In honor of Memorial Day, let us take a look back at World War II through the eyes of U.S. Automakers, and specifically their advertisements. They tell quite a story about the history of World War II in the US, and what the times were like.
In the early 1940s, it was clear that the United States was eventually going to be drawn into the second World War, with Great Britain barely holding on after Hitler had conquered most of the rest Europe. The only question was when. By start of the 1942 model year, manufacturers started dropping hints that the next car they get may have to last a while, and selling up their durability. In some cases, the pitch was subtle, like in the of the 1942 Buick ad above.
Other times, the pitch was more direct, like the surprisingly prescient DeSoto ad above, which came out around September of 1941, a good three months before Pearl Harbor.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, all the the automakers switched over to wartime production. While there were still a significant number of unsold 1942 model year cars on dealer lots, new car sales were immediately rationed, leading to rather interesting ads like the Pontiac piece above, targeting “Eligible” buyers and offering to assist in the procurement of a “Certificate of Purchase” necessary to buy a new car during wartime.
Most people were not interested in buying a new car during the war, and in any case the limited supply of leftover 1942 cars would soon be exhausted. In order to keep the now carless dealerships in business, the manufacturers now focused on driving business to their dealers service departments, and helping customers keep their existing cars on the road.
Others turned to selling used cars, touting such features as remaining tire tread life (important in a time of rubber shortages).
However, most manufacturers, lacking cars to promote, used their advertisements to tout their participation in the war effort, like the Cadillac ads above. In addition to demonstrating their support for the war effort (along with the obligitory War Bonds message), it was hoped that the luster and durability of their military products would rub of on their civilian offerings at the conclusion of the war.
As the war dragged on to 1943, Packard playfully released the ad above touting their new “1943” Packard.
The artwork on some of these ads is just phenomenal.
After V-E Day and the fall of Germany in the spring of 1945, things began to look up. While the war in the Pacific theater was still going on, Allied forces were rapidly advancing on the Japanese, and automakers felt confident enough to start teasing buyers with post-war car production, as the Buick and Oldsmobile ads above illustrates.
Most of these ads didn’t even feature actual cars, which would take time to appear as the manufacturers retooled, and in any case would be mildly warmed over 1942 models. the Lincoln ad above is particularly reminiscent of the Infiniti ads from the 90’s.
Once Japan surrendered on August 14, 1945, ending World War II, auto manufacturers had a new problem to deal with: Four years of pent up demand, and no cars to sell. Raw materials were still in short supply immediately following the war, and manufacturers were allocated materials based on their pre-war marketshare. Unfortunately for the independents, this meant insufficient raw materials to meet demand. You can see how Packard tried to spin this in the above ad.
The one manufacturer that was ready to almost immediately jump into civilian production was Willys. With Jeep, they had a ready-made product with a built-in audience.