“The most important single task before the nation is the rapid conversion of the automobile industry to war production.”
—R. J. Thomas, president United Automobile Workers
American consumers, who had come to regard the ability to drive an automobile as fast and far as they liked as a sacred right, had the brakes slammed on them in January 1942. The Office of Price Administration issued a draconian tire rationing edict, the result of Japan’s imminent conquest of the world’s only source of rubber, the Dutch East Indies. The other shoe (another commodity soon to be rationed) dropped on Jan. 4, 1942, when Federal Price Administrator Leon Henderson ordered Detroit to cease making cars and trucks for the civilian market in order to free up assembly lines for military production. The ban’s start date: Feb. 1, 1942. Though the move itself was not unexpected, the short timetable was. With remarkable understatement, a New York Times article reported, “The virtual wiping out of Detroit’s chief industry . . . has been accepted here with resignation which is tinged, in some quarters, with resentment.”
In a prepared statement Alvan Macauley, chairman of the Packard Motor Car Company and president of the Automobile Manufacturers Association said, “The automotive industry is in this war all the way. . . . The job is now to clear the decks for the expanded war work that the government will require of it in the drive for victory. The firms which already have their initial war assignments under way, many of them at full speed, are prepared to make available without reservation every bit of the experience they have accumulated in the difficult tooling and make-ready periods.”
Macauley was being disingenuous. The fact was that 1941 had been a boom year for automakers and executives had been reluctant to convert additional plants for military production. Though patriotically accepting Henderson’s decision, United Automobile Workers president R. J. Thomas criticized its delay, which he blamed on industry executive foot-dragging. “We proposed [the decision] a year ago,” he said. “We did not get far. Now that the industry knows it cannot make cars any longer, it is freely granting that its facilities can be changed over to make the materials of modern warfare.” What incensed Thomas was the fact that instead of a gradual retooling which would have minimized workforce disruption, now 250,000 autoworkers in the Detroit area would be laid off while assembly lines were retooled. As a New York Times article noted, “it will be months before all the unemployment slack can be taken up in the production of war materials.”
Then, there was the question of how workers would get to existing and new manufacturing facilities. Ford’s bomber plant at Willow Run, Chrysler’s tank center, and Hudson’s bomber plant were located in Detroit suburbs not serviced by public transportation. A good example of the problem was Willow Run, located twenty miles from Detroit at Ypsilanti, Mich. It had 60,000 workers that used private transportation to get to work. With tire rationing in place, gas rationing about to go into effect, and officials acknowledging that they were insufficiently equipped to establish new public transportation lines, some sort of accommodation had to be made, and quickly.
Of course, the effect of Henderson’s decision extended beyond autoworkers themselves. Some car dealerships simply closed shop. Others expanded their repair facilities. When skilled mechanics became scarce, they had salesmen don coveralls. Used cars turned out to be a lucrative business, especially with the thriving black market that soon developed.
Rationing became the order of the day, and men and women became adept in the alphabet soup of ration cards and coupons. Organized crime, seeing an opportunity that harkened back to the days of Prohibition, moved in to produce counterfeit coupons, especially “C” coupons, the most generous ration.
Henderson proved to be a controversial administrator and made a lot of enemies. So many, in fact, that when the Democratic National Committee compiled a list of the five factors contributing to the Democrats’ by-election loss in 1942, Henderson’s name was on it. In 1943, Henderson was replaced.
In 1941 civilian automobile production totaled about 3.6 million vehicles. In 1942 that number dropped to less than 1.15 million. Postwar civilian production numbers did not reach 1941 levels until 1949.