WWII: The British Automotive Industry

Posted by Simon R 02/11/2021 0 Comment(s)

On the eve of World War 2, the British Army was almost completely mechanised, with motor vehicles taking over the vital role horses had played during the Great War.


On 2nd September 1939, there were just two cavalry regiments remaining, with 20 having already turned to motor vehicles. This was in stark contrast to WW1, when Britain lost more than 484,000 horses in the conflict.

World War 2 vehicle

© Public Domain


War horses

In previous wars, horses were used by the mounted cavalry, in addition to transporting troops and ammunition and pulling the massive field guns. As well as falling victim to gunfire, poison gas attacks, exhaustion and disease, it was also found horses suffered from shell shock, much the same as humans did.


The launch of military vehicles for the British Army was a great relief for horse owners, who feared the worst during the 1930s, as WW2 loomed.


Motorised transformation

During WW2, the automotive industry stepped up to support the British Army as it underwent a complete transformation, with the number of military vehicles growing from 40,000 to 1.5 million. New vehicles ranged from staff cars and jeeps to tanks and giant transporters. There were even vehicles that housed mobile offices.


By 1940, the Army had given up its war horses in exchange for motor vehicles. Initially, the demand outstripped supply, so the British automotive industry changed its production facilities to manufacture solely military vehicles to support the Allied war effort.


In Great Britain and Continental Europe, no commercial trucks, private cars or automotive parts were made for personal use. Fuel was strictly rationed and no private vehicles belonging to non-essential workers were on the road.


The whole British automotive sector quickly reorganised its production facilities, making not only military vehicles, including tanks and aircraft, but also jerry cans, tin helmets and weapons.


Tilly cars

The Ministry of Supply liaised with the major motor manufacturers to produce a military version of the medium-sized saloon car. The front end was retained, but the rear end became a simple pick-up truck.


Most Tilly cars were based on existing 1930s 10hp saloon models, manufactured by British car makers such as Morris, Austin, Hillman and Standard, as well as the American subsidiaries, Ford and Vauxhall. The resulting simple utility vehicle was cheap and could be mass-produced for almost every military purpose.


Although they had little power and limited cross-country abilities, they served the British armed forces well throughout the war. They remained in production for the duration of the conflict. Look at any number of wartime pictures and you'll probably spot a Tilly in the background.


They were present at Dunkirk, during the Battle of Britain, at the D-Day landings, the liberation of the Netherlands, in North Africa, Malta and the Balkans.


The Tilly has remained a much sought-after collectors' vehicle today. In 1996, the Tilly Register was set up by enthusiasts to record which of the utility vehicles were still on the road. The register includes four marques of the vehicle: Hillman, Austin, Morris and Standard, plus the Tilly's close relative, the Austin 8 Tourer.



Supply chain

Every major manufacturer played their role in the supply chain, including luxury car makers Rolls-Royce and Daimler and component manufacturers such as Dunlop, Solex and Smiths.


As one of Britain’s biggest vehicle producers, Austin manufactured two-ton trucks, as well as the Tilly. Many of the trucks were converted into ambulances and troop carriers. The brand also made aircraft engine components for Bristol Mercury planes.


Austin assembled more than 5,000 aircraft, including Horsa gliders and Lancaster Bombers, at its plant in Longbridge and at the Cofton Hackett factory. In addition, it made more than half a million tin helmets, 44,000 mines and depth charges, and 600,000 jerry cans.


The double-decker bus maker AEC built the Marshall and Matador heavy-duty trucks, while Warwickshire-based Alvis, the luxury car manufacturer and a sub-contractor to Rolls-Royce, made aircraft engines and armoured cars.


Luxury carmaker Daimler built almost 3,000 large, armoured cars, complete with a gun, and more than 6,000 Dingo four-wheel-drive scout cars. They also made more than 10 million aircraft parts, tank components, Bren guns, aeroplane engines, propeller shafts and gun-turrets for bombers.



Europe's largest manufacturer

Ford's factory in Dagenham (the largest vehicle plant in Europe) made 360,000 military vehicles during the war. The US-owned company's second British factory in Manchester built 34,000 Rolls-Royce Merlin engines for more than 40 types of military aircraft, including the famous Supermarine Spitfire.


Ford Motors' wartime production also included War Office lorries, with code names ranging from WOT1 to WOT6. The largest were three-ton cargo trucks and the smallest were command and staff cars.


Morris Motors was another major British motor vehicle manufacturer. Founder, Lord Nuffield, was close to the British Government. This led to Morris starting to develop various tanks and aircraft long before war was officially declared, as the political situation in Europe deteriorated.


Morris and other car companies in the Nuffield Group including Riley, MG and Wolseley had numerous factories producing military vehicles, including the 10hp Tilly and the Morris 4 x 4-gun carriage. Morris made a range of tanks and Wolseley made a number of armoured carriers.


The main Morris factory, based in Oxford, repaired damaged Spitfires, assembled aircraft engines and produced scout cars, gun barrels, amphibious DUKWs and the Morris Commercial C8 Field Artillery Tractor, better known as the Quad.



Post-war automotive industry

After the end of the war in 1945, the production of civilian vehicles was resumed. People wondered what had become of the millions of military vehicles manufactured in Britain between 1939 and 1945, including six million tanks, 850,000 aircraft and 55,500 ships.


Many motor vehicles, ships and aircraft were sold for scrap. Stripped of any valuable parts, they were melted down; so, metals such as aluminium could be re-used. Much of the Allied weaponry was left all around the world, as it was too expensive to ship it all home.


Some of the tanks were recovered from the battlefields and repaired, to return to post-war military service. Many others were completely worn out by the end of the war, and it was impossible to save them.


British post-war vehicle exports reached new record levels and the UK became the largest motor vehicle exporter in the world by the late 1940s. One reason was because steel was available in the UK only to businesses who exported 75% or more of their products by 1947. British vehicle manufacturers concentrated on exports to Continental Europe.


Prior to the war, in 1937, the UK had provided only 15% of the world's vehicle exports. By 1950, 75% of our passenger cars and 60% of our commercial vehicles were sold overseas.


Britain provided 52% of the world's total exported vehicles in the 1950s, becoming the world's second-largest vehicle-producing nation, behind only the United States. Today, we are the seventh-largest manufacturer of passenger cars in the world.




People across the UK will be remembering the brave individuals who made the ultimate sacrifice during times of conflict at Remembrance Day services on Sunday 14th November.


As a mark of our deepest respect, the Autologics team will be observing the 2-minute silence, as we reflect on the bravery of the men, women and animals who lost their lives, while protecting the freedom of future generations. Lest we forget.