Cars We Remember: Wartime with the Studebaker Weasel and Henry Kaiser
Q: Greg, I really enjoy your nostalgia car columns, especially the ones you do on the World War II auto manufacturer efforts. Back during the war, the car companies didn't build cars for several years and concentrated on wartime machine production.
You many times mentioned Ford, GM and Chrysler in your wartime columns, and the many things airplanes and tanks they built. I also remember your column on the Chrysler air raid sirens, too, that were built in the early 1950s.
Now if my memory is still correct, (I’m over 80 years young) I believe Studebaker was also heavily involved and built a smaller track vehicle that was used during WWII. Also, the war produced a famous war shipbuilding hero to join the car makers, notably Henry Kaiser. Any comments will be appreciated.
— John S., Jacksonville, Florida
A: John, your memory is still intact as Studebaker did indeed build a very popular wartime track vehicle called the Weasel while Henry Kaiser, who I’ve written about several times, was indeed a brand new independent car manufacturer after the war.
Let’s start with the Studebaker and its popular track vehicle called the Weasel. Specifically, two version were available, an M29 and M29C.
The M29 Weasel was a troop mover and built especially to get through snow and ice where other vehicles could not. The M29C "Water Weasel" was an amphibious version and had buoyancy cells in the bow and stern as well as twin rudders.
Both M29 Weasels were World War II track vehicles and much smaller than the combat tanks. Being a subscriber to Auto Week magazine, I remember they actually tested one back in 2006 and noted there was a compartment above the engine and transmission designed to hold TNT and a detonator for self-destruct purposes in case they were caught by the enemy or stranded with no hope of escape. The first Studebaker Weasels had 15-inch tracks while the later versions had larger 20-inch tracks.
You are correct that the auto manufacturers really helped the war effort in building everything from airplane engines (Studebaker, too), rocket engines, tanks, personnel carriers and lots more. Thanks also for remembering my column on the post war built Chrysler Hemi engine air raid systems, which to this day are still in operation in some areas of the country.
Now on to Mr. Kaiser, who you are again correct in that he built cars following his outstanding WWII industrialist efforts.
I will always give a tip of the hat to Henry Kaiser, he of the Kaiser-Frazer and Willys-Jeep 4x4 manufacturing businesses. It was indeed Kaiser who built many wartime Victory and Liberty ships out of his Richmond, California, shipyards for both U.S. and European sea fighting efforts.
Matter of fact, just like Henry Ford could build a B-24 bomber airplane in about 20 minutes on his assembly line, it was Kaiser that raised the eyebrows of everyone when he built a full size warship in just four days. That’s right, he built a full size warship in four days thanks to his special way of construction which included partitions pre-built by his thousands of men and women employees and connected together by welding instead of riveting at the shipyard.
To this day, Kaiser’s efforts, including building dams like the Hoover and several railroads (to mention just a few of his industrial highlights) are lauded. Historians agree Kaiser is a main ingredient as to winning the war back then and made possible successful engagement in the WWII theater sea battles. For those who have internet service, there’s a fine Kaiser documentary on YouTube right now that I highly recommend, www.youtube.com/watch?v="4BGOKXbiLTs". From the King Rose Archives, it’s only 25 minutes long and explains in detail Kaiser’s skills and influence.
As for the car efforts, the Kaiser automobiles lasted from 1947 to 1955, but Kaiser’s purchase of the faltering Willys-Jeep company in 1953 allowed him to continue with 4x4 manufacturing success. In addition to the many military style Jeeps that were updated and re-branded "CJ" (Civilian Jeep), his efforts included what many regard as the first ever SUV in the form of the 1963 Jeep Wagoneer. Kaiser passed away in 1967 and his family sold his Jeep brand Kaiser Motors to American Motors in 1970.
Studebaker, thanks to the 1959 Lark, held-off closing its American based plant in South Bend, Indiana, until 1963 while the very last Studebaker rolled off its Canadian assembly plant in 1966. Along the way, Studebaker took Packard to the automobile graveyard as a merger in 1954 never worked any magic and all Packard cars were gone by 1959.
Hope this answers your questions and thanks for your letter John. Continued good health to you.
— Greg Zyla writes weekly for More Content Now and other GateHouse Media publications.