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From Cars to Ventilators: A Historic Look at the Auto Industry’s Contributions During Crisis

The precedent for GM, Ford, and Fiat Chrysler’s coronavirus effort is rooted in World War II.

General Motors, Ford Motor Co., and Tesla Motors have committed to begin building and assembling much-needed ventilators for the fight against COVID-19. As during World War II, there's very little automotive production going on, at least for the time being. In the U.S., 42 of 44 auto plants are closed, all are closed in Canada, and a few remain open in Mexico, says John Bozzella, president & CEO of the trade group Alliance for Automotive Innovation.

Last week, President Trump announced GM was approved for getting into the ventilator business. While the president spoke about the Defense Production Act, he stopped short of actually invoking it, saying he preferred voluntary private sector participation.

By this week, GM, Ford, and Fiat Chrysler had responded on a global basis. GM last Friday announced Project V, according to AutoBeat Daily. The automaker will work with Washington-based Ventilife System to help boost ventilator production, using automotive electrical equipment supplier Ventec's 2.6-million-square-foot Kokomo, Indiana, plant for the additional production.

GM has lined up 95 percent of the roughly 700 parts needed to make ventilators, and is seeking sources of the remaining 37 parts, Reuters reports. As with Ford and Fiat Chrysler, GM's extensive experience with 3-D printing can make a big difference in this effort.

Ford chairman William Clay Ford told NBC's "Today Show" that Ford has partnered with 3M to boost production of respirators and face shields for hospital workers and first responders, and with General Electric on its ventilators.

Fiat Chrysler announced it is working with Siare Engineering to increase its output in Italy of face masks, and will convert plants in China in order to produce 1-million masks there, according to Automotive News.

Elon Musk has announced he will donate 50,000 N95 surgical masks, and Tesla is reportedly in talks with ventilator manufacturer Medtronic.

The Defense Production Act was enacted five years after WWII ended, but before the war, President Roosevelt persuaded William Knudsen to leave his job as GM president and lead the effort to shift automotive production to military production. What did automakers build during WWII? Beside Ford's "Arsenal of Democracy," many auto plants were devoted to everything from aircraft engines and engine parts to bullets and bombs.

Here's a roundup of some key wartime production. Then, as it is today, automakers' plants were used mostly for final assembly, relying on supplies and parts from other, smaller companies.

Ford

The fact the Blue Oval assembled B-24 Liberator bombers at Ford's Willow Run factory on farmland east of Ypsilanti, Michigan, is pretty well-documented. It's worth picking up "The Arsenal of Democracy" by A.J. Baime, who also wrote "Go Like Hell," the basis for the movie "Ford vs. Ferrari," for more color. Henry Ford and his son, Edsel, promised the plant would build a "bomber per hour" at a time when it took a California aircraft manufacturer a day to hand-build a single airplane.

"The Fords would make bombers like they make cars," Baime wrote in "Arsenal." "Mass production. Fordism." Ford built 8,600 bombers by the end of WWII, and in the 1950s sold the assembly plant to GM, which used it to build the 1960-69 Chevrolet Corvair. It is now the site of the American Center for Mobility, used by numerous manufacturers to develop electric and autonomous vehicles.

Chrysler

Knudsen's first contact as FDR's war-production coordinator was with Chrysler chief K.T. Keller. The Chrysler boss visited the Rock Island Arsenal in the Illinois Quad-Cities to observe M3 tank production, and started building them in a Detroit plant, according to Baime in "The Arsenal of Democracy."

Dodge

Dodge built the B-29 Superfortress bomber, according to Allpar. By the end of the war, "seven of eight engines that powered nuclear bomb-laden B-29s were built by Chrysler," Allpar's Curtis Redgap wrote in 2006. Dodge also built the WC62 and WC63 6x6 Red Ball Express troop and supply carriers.

Chevrolet

The Chevy 4x4 1-1/2-ton cargo truck was a companion to the Dodge WC62/WC63. The Chevrolet 4x4 was built with dually rear wheels, while the Dodge 6x6 had two rear axles. Chevrolet also assembled Pratt & Whitney R-1830 engines for the Ford-built B-24s and the C-47 aircraft, per The American Automobile Industry in World War II (cited hereafter as TAAIWWII).

Pontiac

Pontiac's assembly plants built 20-mm Oerlikon anti-aircraft cannons, Mark XIII aerial torpedoes, 155-mm artillery shells, and 40-mm Bofors anti-aircraft cannons, according to TAAIWWII.

Oldsmobile

Oldsmobile made cannons and shells in its Lansing, Michigan, and Janesville, Wisconsin, plants, according to TAAIWWII.

Buick

Buick's wartime production included the M18 Hellcat tank destroyer, Detroit diesel engines, and transmissions for tanks and landing craft, per TAAIWWII.

Cadillac

TAAIWWII states Cadillac built the M5 tank, M5 Stuart tank, and M5 A1 tank.

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GM's Fisher Body

GM assembled the M4 A3 Sherman tank, B-17 fixed-engine cowlings, and B-17 moveable engine cowlings, according to TAAIWWII. GM chairman Alfred Sloan "publicly attacked Roosevelt's defense plan," as Baime noted in "The Arsenal of Democracy. " Despite that, and the fact Sloan was no fan of New Deal economic policy and told Knudsen not to return to the automaker if he took the advisory job in Washington, GM had "undertaken $410 million in defense orders" by the end of 1940.

Packard

Packard assembled Rolls-Royce Merlin liquid-cooled V-12 aircraft engines, which Henry Ford "refused to build," according to "The Arsenal of Democracy." Amusingly, those Packard-Merlins powered the P-51 Mustangs Ford says inspired the name for its iconic pony car.

Hudson

Hudson built 20-mm Oerlikon anti-aircraft guns, as well as pistons, fuselages, and various sections for the B-26 Maurader, B-29, and P-63, according to TAAIWWII.

American-Bantam

American-Bantam built the prototype and a few examples of the original 1941 Jeep, per TAAIWWII, in a design competition that culminated in Willys-Overland and Ford building a variation for the remainder of the war.

Studebaker

Before WWII, Studebaker built 4x2 1-1/2-ton trucks for the military in The Netherlands, France, and Belgium, most of them captured and then used by the German army, according to TAAIWWII. During WWII, it built a 2-1/2-ton truck for the U.S. Army, and Wright R-1820 Cyclone engines for the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bomber.

Nash-Kelvinator

Nash-Kelvinator became the largest producer of helicopters in WWII with the Sikorsky R-6A Hoverfly II design, according to TAAIWWII.

Willys-Overland

Willys-Overland built roughly 360,000 MB "universal" Jeeps for the U.S. Army effort, while Ford built 277,869 GPWs, and American-Bantam built just 2,675, as I wrote in a Summer 2011 Motor Trend Classic feature. "Universal" referred to the fact that parts from a Ford GPW could be used to keep a Willys MB running on the battlefield, and vice-versa. Famously, Ford reportedly declined to take-over the model for postwar civilian consumption, leaving Willys to build civilian Jeeps. Kaiser-Frazer purchased Willys in 1953, and built Jeeps until it sold the brand to AMC in 1970, which in turn was swallowed up by Chrysler in 1986. Perhaps a result of its non-buyer's remorse, Ford launched a competitor model named Bronco for the 1966 model year—and the rest is history.