Random thoughts on Military Vehicles

Lang Kidby

Just some random thoughts on military vehicles – mostly just opinion. You know me “Often wrong but never in doubt.”

Often one hears and reads statements that equipment for military use in WW2 was “throw away” or ‘one time use”. If you look at the specifications for almost anything from jeeps to portable buildings there is no argument that the best and latest technology was used and where possible it was made soldier-proof.

The supposedly “throw away Liberty Ships” were still operating 40 years later and every ship since WW2  has been built by the same methods.

The fact that in some (very rare) operations vehicles and equipment had a life of hours – such as in amphibious operations – has led to the illusion that it just had to do a job then be replaced. Nothing could be further from the truth. Take the simple jeep, supposedly a throw away item in folk lore, as an example. The design testing and continuous modifications made this vehicle streets ahead of the best civilian small car of the period for reliability, strength and ease of maintenance – it was made to last!

The government was held to ransom by the huge industrial giants when it came to high volume production of big ticket items. Only a few were capable of such production and collusion was rampant so, basically, cost was no object. They were built on a supposedly controlled “cost plus” (usually 10%) basis but the creative accountants at Ford or General Motors could produce iron-clad figures to prove to government inspectors the accuracy of any figure which took their fancy.

The point of this argument is for such high volumes, jeeps were not cheap and there was no pressure to cut performance or longevity corners to save money.

Another myth which pops up regularly in stories about vehicles is the poorly maintained, clapped out machine which soldiered valiantly on. For crying out loud! the vehicles were all brand new – the very oldest jeep was only a bit over 3 years old at the end of the war. Every Army had a huge logistic and manpower investment in mechanics, workshops and spare parts stocks. The great majority of vehicles were serviced at about 3 times the rate a private truck operator would attempt. The great majority were subject to detailed record keeping, obligatory daily inspections by drivers who were under constant surveillance and discipline for destructive driving activities.

Sure there were a few operations where vehicles were run into the ground because of lack of parts (Wingate in Burma etc) or operations were so desperate and continuous that no maintenance was done but I would be surprised if 1% – yes one in a hundred- vehicles suffered that fate. Any collection of photos of New Guinea, North Africa or Europe always features a few shots of the mechanics hard at work.

In the last club magazine “somebody” is quoted as saying Ford just tossed a Willys slat grille on the table, ran a pencil around it and produced a simple pressed grille of the same dimensions! The concept that ANYTHING to do with volume production would be the result of such methods is ridiculous. Nothing that I am aware of produced for any army during WW2  (except for such things as rations, clothing and expendable items which were often disgracefully wanting) was anything but the best that money could buy and technology of the moment could produce. Why the millions of modifications to every bit of equipment and constant new models if this was not so?

Even in the most desperate times, particularly in Germany, numerous experiments with cheap throw away methods of producing equipment never substantially replaced quality goods.

Finally, “Why was Ford allowed to modify the military standard Willys MB?” Right from the start every manufacturer was allowed to make production method modifications to standard models, whether they be trucks or aircraft, to suit their machinery and material sources. We are all aware there are dozens of differences between Ford and Willys jeeps but these are only manufacturing technique differences. All the parts are interchangeable, use the same tools and meet the minimum life and strength of the standard model.

My opinion on the grille question is Willys had already taken steps to modify the grille to the cheaper pressed model and Ford began with that drawing before Willys ran out of slats. In any case one look by Ford engineers at the slat grille would have let them convince the Army inspectors the pressed alternative was cheaper, quicker, saved material and manpower and was probably stronger and lighter. Whether the drawing went from Willys to Ford or the other way around I am sure the Army said “Go right ahead!” Remember, Ford had already changed dozens of items before the first vehicle rolled off the line, so why not the grille?