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R. Samuel McLaughlin, then-president of General Motors of Canada, attends a ceremony marking the production of Canada's 500,000th military vehicle during the Second World War.

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With the world facing the threat of COVID-19, auto manufacturers are going to war once again, this time making medical supplies. General Motors is looking to produce 30,000 ventilators at its Indiana factory and is already mass producing face masks. Ford has plans to build 50,000 ventilators by the beginning of July.

Bill Ford Jr., speaking to NBC, drew parallels between current efforts and the Second World War’s “arsenal of democracy,” a collaborative effort that saw U.S. automakers pump out tanks, aircraft and warships at an unprecedented rate in the 1940s. Today’s battleground is in hospitals, rather than the field, but the same industrial-level production of materiel is required. Factories made the difference, which is why it’s worth a look back at how Canada’s automakers helped win the Second World War.

Canada built trucks. Lots of trucks. Almost a million in total. Starting in 1940, Canadian factories began their most important contribution to the war effort, singlehandedly outproducing the heavy-truck production of Germany, Italy and Japan combined. We put the Allies on wheels.

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A CMP truck goes airborne during testing.

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Throughout the volumes of The History of the Second World War, Britain’s official account of the struggle, Canada’s truck production is called our most important contribution to the war effort. To be sure, there were many, from the D-Day landings at Juno Beach and the liberation of the Netherlands to the mass training of air crew at Canadian airfields.

Starting in 1940, General Motors of Canada and Ford Motor Co. of Canada began producing a heavy vehicle called the Canadian Military Pattern (CMP) truck. Asked to think of a vehicle they associate with the Second World War, most people would probably name the American Jeep. But if the Jeep was a faithful little pack mule, the CMP was a bull moose with panniers.

“It was a very competent vehicle and available in so many permutations, from transport to fuel truck to mobile welding workshop – every type you can imagine,” says retired Colonel Ian Newby, who owns six CMPs, including a prototype. “We were still using them well into the 1960s, when I was a young soldier.”

A CMP and an American-made Jeep traverse difficult terrain.

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Newby drove a CMP from England to France during the 50th anniversary of the Normandy landings in 1994. He drove it all over Normandy, touching Juno Beach, where his father had landed on D-Day. He and the CMP were even given a special escort to drive up and participate in the official celebrations at Omaha Beach.

“Probably my finest hour,” he says fondly. It was a fitting tribute to Canada’s workhorse.

Development of the CMP began in 1937 as war clouds gathered in Europe. At the behest of Canada’s Department of National Defence, GM and Ford began developing a prototype heavy truck to serve as an infantry transport, a field-artillery tractor and to perform just about any other required task.

Canadian auto manufacturing was already well suited to mass produce trucks. Because of taxation and import laws, our automakers supplied not just the domestic market but other Commonwealth countries too. Ford, for instance, had been exporting right-hand-drive cars to Australia since the days of the Model T.

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A CMP armoured car rolls through Sicily.

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The CMP was a right-hand-drive model and had its roots in British heavy-truck design. Later models had the snub nose of a bulldog with a forward sloping windshield. There were a staggering 90 variants available, ranging in carrying capacity from 350 kilograms to 1350 kg. There were 4x4, 4x6 and two-wheel-drive options.

Ford-built CMPs ran on a 3.9-litre flathead V-8 engine, while the GM version mostly used a 3.5-litre straight-six. Both engines produced roughly 80 to 90 horsepower, which meant that a fully laden CMP rolled along at a relatively relaxed pace. Top speed was a claimed 80 kilometres an hour, which almost no CMP could actually do.

However, with the British Expeditionary Force having been forced to abandon most of their vehicles at Dunkirk, Canada’s trucks began arriving at the right time. The CMP’s blunt, squared-off dimensions made it ideal for transatlantic shipping, and its bare chassis could be outfitted to local needs. The CMP’s flexibility was its strong point.

Many of these trucks ended up serving all around the world, on both the European and Eastern fronts, in Burma and in the North African campaign. When the British Eighth Army fought Nazi Germany’s General Erwin Rommel in the desert, they did so supported almost exclusively by CMP trucks.

“If you can drive a CMP, you can drive pretty much anything,” Col. Newby says. “They are absolute pigs to drive and will dispel any illusions you might have of user-friendly military equipment. “But we won the war.”

A CMP forms part of a convoy in North Africa during the Allied campaign against the Nazi General Erwin Rommel.

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Stripped of romance, these pug-ugly trucks slogged through the battlefields of Europe, bringing men and materiel to the front. A lot of the driving they did was difficult – plowing through snow, sand and axle-deep mud.

Faced with a new global challenge, such hard work begins anew. Craft breweries are making hand sanitizer. A Coquitlam, B.C.-based company that makes dog beds has retooled to begin production of N95 masks. The Government of Canada says it will be working with auto-parts suppliers to help them transition to making medical devices and personal protection equipment.

The battle against COVID-19 will be fought by front-line workers, but also supported by the efforts of many. Then, as now, victory draws closer when everyone does their part.

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