Five Ways the Big Three Helped Win the War

by Tim Weadock

May 14, 2013

America’s major automakers ceased production of new cars during World War II, but that didn’t stop the assembly lines from humming. Check out five ways the Big Three helped rescue the country’s economy and create the “arsenal of democracy” that turned the tide of victory for the Allied Forces halfway around the world.











The Allied Forces “Jeep”

Willys Jeep ad

After World War I, the U.S. Army began developing ideas for an agile, lightweight reconnaissance vehicle that could replace horses and motorcycles on the battlefield. Bantam was contracted to build a prototype and introduced the first army “jeep” with the Model 60.

The Army shared Bantam’s blueprints and designs with Ford and Willys, ordering all three manufacturers to produce 1,500 models. After evaluating the vehicles, the Willys MB was chosen. A production contract was awarded to Willys, and Ford became a secondary manufacturer that supplied GPW models based on the Willys design.

The Allied Forces quickly adapted the Jeep for everything from transporting soldiers and wounded personnel to supplying weapons and provisions to frontline and reconnaissance troops. Soldiers liked the speed, versatility, ruggedness and easy-to-repair mechanics of the Jeep. Its battlefield performance led to its popularity in post-WWII civilian culture.

The M-4 Sherman Tank

M-4 Sherman ad

At the onset of World War II, the United States trailed major European powers in tank development. German tanks combined with an aggressive air assault easily overwhelmed France in May of 1940, and by the end of the year the U.S. had authorized development of a new medium tank and created armor divisions.

A Lima, Ohio, factory was converted to the first assembly plant for the M-4 General Sherman series of tanks. Intended as a replacement for the M-3 Grant & Lee tank, the M-4 was designed to be equal to, if not better than, its German counterparts. The M-4’s armor thickness ranged from 75mm to 12mm (depending on the series); it used a 75mm gun; and required only five crewmembers to operate.

Many giants of American manufacturing contributed to the more than 50,000 Sherman tanks built. Some notable contributions were the power plants from Caterpillar, Chrysler and Ford, while Buick contributed the M-4’s synchromesh transmission. GM’s Fisher Body Plant replaced auto production with tank production until, eventually, tank building and production was centralized in Grand Blanc, Michigan.

The Sherman tank was not without flaws—namely on account of its engine’s propensity for exploding. German soldiers famously nicknamed it the “Tommy cooker.” But despite its flaws, the Sherman was powerful and agile. Thanks to America’s manufacturing muscle, there was also a never-ending supply to overwhelm German forces on the battlefield.

Consolidated B-24 Liberator

B-24 Liberator ad

The B-24 was a long-range aircraft that eased the work of maritime patrols and antisubmarine and reconnaissance missions, in addition to playing traditional roles of troop transporter, tanker and cargo plane.

The B-24J was the highest-produced variant with 6,678 planes manufactured. The Allied Forces found the B-24J so desirable that they modified other models to replicate its autopilot and bombsights.

During the war, Buick ran many ads touting its role in the production of the B-24. But Ford’s Willow Run assembly plant became the main production hub for the bomber. Retooling was completed shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The makeover included an onsite runway, so that the newly constructed aircraft could be tested at the plant. When production began the plant was producing one new plane per day. Charles Sorenson, Ford VP of Production, believed that the process could be streamlined to construct a new plane every hour. He redesigned the assembly plans and in 1944 production increased so that a new B-24 Liberator was completed every 55 minutes.


Artillery ad

Automakers saw their product lines changing in ways they never imagined to support the war effort. In addition to churning out airplanes, tanks and trucks, General Motors was a leading artillery manufacturer.

Buick built ammunition at a rate of 75,000 casings per month. Chevrolet supplied shells and gun parts. Oldsmobile plants produced 48 million rounds of artillery ammunition and 140,000 aircraft machine guns. Pontiac was tasked with making an anti-aircraft gun for the U.S. Navy to combat enemy airstrikes along with air-launched torpedoes for neutralizing subs.

Women in The Workforce

Rosie the Riveter poster

Prior to World War II, middle-class convention held that a woman’s place was in the home. All that changed as millions of American servicemen were deployed overseas, leaving the Big Three with large and lucrative government contracts and fewer workers to fill the orders.

The U.S. government soon began actively recruiting women to join the munitions industry with the "Rosie the Riveter" propaganda campaign. One of the “Rosies” most associated with this iconic image was a real woman named Rose Will Monroe who worked as a riveter at the Willow Run Aircraft Factory in Ypsilanti, Michigan, building B-29 and B-24 bombers for the U.S. Army Air Force.

Auto factories hired women to work on assembly lines, to drive heavy machinery and even to work under the hood as mechanics. Historians agree that it took World War II to pull the country out of the Great Depression. This was accomplished primarily due to the manufacturing muscle of the Big Three and their female-dominated workforce. Together, they not only helped produce the munitions and machinery to help the Allied Forces win abroad but also helped win the battle against poverty here at home.



  1. Bob S Phoenix, AZ

    Oldsmobile Division made the 90 mm main gun on a lot of the M-48-A3 tanks. AC spark plug division made a lot of M-2 FIFTY caliber machine guns also. And Guiding Lamp Div (headlights) of GM made the tank crew members M-3 FORTY FIVE caliber grease gun.

  2. Brian Adams Reno, NV

    Few realize that the captains of industry were dragged kicking and screaming into the war effort. FDR literally grabbed them by the nose. Many business leaders and politicians at the time were anti-interventionist, or even pro-Germany. We prefer our war history sanitized, and while I am as patriotic and proud about our role in WW-II as the next guy, I sometimes wish our rear-view mirrors weren't so rose tinted.

  3. Kenneth Uudson Marblehead, MA

    Interesting piece, but you have overlooked Studebaker. Studebaker made a slew of deuce and a halfs that were given to Russia, a huge number of aircraft engines under license, the "Weasel" (amphibious vehicle), PT engines under license from Packard and probably stuff of which I am unaware. Inadequately researched article. additionally, Cadillac made the engines for the Sherman. Guide Light made the 'grease gun' (M-99???) sub machine gun that most tankers carried because of it's short length.Fun to read anyway.

  4. George Laszlo New York City

    If you are interested, I have saved the advertisements that appeared in the New Yorker magazine from car manufacturers during the war and shortly thereafter. I will be happy to share these. Just drop me a line and I'll send them over.

  5. al zim Ft. Worth, Texas

    Certainly a lot about machine work has been forgotten since WWII Perhaps you would like to comment on the machine tools that the military used which not manufactured to the standards of prewar. These had a special prefix to the serial number. If you have a second rate machine with an operator that has limited experience (read housewife) how do you make first quality parts. Perhaps you should ask the veterans who lost limbs because the hand grenades fuses were too short.

  6. Gary T Starke, FL.

    The Big Three??? Really? What about the contributions made by the independent auto manufacturers such as once great Packard Motor Car Company and their role in mass producing the famous Rolls Royce Merlin Engines? the same engine that powered the USA's premier airplane, the P-51 Mustang. They also developed the engine as a marine application and installed it in America's PT boats that wreaked so much havoc on Germany's fleet. And don't forget Hudson and Studebaker who built their fair share of war equipment as well...everything from trucks to trailers. Those independents are long gone now but the quality of their workmanship was every bit as good if not better than the "Big Three" in many respects.

  7. Paul Mississippi

    The big three? Packard made the engines for the PT boats!

  8. Gary Brush Houston

    And also remember Packard's contributions including Aero & PT Boat Engines!

  9. George Colvin California

    Don't forget Studebaker. They made trucks and also the engines for the B-17.

  10. daryl judd spokane, washington

    Interesting article but falls short of the total story. All the auto manufacturers were involved including Packard which was tasked to revised the ill-designed Rolls-Royce Merlin P-51 & Spitfire fighter plane engines because they had very poor reliability & overly laborious maintenance procedures as originally designed. Packard actually supplied more of these engines than did Rolls. Packard also produced most of the PT boat engines. Hudson, Studebaker & Nash-Kelvinator all had significant efforts in defeating the Axis powers. After the war the Federal Government largely abandoned the independent auto manufacturers by unfavorable rationing of steel and other materials. Post war Packard , Hudson & Studebaker had a very hard time getting steel to build bodies resulting in late and small production compared to the more favored Big Three.

  11. Ed Mucha Virginia

    Comments by Mr. Judd regards Rolls-Royce Merlin Engines. This is the first time in 60+ years of reading that I ever saw any disparaging of the Rolls Royce Merlins. Facts are that Rolls was entirely enmeshed in making RR engines for all the Hurricanes, Spitfires, Lancaster, Mosquito and other bombers and size of the country curtailed mass-production to provide P-51 engines. Also, the P-51 was originally a plane designed with a Packard engine (A-36) which Brits installed a Merlin which out-powered the Parkard. Lo-& behold,the HOT P-51 Mustang was born. Give credit where due! PS GM Inland in Dayton, OH mfg'd M1 carbines, the baby bro. of the Garand.

  12. Joe Roberts Fayetteville, NC

    I too was disappointed at the lack of full coverage of the role ALL automobile manufacturers made to the the WWII war effort. The story of the development of the Weasel could be an entire article all by itself. This is a very interesting topic, I only wished you only addressed a small portion of it.

  13. John Kranig canton michigan

    Interesting but some errors in the historical story. The B-29 bomber was never built at Willow Run in Ypsilanti only the B-24 Liberator was made there. The Sherman tank engines were not prone to exploding as this article states. The tank did not have thick enough armor to stop the German tank cannon shells so they penetrated the Sherman tank's armor plating and blew up the whole tank. The engine was not the source of any explosions. Most of the Sherman tanks used by the US Army (13,000 of them) used the Ford designed and built 60 degree V-8 GAA 1100 cu. in.(18 liter) engine which produced 500 horsepower at 2600 rpm. This Ford design featured DOHC (dual overhead camshafts) and 4 valves per cylinder like many modern automobile engines today. Many Sherman tanks sent to the British army used a 30 cylinder Chrysler engine made from 5 inline 6 cylinder engine jointed together. This engine produced 470 hp @2700 rpm from 21 liters. Other Sherman tanks had a Continental radial air cooled engine.

  14. Mike Gutierrez Apple Valley, CA

    Thank you Brian. Little do the majority of us know of the big three's involvement and support of our enemies prior to the U.S. entering the war. Not to mention how some major U.S. banks, Chase Manhattan and J.P.Morgan to name a couple, financed those bent to destroy us. But hell, I still love my American Muscle and wouldn't have it any other way.

  15. Bill Todd Crooked River Ranch, OR

    Some fanciful flights of imagination here with the aero engines! Packard didn't build the engine that powered the A-36 (early version of P-51) Allison division of GM did. The aircraft was underpowered and because of gross stupidity on Congresses part was assigned to an unsuccessful endeavor. The engine never produced power that Allison claimed and was replaced by a Packard built Rolls Royce engine. Rolls did the prototyping after a few GI aviators did the conceptual work in England. Our wonderful procurement people in the gov't had decreed that only in-line engines were to be used in military production. Many suspected a GM payoff in this since they owned the Allison Division. The recip engines produced by Allison for the P-51 were basically junk and limited a good fighter to low level work only. The USAAC's top brass including Hap Arnold started "cray-fishing," doing a big retreat when the facts started coming out. Pratt & Whitney made most of the R-1340 engines used in the Sherman, not Continental. Continental made the R-670 used in the M-3, not M-4. But there was a whole area of subcontracting that nobody touched on. Lycoming built engines for various manufacturers, as did Ford, Nash, Studebaker, Kelvinator etc. There just wasn't enough capacity in civilian production to produce the quantity & quality needed for aircraft in a war situation. Then you have the Wright 3350 that almost brought Boeing & the B-29 to it's knees. Ford was making engines for that aircraft, I've seen data plates with the Ford logo on them for sale on E-bay, etc. The folks that said this was a poorly researched article were spot on, as were some of the off-base comments. Bill Todd A&P for 50 years!

  16. John Kranig canton michigan

    The Continental built air cooled radial engine used in the Sherman M4 tank was the Wright R-975 C1 engine which Continental built under license. This engine was rated at 400 hp at 2400 rpm in the tank. Continental built more than 53,000 of these engines far more than did Wright that designed it. I don't believe the P&W R-1340 was ever used in the Sherman M-4. Other engines used in the Sherman M4A4 included Diesels such as the GM 6046 which used two 6-71 Diesel 2 stroke supercharged inline 6 cylinder engines and also a CAT D200A radial Diesel was used in the Sherman M4A6 tank. The Allison 1710 V-12 liquid cooled engine was successfully used in the Lockheed P-38 with turbo-superchargers. That engine as used in the A-36 which was the first "Mustang" only had a single speed supercharger and no turbocharger so its performance at higher altitude was not comparable to the RR Merlin V-12 engine with its two speed supercharger (built by Packard under license) used in the P-51 B and later Mustangs.

  17. David Michigan

    What economists agree that WW2 "pulled the US out of the Depression?" Typically the same ones fed on decades of government propaganda and that claimed that the economy was healthy in 2003-2007 before the crash, or that say the government numbers of low inflation are anything other than cooking the books for the benefit of the politically connected. Sorry, but being yes-men to government demands and numbers is the exact opposite of patriotism and the amazing blessing the founders of this great country gave us. Then again, most Americans seem to have stopped thinking like the 1776 Sons of Liberty, and think like the people the 1776 Sons of Liberty were fighting - the British Empire. And that change in thought process was greatly expedited by the belief that the US involvement in WW2 did something other than hand most of Eastern Europe to butchers worse than Germany. Has anybody ever bothered to look at production stats, maps, fuel supplies, etc., of the German Empire, Soviet Empire, British Empire, and Japanese Empire before and during the war? Or how many divisions the Germans had in the east vs the west where most of the war was? Yes, the American industrial powerhouse of the time was impressive, and I enjoyed the nostalgia, but blanket belief of any government story, even if it is the one we want to hear, is dangerous, and not truly patriotic.