Among collectors of vintage American cars it’s generally known that 1942 model year cars are particularly rare. By January of 1942, Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States was a fully fledged participant in the global military conflagration known as World War II. Just about all production of civilian cars was shelved while America’s industrial might geared up for combat. As a result of that truncated model year most car collectors know that ’42s are indeed rare and civilian 1943 model year cars are nonexistent. What’s not as well known is that the transition of Detroit into the so-called “Arsenal of Democracy” was well underway long before the 1942 model year. That term was coined by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in a radio speech he delivered in December of 1940 and even by then, for example, Chrysler had already started working on what would become the Detroit Arsenal Tank Plant in suburban Warren.
According to Charles Hyde’s book on independent automakers Nash, Hudson and the American Motors Corp. that was founded by their merger, by the spring of 1941, many months before the Pearl Harbor attack, executives of all three of the Big 3 automakers, GM, Ford, and Chrysler, made public announcements that their would be no new 1943 model cars. The independent automakers followed soon thereafter with similar news. The American auto industry was so busy with military contracts for the American and British governments that they simply did not have the engineering resources to develop 1943 models.
However, just because they stopped production of automobiles for civilian use doesn’t mean that the American car companies completely stopped building cars. The use of passenger automobiles by the military goes back almost a century. In 1915 a U.S. Army lieutenant named George Patton led 15 men into battle against Pancho Villa’s forces with three Dodge touring cars in America’s first motorized military expedition. In in the European war that was raging then the term “staff car”, a passenger used to convey ranking military officers, entered the lexicon. When the U.S. entered WWI, Packard made a custom Twin Six for the use of U.S. commander Gen. “Black Jack” Pershing.
Hence in addition to the iconic Willys MB and Ford GPW jeeps, American automakers produced a decent number of 1942 model sedans to be used as staff cars. Besides making jeeps, Ford made staff cars. Jack Roush has a 1941 Ford U.S. Army Air Corps staff car replica in his collection, but with rank goes privilege and Buick, Cadillac and Packard also made staff cars. Speaking of rank, it’s interesting to note that while the staff cars are painted in drab olive green paint, they still retain all of their logos and badges. Generals and admirals need their signifiers of status too, perhaps even more so because they literally do have rank.
June 6, 1944 was the date of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Hitler’s “fortress Europe”. General Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower, later to be twice elected president of the United States, was the supreme military commander in the European theater of war for the Allies. He used a number of staff cars including a Packard and a Cadillac that’s on display at the Eisenhower Center in Abilene, Texas, Ike’s hometown.
We TTAC writers are always on the lookout for content you’ll enjoy. Last summer, when I read about a Shelby Township, Michigan man who had gotten arrested when the propane fired “gun” on his decommissioned armored military vehicle was realistic enough to disconcert residents who called the police, it turned out that he was a member of the Detroit Arsenal of Democracy military vehicle club. Coincidentally, that weekend that they were going to be have a vehicle show in conjunction with a VFW hall that was hosting a veterans’ reunion.
Along with military jeeps of varying vintages, ambulances, Power Wagons, armored vehicles and half-tracks on display was this 1942 Cadillac staff car, documented to have been used by General Eisenhower in England before the D-Day invasion and then again in Germany closer to the end of the war. It was in service in the European theater from 1942 to 1945 and when Eisenhower wasn’t being chauffeured it was likely used by other generals.
While in the UK, Eisenhower’s British Mechanised Transport Corps driver was a young woman named Kay Summersby. It was widely rumored that the two had an affair, which Summersby’s second autobiography, ghost-written while she was dying of cancer, acknowledged, though it appears that the relationship was more romantic than sexual. Summersby was photographed with a Cadillac staff car, though it’s not clear to me if it was the identical car to this one.
Owned by a member of the DAoD, it’s a fully equipped Cadillac 1942 Series 75, built by Fleetwood. In addition to the standard factory equipment that included a flathead V8, it has blackout shields for all of the lights, a siren and flag mounts. Everything on the outside is painted olive drab, including all of the chrome trim, hub caps, badging and hood ornament. It may be painted olive drab but the Cadillac crest and name is all over the car, every logo is intact. As I said before, with rank goes privilege.
Speaking of chrome trim, about three weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack, on Jan. 1, 1942, the United States government declared certain metals like aluminum and chromium strategic commodities and reserved them exclusively for military use. That meant that automakers could no longer have the chrome plated trim on what few 1942 automobiles that they were still producing for civilian use after January 1st. Instead, they resorted to painting the trim, sort of how restomodders will have faux chrome trim painted on their cars, but in this case it was real trim, just coated with colored paint instead of chrome.
Actually some ’42s do indeed have chrome plating on their metal trim, but not to prevent reflections the enemy could see as with the Cadillac staff car. Some manufacturers still had stocks of trim that was already chromed, but the War Production Board ruled that existing stocks of chrome plated trim would have to be painted over, so no one automaker had an advantage in the market.
This 1942 “blackout” Studebaker Series 90 Champion Club Sedan, is on display in the basement of the Studebaker National Museum along with artifacts of the company’s military history, which dates back to supplying the U.S. Army with horse drawn wagons, the Studebaker brothers’ original product. The “Series 90” referred to 1942 being the company’s 90th anniversary. The car was assembled on Jan. 29, 1942. Studebaker would suspend civilian automobile production just two days later.
Even though they were constrained from using chrome, Studebaker stylists saw the restrictions as a styling opportunity. Instead of just painting the trim black or in the color of the body, the stylists chose other dark colors that better complimented the exterior shade. That’s how this car ended up with nice warm grey trim, though some is two-tone with white pinstriping. The Champion fender badge has also been painted, in white, and the car features a simplified hood ornament with Studebaker’s Art Deco S painted in gold.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS