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How World War 1 Changed Cars

Well, I hope everybody took a pause to “remember them” over the past weekend – ANZAC weekend.  It’s been 100 years since the disastrous landings in Gallipoli, and it’s this sort of anniversary that gets people in a thoughtful mood.

Renault taxis take French troops to Marne.

Renault taxis take French troops to Marne.

It’s interesting to speculate on how cars would have been different if World War 1 had never happened.  Cars had indeed been invented prior to the outbreak of war – Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was riding in an open-top car when he was assassinated, triggering the whole stupid mess. But the war stimulated development of the automobile and accelerated progress.  Heaps of car manufacturers managed to get off the ground because of their involvement in producing cars (and tanks and motorbikes and aeroplanes) for their respective sides.  Renault started churning out war transport units, especially after heaps of Renault taxis were commandeered to take French troops to the battle lines after Germany invaded.  BMW and Citroen got started with serious auto production, although they turned to making cars after the war was over, as they had invested heavily in R&D and in manufacturing plants.

A few other ways that World War 1 changed cars around the world include the following:

  1. Mass production.  The wartime demand for lots of identically made gear churned out really quickly opened people’s eyes to the efficiency of assembly lines.  According to one historian, WWI was a “war of production” where the side who could crank out the most tanks, machine guns, aeroplanes, etc. had the edge.  Ford had begun pioneering assembly lines and time-and-motion efficiency measures before the US was dragged into the war; however, other car manufacturers quickly cottoned onto the idea. This meant that once the war was over, the technology was there and the factory lines were there, so they were used for making cars. And they still are.

    Rosie the Riveter and friends making Tin Lizzies on the Ford production line.

    Rosie the Riveter and friends making Tin Lizzies on the Ford production line.

  2. Social change led to more demand for cars. The war took heaps of guys off the farms and out of the factories and sent them around the world, giving them glimpses of the exotic. At the same time, it became respectable for middle-class women to stop sitting around being decorative and to work (who do you think was working on the assembly line when the men were fighting?). The new outlook on life and the desire to travel led to demand for cars (helped, no doubt, by advertising by the car manufacturers). Bicycles and the train, which had been the norm prior to the war, just didn’t cut it any longer.  The old class system was dead and cars weren’t just a luxury for the aristocracy and the wealthy.
  3. Petrol and diesel became the fuels of choice.  Prior to WW1, fossil fuels weren’t the only way to go.  Manufacturers were playing around with things like steam and electricity. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, electric cars were actually pretty popular because they were quiet. However, the advantages of gasoline over these other fuels became apparent during the war. The fact that the Allied forces (who had the new automotive technologies) had also managed to bag large chunks of the oil-rich Middle East that had been part of the Ottoman Empire might also have had something to do with this.
  4. Petrol stations.  As cars became more affordable (thanks to mass production) and more desirable (thanks to social change), fuelling stations had to be provided. All across the world, bowsers sprang up.  Before that, people had to carry their own gas or imitate Bertha Benz and pick up a container or so of fuel from any shop that sold it.
  5. Paying in instalments. Car manufacturers wanted to sell cars.  People wanted to buy them.  However, not everyone had the ready cash straight away to purchase a car outright. So car dealers started allowing people to pay in instalments. This was a way for makers of medium-priced cars to compete with the really cheap players like Ford (and later Volkswagen).
  6. Sealed roads. Cars wore roads down more than bicycles and carriages did (trains, obviously, stayed off the roads). This meant that as the car grew in popularity, more roads needed to be tarsealed to keep them in good condition.  The history of roads would probably make another good post in itself, so I’ll probably have to save that for another time.

Safe and happy driving,