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One cool morning in November 1942, Guss Orr’s train chugged away from the buff colored brick Texarkana Union Station. With a wad of cash and a worn suitcase full of warm clothes, the Chevrolet dealer was again headed 1,400 miles northeast in search of scarce cars and spare parts.
“Every month, dad took the train to Pennsylvania and New York to buy cars and parts, mostly from dealers who had been drafted,” recalls David Orr, now 76 and a semiretired principal of Gregg Orr Auto Group in Texarkana, Texas. “He’d ship most back by rail and drive one home. entry into World War II had led to rationing of gasoline, rubber and anything else critical to the country’s war effort. When the elder Orr returned after days driving the country’s increasingly worn two lane roads, the car was packed with any equipment and auto parts he could find.
“He’d have used tires, batteries, whatever,” David Orr says. “My brother Maurice and I would help unload and put it in the pickup to take to the dealership.”
It was 7 year old David’s introduction to total mobilization, a national commitment of all resources to the war effort. auto industry the country’s heaviest and most capable manufacturers, which were concentrated near Detroit, far out of range of enemy bombers was completely transformed.
‘Arsenal of Democracy’
Within two months of the Dec. 7, 1941, bombing of Pearl Harbor, the last civilian cars rolled off the assembly lines, and auto plants were frantically converting to military only production of arms, munitions, trucks, tanks and planes. By December 1942, Detroit had become the “Arsenal of Democracy” and didn’t resume civilian production of automobiles until the war ended in 1945.
As the biggest of 23 General Motors divisions and subsidiaries, Chevrolet assumed a huge role, much of it spelled out in the pages of Automotive News.
Chevrolet General Manager Marvin E. And four months later, Chevrolet had boosted output to five times the original contract and had cut the unit cost to the government by half, he added.
Between 1942 and 1945, Chevrolet manufactured 60,000 Pratt Whitney bomber and cargo plane engines; 500,000 trucks; 8 million artillery shells; 3,000 90 mm cannon barrels; 1 million tons of aluminum forgings; 1 million tons of grey iron castings; 2,850 tons of magnesium forgings; and 3,800 T 17 Staghound armored scout cars.
That’s Chevrolet’s official summary. But in 1943, Coyle’s running list for the year, which he provided to Automotive News,
included armor plating and “a secret weapon we cannot discuss.”
A 1942 newspaper ad touting Chevrolet built Army 6×6 trucks supplying the Allied assault in North Africa proclaims “Volume for Victory” but more soberly adds: “Building arms the quality way for quality means lives today.”
Leading the charge
One Chevrolet factory in Michigan, renamed the Saginaw Service Manufacturing Plant, produced for all of GM vital replacement parts needed to keep the nation’s privately owned cars and trucks running.
But Chevrolet devoted the rest of its capacity to the military. Plant 2a in Flint, Mich., for example, split its 407,000 square feet of space among making aircraft engine parts, 90 mm cannon barrels and the 14 ton four wheeled Staghound scout car, according to a hand drawn floor plan in the archives of Kettering University.
By late 1942, as the military production tooling Chevrolet had set up started to hit full production, GM Chairman Alfred Sloan said GM had 400,000 employees at 112 plants devoting 95 percent of company output to the war effort. GM had boosted output 50 percent above prewar levels, he added.
Detroit automakers, with much energy and long experience in quick tooling and technology changes, were leaders in America’s war mobilization. War Production Board announced that Detroit had built such a stockpile of trucks, tanks, weapons and munitions that it was diverting some critical war materiel elsewhere to increase output of ships and planes.
As 1942 was ending, Detroit’s manufacturing focus was less on tooling up and more on maintaining and increasing war production.
But car dealers’ headaches were just beginning. Shipments had dried up quickly after civilian car and truck production stopped in February. Most Chevy dealers started conserving new cars and beefing up their service departments.
On Aug. Office of Price Administration dropped a long anticipated triple whammy of rationing: no new car sales to nonmilitary personnel, price limits and mandatory indoor storage of unsold new cars.
In effect, with no new cars likely for years, the government wanted to be sure the few left it had counted 532,000 in February would be hoarded and doled out slowly to the people critical to maintaining public safety and keeping the war effort going. The initial list of people allowed to buy new cars included doctors, police and fire departments, critical war workers and traveling salesmen.
By Dec. 1, nationwide rationing started for gasoline and, more critically, tires. The war in the Pacific cut off most sources of natural rubber. Scientists and manufacturers were frantically trying to develop synthetic rubber strong enough for tires, but despite heavy government financing, production of enough of it to meet demand was at least two years away.
Dealers were in a bind. New car shipments had stopped. There were price caps on what few cars were left. Key replacement parts were scarce. And they had often lost critical personnel to enlistments or the draft.
Chevrolet had seen it coming. Between May and October 1941, months before Pearl Harbor, Chevy General Sales Manager Bill Holler held 14 three week schools in Detroit that trained 732 field men in the basics of business management, accounting, service management and merchandizing. Those field men were dispatched to spread their knowledge to Chevy’s 8,000 dealerships, giving those often mom and pop small businesses modern tools to help them navigate the coming storm.
Chevy’s message was in the campaign’s slogan: “Service to Survive.”
Dealers were focused on survival. In 1942, McEleney Brothers in Clinton, Iowa, now McEleney Chevrolet Buick GMC Toyota, converted its new car showroom to a six lane bowling alley for the duration.
115,000 tons of scrap metal
Back in Texarkana, Guss Orr traveled to buy cars and parts in the Northeast. But as he watched the local Buick and GMC stores close, he bought out the local Cadillac dealer and added the franchise to his Chevy store. He also converted his service department into a 24 hour, seven day operation, a practice that lasted until 1950.