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Vehicles of WWI Helped Create Our Modern World

Renault FT Tanks and Model T Ford in France WWI

November 11th was originally Armistice Day, when the world powers got together at 11:11 in the morning on the 11th day of the 11th month to end the first world war. From the perspective of an automotive enthusiast and gearhead (petrolhead in the UK), this was the first truly mechanized war and helped bring about the modern world. Here’s a brief look at some of the cars, trucks, planes, and motorcycles that won the day for freedom back in the War to End All Wars.

When the war started, famously, the battlefields were full of men, machines, and horses. Many high ranking officials trusted the horse over the crude motorized vehicles of the time for both pulling wagons and carrying men into battle. But Ford had introduced the Model T five years before the start of the war, and its speed, durability, and ease of maintenance (compared to a horse) had already won over many civilians. By the end of the war, the whole world saw the horse as hopelessly outclassed.

Ford Model T Truck converted for Military Use WW1

Henry Ford, however, was an isolationist and did not want to be involved in this strictly European war, so refused to sign contracts to supply the French and British. Local dealers did order more than 50,000 ordinary Fords, and the military converted them locally for their purposes, most famously into ambulances. When the US did enter the war in 1917, Ford changed his tune and supplied the military with 15,000 Model T variants before the end of the war.

Renault FT tanks in WW1

Ford was not the only company still in the car business who had a part in the fighting. Famously, French soldiers commandeered every Renault taxi cab in Paris to get to the front lines of the first Battle of Marne in 1914. Once the war was in full swing, the French company began producing a light armored tank, known as the FT. More than 3,000 of these small two-man tanks were made before the end of the war, and variants were still being used nearly 20 years later when WWII began. Haynes has not published a manual on the Renault FT, but the UK division has put out one on the British Mark IV Tank of the same era.

1919 Liberty Truck Stuck in Mud

Besides the light Ford trucks, the US military also used specially designed Liberty trucks, with 3 to 5-ton payloads. Because the war had already started in Europe several years before, the isolated Americans were free to develop this vehicle quite a bit before deployment. When they were sent over they allowed the American forces to move men and equipment with a swiftness the enemy could not match, even though it only had a top speed of 15 mph. Nearly 10,000 Liberty Trucks were made, and part of their appeal was the standardization and parts interchangeability, while the rest of the world was still largely handmade.

Haynes Rolls-Royce Armored Car Manual

Rolls-Royce also supported their home country in the great war, as they were already considered “the best car in the world”. The large, fast, Silver Ghost touring car was modified with added armor and a turret mounted machine gun to become one of the first military armored fighting vehicles. In the sky, Rolls-Royce Aircraft engines powered half the planes used by the allies by the end of the war, because of their power and durability. Our British division of Haynes even put together a manual of this luxury fighting machine, which you can get here.

Harley-Davidson 1917 Military Model J motorcycle

Much like now, even back in the teens, motorcycles were able to traverse terrain that four-wheeled vehicles found impossible. Both Indian and Harley-Davidson provided tens of thousands of bikes for the war effort. These bikes were based on civilian models, and used solo or with sidecars, sometimes fitted with a machine gun or stretcher for carrying wounded. The Indian PowerPlus based bikes (nearly 50,000 of them) included a unique rear suspension system unknown on their production bike. Harley delivered what was basically their civilian model, already know to be rugged, made even tougher for army use.

WW1 bi and tri-plane dogfight

One of the most indelible images from WWI is the flying ace in his machine gun equipped biplane, like the Red Baron, or Eddie Rickenbacker. Planes went from a novelty in 1914, to being a viable means of transportation and warfare by the end of the war. At the start aircraft had so little power often times there was no throttle, just an on-off switch for the ignition. Dogfighting accelerated the understanding of aircraft control and design by leaps and bounds. The first crossing of the English channel by plane had only been successful in 1909, but German heavy bombers had advanced enough to rain explosives on London, taking off from Belgium by 1917. By 1918, the multi engined heavy bombers were making power unheard of just a few years previous, and the stage was set for civilian air travel at the end of the war. Haynes UK also has a whole line of manuals covering the famous WWI fighters, like the Sopwith Camel.