American Motors in the War

By Charles A. Selden

[Scribner's Magazine, February 1916]

Even the epigrams have failed to stand the test of the world's greatest war. Napoleon's remark that an army travels on its stomach must be revised to read that an army travels on its gasolene.

The gasolene makes better and surer provision for the army's stomach than it ever had before. The troops, have suffered many new horrors that soldiers of previous generations never dreamed of (asphyxiation, for example), but the familiar old story of scant food or bad food has no place in the present-day reports from the front, from any of the fronts, thanks to the unfailing supply made possible by the motor-truck convoys. Thanks also to the same new but perfected method of transportation, there is no shortage of the figurative food for cannon in an emergency calling for the quick shift of a body of men from one point in the line to another. And with them goes the literal food of the cannon in the shape of adequate stores of ammunition.

Again, to enumerate at the outset all of the four chief things to be credited to the motor-truck, thousands of lives, otherwise lost, have been saved by the ever-ready ambulances which have wrought as wonderful an advance in the humane work of warfare as in its capacity for destruction.

Geese may or may not have saved Rome, but the honking taxicabs and motor-buses of Paris saved the capital of France, for without them the armies of General Joffre could not have been strengthened to the winning-point for the great test of the battle of the Marne. Whether or no it was the result of that wonderful demonstration of the efficiency in war of power-driven vehicles, it was about that time that orders from England, France, and Russia began to pour in for American-made motor-trucks. And thereby hangs the story of a new export trade for this country, created overnight, a trade already representing many millions of dollars and with the end, not even the peak, in sight; in fact, a trade that may permanently survive the war, that surely is destined to continue in great volume through Europe's period of reconstruction after peace is declared.

Figures are significant. In the course of the first complete year following the war, that is, the twelve months beginning August 1, 1914, there were 16,415 motor-trucks, valued at $45,835,283, exported from this country, practically all of them for the Allies. In the preceding year only 1,009 American-made motor-trucks, valued at $1,686,807, were sent abroad. Anybody who loves arithmetic can figure out percentages of increase, the daily average output, and various other things, but any sum you can do with those export figures will yield an impressive answer.

In the month preceding the war fifty trucks were exported. In the first month of hostilities sixty-six went over. By that time the foreign governments realized that the home supplies, including all the subsidized and commandeered trucks, would not be a drop in the bucket, and the buying in America began. In September the August figure of shipments was doubled. In October it was more than ten times as great as in August, and by December the motor-truck export business had got into its war stride and passed well beyond the thousand mark. The record month of that first war year, that is, from August 1, 1914, to August 1, 1915, was June, 1915, when 2,990 trucks, valued at $8,578,802, were exported by the American manufacturers. Then came a slight decline, but it by no means meant the beginning of the end of war orders. Late in the fall there was an order for 3,000 trucks in New York which had not even been parcelled out among the factories, and the various makers have running contracts for so many cars a month that will extend well into the spring of 1916.

In those same first twelve months of war the exports of American-made passenger automobiles were 26,733 vehicles, valued at $23,805,881, but that was a gain of something less than a thousand cars and a failing off of about a million dollars in value from the record of the previous year. Many of these passenger cars were also for war purposes. At least six thousand of these high-powered touring-vehicles have been for the use of the officers in the armies of the Allies. General Joffre himself has made many of his famous visits to the trenches and firing-lines in an American car. As a rule, the passenger machines receive rougher treatment than the trucks because of the speed at which they are driven. Time is a more important factor with an officer rushing to take command of a brigade or division than with the driver of a load of provisions or wounded men.

In addition to the trucks and cars, American manufacturers have also supplied several thousand motorcycles for the scouts. Five hundred of these machines went in one shipment for Russia.

On this side of the Atlantic the shipping departments of the export concerns, not the truck-makers themselves, have had many difficulties to meet. There have been railroad strikes, ship strikes, and dock strikes in the course of the year and a half of the war business, and at times there has been a shortage of vessels available for the work, Only one manufacturing company, the Locomobile at Bridgeport, has sent its trucks to New York under their own power. The other concerns, most of them in the Middle West, have shipped the trucks, boxed or unboxed, to the water's edge on freight-cars, which has involved an immense amount of extra handling at the port of departure, and made towing of dead cars from railroad terminals to piers necessary. The shipping man for one export firm tried to save time by towing two or three cars at a time, and was promptly arrested by a New York policeman for violating a city traffic ordinance which limits towing operations within the city to one dead vehicle. After that experience the shipper conformed to the ordinance, and found that by working day and night he could get less than a hundred trucks from the railroad terminal to the dock within the twenty-four hours. There are sometimes more than three hundred trucks in one ship-load. All cars for the British army go unboxed; those for Russia must be boxed; while the trucks for France are either boxed or unboxed according to whether they are shipped to Havre or Marseilles, another detail that adds much to the troubles of the exporter.

But nothing that has happened on the American side of the sea has equalled the delays in getting rid of cargo and freeing ships to come back for more which have been experienced at Archangel. One vessel, the Joseph W. Fordney, with a cargo of three hundred and thirty-nine automobiles and other war-supplies, was held at that port forty-one days before it could finish the job of unloading. The skipper explained that the work was done by a company of Russian soldiers without an officer to boss them, and that they divided their time between working and loafing, according to their own whim. Furthermore, there are no derrick facilities at this port, and every ship has to carry its own apparatus for getting out cargo. But Archangel was, nevertheless, greatly improved for the second winter of the war by the installation of three ice-crushers in place of the one that had failed to keep the port open in the winter of 1914-15.

Inside this story of the exports is another of the vitalizing of an industry that was in such a very bad way in the United States that some of the concerns engaged in it were on the verge of failure in 1914. But they are now working with doubled forces to keep up with their foreign-war orders; and also, much more significant of the future health and stability of the industry, to keep up with the gradually increasing domestic demand for motor-trucks for normal commercial purposes.

The war has advertised the motor-truck as it was never advertised before. Manufacturers, farmers, the delivery and traffic heads of industrial and commercial concerns who had been immune to the hires of the annual commercial vehicle exhibits and demonstrations, who had continued to pin their faith to oats rather than gasolene, despite the progressive example of a few neighbors, have been convinced—-at least greatly interested—by the spectacular test and demonstration of war. The little, isolated foreign despatches about the remarkable performances of two and three and five ton trucks, tucked away in the newspapers to fill chinks between the long stories of battle and diplomacy, have worn away prejudice and broken through indifference to such a degree that some of the domestic orders for trucks from entirely new sources are about as insistent on immediate delivery as were the almost frantic demands from the foreign governments in the first autumn and winter of the war.

Manufacturers assume that this domestic demand will steadily increase, subject, of course, to the usual periods of depression in industry; and they find one of the chief-reasons for their optimism in the terrific wastage of horses and mules, American horses and mules, which the European war has caused. At the risk of detracting something from the impressiveness of the truck-export statistics already given,, it may be relevant to show the figures for animal exports. They are very much to the point so far as the domestic use of motor- trucks in the United States is concerned. So, in the first year of the war this country exported 335,793 horses, valued at $73,780,514, and 84,598 mules, valued at $15,526,616, or a total of 420,391 working animals taken away from the fields and business-traffic service of the country. The exports of such animals in the year before the war were less than 35,000 head, The country cannot stand any such depletion as that, say the truck-makers, without driving a good many horse-users to gasolene. It would certainly seem so. Furthermore, it takes as many years to bring a draft-horse to working age as it takes months to convert raw material into a motor-truck.

Those earliest calls from abroad certainly were emphatic. They were for trucks and trucks, and then more trucks, regardless of make, and with little or nothing in the way of hard-and-fast specifications as to details of construction. Speed in getting the trucks-to the front-was the chief and, at first, the only consideration.

For example, the first contract for the delivery of Packard trucks did not cover more than half a sheet of note-paper. It said in substance: "Rush us all the trucks you've got, and you'll get your money before the machines leave the American port." Later, after the buyers abroad and the makers at home had caught their breath, the matter became more formal, and the half sheet lengthened out into many sheets of foolscap filled with minute specifications as to material, design of body, construction of chassis, and what-not. But the cars themselves sent in response to the later orders were substantially the same as those of the first rush shipments. In other words, the American manufacturers of trucks have made no changes in their product, save in one or two very minor details, to meet abnormal conditions of war use. Among the trivial exceptions to the rule were the placing of towing-hooks at both ends of all trucks, the attaching of sprags on the rear ends of some of them as a precaution against their sliding backward on steep grades. A wider seat has been placed on the cars made by the Locomobile Company for England, and in some of these vehicles the tubular has been substituted for the honeycomb radiator. There have been no motor changes, no alterations of working parts, no adding to the clearance, no important modification of bodies. Such changes have not been necessary because, since the inevitable weeding-out process, soon after the rush began, all makes of American trucks that survived the weeding have stood up under the test of the armies.

Then why the lengthening of the half-sheet I.O.U. sort of a document into many sheets of specifications? That increase certainly was not necessary to assure the presence of towing-hooks and sprags. ' No," replied the Packard man. "But the specifications seem to please the foreign buyers. They are astonished to discover what they never realized before, that the United States can produce motor vehicles as good as those of the continent of Europe and England. Such discovery may hurt professional or national pride a bit, and there is perhaps some balm in laying down a long and exacting list of details as imperative, although they know they will get them anyway."

It detracts nothing from the splendid showing of the American-made cars to make further passing reference, for the sake of complete frankness, to the early elimination of some trucks that did not have the stuff and power in them for war, regardless of their qualifications for the work for which they had been built. There were several such in the first rush. A few of them got to the front and failed in action. Others failed before they reached the front because of the severe tryout tests imposed in England. At one such trial in November, 1914, under the direction of British army officers, fifteen trucks of American make were entered in competition. The requirement was to go seventy-five miles, each car loaded to its full capacity, over perfectly smooth, hard roads but with terrific grades. More than half the cars failed. One had a broken axle, another a broken crank-shaft, one or two sheared off gears, others had motor troubles, and so on through the long list of mishaps that may come to motor-trucks under strain when they are not all that they should be. Some of the machines could not climb the hills, and never got back to the starting-point at Woolwich arsenal. English buying since that day has been based on the result of that test.

France and Russia had their weeding out too, principally by tests and examinations at the factories and on the roads in this country. Then the truck-export business settled down with the war orders practically limited to the following makes: Packard, Locomobile, Peerless, Pierce-Arrow, White, Saurer, Kelley-Springfield, and Jeffery. And to this list should be added the Ford light trucks, many of which are rendering first-class service as field ambulances.

For the most part the trucks are used simply as trucks, running in convoys of ten, twenty, sometimes thirty cars each, with railroad schedule regularity, from the bases of supplies to the several fronts with munitions and food-supplies, returning with the sick and wounded men. Occasionally they are used as transports for the quick shifting of infantry, and, of course, they have become indispensable in artillery operations; for without gasolene the astonishing use of big guns which has characterized this war would be out of the question. Many cars are used as fighting-machines themselves, carrying their own armament, and entire convoys of the Pierce-Arrow truck have been equipped with up-shooting guns to fight aeroplanes. Then, too, there are the machine-shops and kitchens, and little emergency field-hospitals, all on wheels, and motor-driven.

Perhaps no more interesting truck news has come from the front than that contained in the private letters of Richard Norton, the organizer and commander of the American Motor Ambulance Corps, which has sixty American-made auto-trucks in constant service in France. In fact, the French Government has turned over the entire ambulance work of its Eleventh Army Corps to this group of Americans and their cars made in the United States. In the first year of the work this group of cars alone removed twenty-eight thousand wounded men from the field, and in the battle of Champagne it handled six thousand cases.

Concerning that battle Mr. Norton wrote to his brother:

When we were sent forward, our base became the village of La Croix, where two large hospitals had been erected. Seven of the ambulances were stationed here, two others at Somme Tourbe, five at La Salle, and finally two groups were sent to the woods, where we camped out in tents and dugouts, and carried the wounded of the twenty-first and twenty-second divisions from trenches Nos. 7 and 5, which had been dug for the purpose of bringing them out of the firing-line.

The whole countryside had been most carefully prepared. One main road had been cut from St. Jean over the rolling chalk hills to the villages of Herlus and Mesnil, which were between the French batteries and the front trenches, and from which other roads ran further north. Besides this main road there were many tracks and trails over the chalk desert, and these as the days passed became more and more clearly marked. But the instant the rain began to fall, which it did the first day of the battle, and continued off and on for many days, they became as near impassable as could be. It was not only the enormous amount of traffic which made driving difficult, but the slightest rain turns this chalky soil into a mixture so slippery that a car standing quiet on the crown of the road would not infrequently slide gently but surely into the gutter, which was, of course, deep in mud. At night we had to drive without lights, which increased our difficulty. Besides the making of the road mentioned, narrow-gauge railways had been laid to carry munitions and other supplies to the fighting line, and for miles the land was scored with deep-dug trenches.

One of the incidents which stands out clearly in my mind is of a nightmare drive to Herlus. I received orders late one evening to take two cars to this village at 1 A. M. Not being able to find the divisional doctor to tell him that I considered it impossible to take ambulances by night, without lights, in the pouring rain over the shell-holed road which led to the village, I had to try it, Mr. Joseph Whitwell with his car and chauffeur accompanied me. On my car I had George Tate, a most capable man. As he is a better driver than I am, he held the wheel while I (as so it seems now) spent my whole time wading through knee-deep mud trying, by the faint light of an electric lamp, to find the way round shell-holes and bogs or pushing the car out of the gutter. It shows how difficult the journey was that to cover the six kilometres there and back took us two hours and a half. We had the satisfaction of getting the wounded safely to the hospitals, and perhaps it was not entirely low-minded of us to be pleased next morning when we heard that some French cars had refused to make the same journey.

Some of the American concerns are selling to England, France, and Russia. All of them are selling to at least two of those countries. It is customary for the orders to come for so many vehicles, to be supplied by different concerns according to their ability to give quick deliveries, with, tentative preferences for this or that make named in the order. The bulk of the business has been through the munitions-buying department of J. P. Morgan & Company and the export concern of Gaston, Williams, & Wigmore, which was born with the war for war business, so that the responsibility of the manufacturers has ended with the delivery of the trucks at the steamship piers on this side of the Atlantic. Some contracts have been direct between foreign governments and the makers, but all the truck factories are wide open to the accredited representatives of the various war departments for daily and hourly inspection of every part of every car, regardless of the agency by which the selling transaction is accomplished.

"We have a British army captain here all the time," said the head of one concern to the writer. "And he is not only welcome but we look upon his vigilance as an added safeguard against any accidental deviation from the standards we set for ourselves for every part of every car sent out, whether it be for foreign or domestic use. He roams at will about the factory and has the right to take a piece of metal out of a workman's hands at any moment to subject it to test."

Here, as abroad, the French and Russian inspectors are much less rigid. They do not spend much time in the factories. A French officer will occasionally show up and ask for a ride on a heavily loaded truck over a difficult stretch of road. The Russian is much more perfunctory than that. His factory calls are brief and infrequent. He generally looks at a truck or two. Sometimes he pokes the body of one gently with his cane. If he is in a very severe mood some day he asks that a truck be run around the block, and he will even wait to see it come back. His chief concern is not with the trucks at all but with the big passenger automobiles which the Russian Government is buying in large quantities for the use of officers, and as to them his only care is that they shall be painted the exact shade of olive-green which the Russian war office has decreed.

Fortunately for Russia, she is buying only the same reliable makes that are going to her allies. That they do not serve her as well or last as long is due to the country's undeveloped mechanical genius. At the outbreak of the war there was only one automobile factory in all Russia, and that was merely the Petrograd branch of a foreign concern. One of the earliest American shipments of trucks to Russia was a lot of sixty Packards. So eager was the representative of the government to get the lot to Archangel before ice closed the port that the cars were literally dumped into the hold of the vessel, and then the spaces between were filled with coal to keep them from banging about too much. The requirements for repairs on that consignment were greater even than for a lot of forty trucks that were shipped as deck-load on a vessel bound for Havre early in the war, and which were badly smashed in a series of storms. But the Frenchmen at Havre could repair those cars, which was more than the Russians could do. Needless to say in which army the truck wastage is the greatest because of the lack of skill and experience on the part of chauffeurs and the helplessness of the mechanicians when anything beyond the simplest repairs are needed.

"All the armies are putting the American trucks to the severest tests," said one manufacturer, "but they are fair. For illustration, our trucks are governed to run twelve miles an hour, They could throw off those governors and get fifteen and eighteen miles an hour, but they don't do it. The French and the English don't do it because their mechanical sense tells them that it would not be the best thing for the machines in the long run. The Russians don't do it because they would not know where to look for the governors. They are children in mechanics and engineering, but they are a coming people. When this war is over they will take a big jump forward, and the American-made motor-truck is going to be a big factor in their material progress."

Italy has not been in the market because in the nine months that she stayed out of the war she did not neglect the making of her own motor-trucks in the general work of preparation. Italy, by the way, had had previous experience in Tripoli with motor-vehicles in war, and knew just what she wanted. None of the Balkan states has been a truck-buyer in this country, and only Roumania has sent an agent over here to talk about the matter and get prices.

Germany and Austria, of course, have not been purchasers in the American truck-market because the goods could not be delivered, but that does not mean that the Teutonic troops have not had a good many American cars. Russia bought them, and then Germany took them away from her in the campaigns in Galicia. That fact gives a new twist and puts the laugh in another place in a good story that has been going the rounds since just before the war.

"Why," asked the German officer of the Russian officer, "are you buying so many auto-trucks? Your roads are not suitable for them."

"No, but yours are," replied the Russian.

There is another motor story made in Germany worth telling, although it has no direct bearing on the question of the American motor in the European war. There were practically no armored cars in Germany up to the very outbreak of hostilities. Then, presto, the country seemed to be filled with them. Where did they come from? Well, several weeks, perhaps months, proceeding August 1, 1914, the Mercedes Company announced that it had devised something in the way of an improved attachment to its car, and asked all owners of Mercedes automobiles to turn them in at the factories and various repair shops of the concern to have the new device put on. The response was general, hundreds of cars were turned in to the makers and then restored to the owners within a day or two, apparently no different except for the addition of some triviality to the mechanism. But certain small holes had been bored in the hidden frames of every one of those cars, and when the machines were placed at the disposal of the government, automatically, at the beginning of war, there were armor plates all made for them with fastenings that just fitted those holes so that the conversion of each automobile into a war-machine was a matter of minutes.

To return to the American truck. As the machine sold abroad has been the same in design as that for the domestic purchaser, so have prices been the same. The foreign governments have been able to buy at the regular catalogue prices with the customary discounts allowed on large lots. No attempt has been made in this country to take advantage of the desperate straits of the customers to jack up prices or to charge extra for quick delivery. But, on the contrary, because of the emergency character of the business the manufacturers have been confronted with a material increase in the cost of production due to overtime pay for labor. One concern has been turning out thirty cars a day for months, twenty of them for the filling of war orders, ten for domestic trade. This company employed five thousand men before the war, and had a capacity for fourteen trucks a day. Now it employs nine thousand men, and the plant is running overtime.

"Does that mean," the president of this particular company was asked, "that you would find yourself with too much money invested in plant equipment if the war orders should suddenly stop?"

"No," he replied. "An output of thirty trucks a day means an abnormal strain, a constant crowding of the plant and the organization to their utmost capacity. We would be very comfortably and profitably busy with an output of twenty-five or even twenty a day. I expect to have a demand for that number after the war is over. The present domestic demand is a big improvement over that of a year ago. I believe it will go much higher with continued improvement of business in this country. And the export business for American motor-truck manufacturers which practically began with the war will not end with it. It will not materially decrease in the first year or two of peace and reconstruction. Continental Europe has got to rebuild, and England will have to help. Roads and bridges are destroyed. Buildings by the townful are gone. The motor-truck is going to be as important a factor in the period of rehabilitation as it has been in the business of destruction. It is all one to a truck. There will be no horses and no mules. There will not be enough whole men for a long time to come to enable the foreign countries to build their own motor-vehicles as rapidly as they will need them. And the answer to all that is the truck made in America.

"We are not worrying about the second-hand trucks that will survive the war, though no doubt there will be some. There are trucks still in service that were shipped from America at the very outset of the war, but not many. The life of a car is increasing as the army chauffeurs are learning better to care for them. The decrease in the call for extra parts indicates that. We don't know what the life of a car in warfare is. They don't know over there. It has been put at two weeks. Two months would be as good a guess, probably a much better one, The life of a horse at the front is estimated at nine days, but that is guesswork, too.

"Neither is the manufacturer in this country borrowing trouble about future tariffs against him. Such a policy of attempted exclusion of American trucks will not be tolerated by the foreign publics, because they will need the goods and know that they need them to make their countries livable once more.

"The war has taught the manufacturer in the United States very little that is technical; that is, about the construction of the truck itself. Although, put a footnote right there as to the four-wheel-drive car. I believe there is something being written on the wall for all of us to think about concerning the truck with power carried to all four wheels, and we are watching the Jeffery trucks of that type in the war with great interest. There is some work, especially that of the farm, that a four-wheel drive can do better than the other kind. Because of the showing made by this still unusual type of car in Europe it has been adopted already to drag ore from a mine in the West which had been abandoned because of the difficult road. Now the mine is being worked at a profit,

"More obviously we have learned a good deal about the selling end of our business, and factory organization. We have derived a great lesson from the war business as to the importance of knowing accurately the plant-product capacity, And we have got the export habit."

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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