armoured Division from D +5 to the end of the war in Europe. He told me numerous tails of fixing and botching back together Sherman tanks using parts from burnt out wrecks (sometimes containing corpses) and parts fresh out of the crate. He was always impressed how the Americans had everything they ever needed whilst the British troops sometimes had to make do with the aforementioned ‘left overs’. He left behind several friends in France, could outdrink me (Scotch wise) well into his 80’s and I will always remember him.
    Incidentally he drove Volkswagens until the day he died.

  • avatar

    But really, who would challenge the USA to a third war?

    Japan or Germany? Sheer suicide for any small (in size) country to challenge a nuclear power.

    China? Just stop buying Chinese toys and it will falter.

    Russia? Just stop importing oil and they will bankrupt.

    There are fundamental structural problems with these nations and there won’t be a big war in another 50 years.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s not just toys. It’s clothes, appliances, even blood pressure cuffs. Very hard to avoid buying Chinese. Sandals? You can probably still get German made Birkenstocks and Israeli made Tevas, but everything else…

      I try not to buy Chinese, but I often do. I absolutely draw the line at food. I will not buy anything grown in China.

      • 0 avatar

        None of these items are necessities that you would buy from an opponent during war time.

        But trust me, these two nations won’t start a real war in this century.

  • avatar


    I promise I will read this one with great interest. I have a regular working day today, and will probably print it out for bedtime reading.

  • avatar

    Not so funny how the American auto companies helped win the war so we would all be free to buy Japanese and German cars 50-60 years later.

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