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How World War One Paved the Way for Modern Vehicles

Posted on January 15, 2017 – Car History

World war one paved way modern vehiclesWhen thinking about both world wars, what first comes to mind is their scale, the annihilation of entire cities and the massive loss of life. However, wars are also often an engine for technical progress, as nations look for an edge that will give them victory.

When World War I broke out, cars were in their infancy. Back then, you did stand a good chance to get killed by your vehicle as they were rather temperamental mechanically speaking, and you had to be ready to roll-up your sleeves and fix it on a regular basis. Obviously, those aren’t the qualities you look for in a combat vehicle…

Some of the best-known car manufacturers of modern days were instrumental in developing cars for military use. Renault, Ford, Citroën and BMW among others all took part in the race, bringing improvements that influenced the cars we use nowadays.


Prior to World War I, Rolls-Royce had been producing the Silver Ghost model for eight years which, they proclaimed, was the best car in the world! Even back then, the company had a reputation for quality so it is no surprise that the British government would have turned to them when it needed reliable military transport.

The Silver Ghost was chosen for the battlefield. It was turned from a leisure car into a combat-ready vehicle by reinforcing the body with some serious armour cladding and adding a rotating machine gun turret on the top.

To the general public, Rolls-Royce means luxury cars, but the company is also a major producer of aeronautics engines. Although it offered only three models at the beginning of World War I, they were in so much demand that they could never keep up. Nevertheless, they still powered more than half of the aircrafts used by the Allies during that war and World War II, and the company is still a major manufacturer of plane engines today.


Renault was one of the most active car manufacturers during World War I.

Like Rolls-Royce, it supplied the military with vehicles, famously repurposing every single Parisian taxi into troop transporters to help fight the Germans at the First Battle of the Marne.

More significantly, Renault’s contribution to war vehicles was the FT light tank. Although they weren’t as heavily armed or impressive as the British tanks, their relative speed and the quantity deployed in the field made them a major military asset.

Throughout the war, 3,600 of them were produced and they represented more than half of all the tanks used by the Allies. But perhaps as interestingly, the FT also gave Renault a blueprint from which would stem its first civilian tractor.


A pacifist, Henry Ford was nevertheless unable to keep his company out of the war effort for long.

Indeed, soon after the war was declared, the armed forces claimed every tractor and truck produced by the factory. Even the cars, and specifically the Ford Model T, were put to good use and converted into field ambulances, becoming a common a sight on the Front.

Ford’s involvement really picked up when the US officially joined the war in 1917, although not all their vehicles were a success: the M1918 Light Tank proved so disappointing in comparison to the Renault FT that the US Tank Corps cancelled its 15,000-unit contract after only 15 of them had been delivered.

Despite its heavy role in producing military vehicles, Ford’s plants were still mainly making civilian cars. By the end of World War I, two out of every five cars on UK roads was a Ford, among which the T had the lion share.


At the beginning of the 20th century, André Citroën wasn’t a major player in the automobile industry. While he had some experience in that area, he was better known for managing one of the biggest factories of munitions in France and inventing the double-helical gear pattern.

However, a man with vision, Citroën realised early on that his business would have no relevance once the war was over and he planned for the future, converting his premises in Paris into a mass-producing car factory.

He set about designing the preliminary plans that would make the company famous for its quirky cars, such as the iconic 2CV or the DS, and in 1919, the first Citroën car rolled out of the factory.


Although BMW didn’t exist as such in 1914 and wouldn’t for another 15 years or so, it is nevertheless during World War I that the seeds of what would become one of the strongest car companies in the world were planted.

In 1913, Karl Rapp founded Rapp Motorenwerke building four-cylinder aircraft engines. But in 1916, following internal feuds, he was forced to leave the business he had created. Upon his departure, the company immediately renamed itself ‘Bayerishe Motorenwerke’ – BMW for short.

A small business at the time, BMW struggled to cope with the large orders they received from the Reichswehr, the German military, for its IIIa engine. The company’s production floor was inadequate for mass production and lacked the necessary machinery. With so many men at war, there were staff shortages too, as well as a general lack of skills.

Fortunately for BMW, in those times of state-controlled war economy, the German Republic set about giving them extensive support so that they could upgrade their equipment and recruit on a large scale. Later, they also received funds to build a completely new factory; funds raised through bank loans or state assistance.

Eventually, the war ministries couldn’t go on supporting BMW financially and they insisted on the flotation of the company to finance further expansion, giving birth to the automotive giant we know today.

If you are a history buff and are looking into importing a military vehicle, come and talk to McCullough. We have over two decades’ experience in shipping all sorts of cars. You can get a quote online, give us a ring on +64 9 303 0075 or send us an email for further information.

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