As Buick blows out 110 candles, it looks back at its younger years, to a time where its facilities answered the call of duty, and swapped tires for tank treads, drive shafts for cannon barrels.
February of 1942 marked the point at which the last civilian car rolled off a Buick assembly line before full attention was placed on engineering and producing aircraft engines, ammunition and perhaps most famously, the M18 tank destroyer, better known as the Hellcat, or the “hot rod of World War II.”
The M18 originated in the design studio of Harley Earl, whose team also worked extensively on early camouflage paint. The project was then turned over to the Buick engineering team that configured a 20-ton tank with a torsion bar suspension system (a common setup in military vehicles today) while allowing it to travel at 60 mph — incredibly fast for a tank. By comparison, most tanks used by Nazi Germany couldn’t exceed 20 mph, and even today’s modern M1 Abrams tank would lose to the M18 Hellcat in a drag race. It took a nine-cylinder radial aircraft engine pushing out 450 horsepower paired to a three-speed transmission to get the behemoth moving.
After its initial development, Hellcat then underwent testing at the GM Milford Proving Grounds, where aside from top speed testing, the tank also performed a unique set of exercises such as fording six feet of water and climbing walls — all of which was kept secret. For instance, production of the M18 Hellcat began in mid-1943 and ended in October 1944 but it took newspapers up until a month before production of the tank ended to run a story about a “new” tank destroyer.
Even the Hellcat logo on the M18’s front corner and patches for its crew was designed by Earl’s staff. Flanked by the words “Seek, Strike, Destroy,” it depicts a wildcat biting down on crushed treads, signifying the Hellcat’s mission of targeting enemy tanks.
In total, Buick assembled 2,507 M18 tank destroyers, along with nearly 20,000 powertrains, a half-million cartridge cases, 9.7 million 20mm shells, and a number of other war goods during WWII. ‘Merica.