Automotive History: The Ford Model T in World War I

Yes, Tin, Tin, Tin
You exasperating puzzle, Hunka Tin
I’ve abused you and I’ve flayed you,
But by Henry Ford who made you,
You are better than a Packard, Hunka Tin


An unabashed takeoff of Rudyard Kipling’s Gunga Din, this Hunka Tin version eloquently describes the feelings of soldiers toward the Ford Model T, a vitally important component of World War I.

The year 2014 will mark one hundred years since the beginning of World War I, the War to End All Wars.  Despite the nine million deaths due to this war, this title sadly did not hold itself to be true.

Due to our ages, none of us have any firsthand experience with the role of the Ford Model T during those violent years of 1914 to 1918.  Were it not for the writings and memories of various servicemen, especially ambulance drivers such as Ernest Hemingway, the multitude of experiences could have easily been lost to time.

Perhaps the role of ambulance is the best known of the Model T’s war efforts.  It’s sheer versatility was certainly not limited to ambulance duty; it was also a delivery truck, a staff car, and an artillery mover.  When one looks at the current light duty vehicle of choice of the United States military, the four-wheel drive HUMVEE, the sheer ability and ruggedness of these off the shelf Model T’s truly sparkles.


ww1 horses

From an automotive perspective, World War I was a major turning point; previously, in every war ever waged equipment and supplies were moved in and around the battle areas by some combination of horsepower or manpower.  World War I saw the first widespread use of motorized vehicles in various supporting roles.  Even during the first battles of the war in 1914, the Ford Model T was a major player as many privately owned Model T’s were commandeered for various military uses.


Knowing the tactical advantages provided by automotile use, both Great Britain and France approached the subject of acquiring Model T trucks for various military purposes early on in the war.  Henry Ford, very much a proponent of the isolationist movement prevalent in the United States prior to its war entrance in 1917, was not exactly cooperative with the request.  While Ford wanted nothing to do with the war effort during this time, he did authorize the sale of a modest number of Model T chassis to the British military strictly for ambulance use.

Upon the United States becoming involved in the war, Ford’s mood shifted to fully supporting the effort.  His change of heart prompted his selling the United States military thousands of chassis for various uses.  In an effort to fulfill orders, Ford even pulled units from routine stock out of circulation to more rapidly respond to the war effort.

It should also be noted the chassis most often supplied was the basic and ordinary Model T chassis (not the heavier duty Model TT) upon which any number of aftermarket bodies could be fitted.  It is even suspicioned the first set of chassis sent to Europe were designed such that the shipping crate could be repurposed to construct the box body for the T.

The United States military was a huge purchaser of the Model T, allowing the American Expeditionary Force to be the first truly motorized military operation in history.  There was logic with that decision; all materiel had to be shipped to Europe and that was always a mulit-week endeavor.  Sending horses meant some amount of acclimation time after arrival whereas a Model T was ready to go.

model-t-ambulance-france from mca-marines dot org

At its peak, the American Expeditionary Force would have 60,000 motorized vehicles of various varieties in the European Theatre; of those, approximately 15,000 were Model T’s.

Even though the United States had the largest number of Model T’s in use, the total number used by the American Expeditionary Force is difficult to determine.  The length of time the United States was involved in the war was relatively short.  This created some anticipated needs to be eliminated, orders being filled just after the cease-fire, or cancelled entirely.


This light delivery vehicle was found at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City and was one of 5,492 acquired for delivery use.  The original order was for 12,002 units.  This particular Model T was never painted in olive drab as it was used on base.  Early on Henry Ford, in his staunch opposition to the war before United States involvement, refused to do anything out of the ordinary for military purchases.  This caused a vast number of deliveries to be of a chassis in standard black. It was not uncommon for GI’s to paint a Model T in olive drab upon delivery.


The Model T made a superb ambulance for the times.  This particular ambulance, also found at the same museum, was one of 5,340 ordered for ambulance use by the United States Army; this particular example was delivered at the conclusion of the war and did not see duty overseas.


France also saw the quality and potential of the Model T as an ambulance, ordering 2,400 for front line field use.  According to information at the museum, the Model T was the first choice of the French High Commission responsible for medical affairs as it had earned a superior rating for field use.

Despite Ford’s initial reluctance to supply ambulances to European countries, the Model T still served the French and British Armies in both Europe and Africa.


Through some creative procurement via third parties and sheer industriousness, a Ford dealer in Paris was able to acquire chassis and assemble 11,000 Model T’s for use by the French Army.  In turn, British forces were able to amass a fleet of Model T’s that numbered between 20,000 and 30,000.

The Jeep has certainly become associated with the Allied efforts of World War II.  While one does not readily associate the Model T in a similar fashion to World War I, it was arguably just as durable while serving a number of similar roles.

William Seabrook, an American who drove a Model T ambulance in France once wrote, “our Fords could go over shell-pitted roads and torn terrain” at 30 miles per hour.  He further wrote “the ambulance driver works over, under and upon it.  He paints it and oils it and knows every bolt and nut, its every whim and fancy.”

There have been countless different cars built over the years.  Yet of those, how many have repeatedly demonstrated a pronounced aptitude for such a dizzying array of varied and diverse tasks?  The Ford Model T, as passenger car, pickup, delivery truck, tractor, and stationary power plant at home as well as being ambulance, delivery truck, and artillery mover in war-torn Europe and Africa, was certainly a formidable mechanical soldier during the Great War.