Today marks "V-E Day," the day that World War II ended in Europe. And in a couple of weeks, it will be the 110th anniversary of Buick. To tie both anniversaries together, the automaker has released photos of the most fearsome Buick to ever come off the production line: The M18 Hellcat, a World-War-II-era tank destroyer.
In 1942, the last civilian Buick rolled off of the production line, and the factory immediately began retooling for war. Like much of American industry, GM had earlier been tasked with supporting the war effort, and when the tasks were divvied up Harley Earl's design studio found themselves with an unusual design assignment: Forget the Roadmaster—we need something that can kill enemy tanks.
Earl and his team came up with the Hellcat, a bad-ass nine-cylinder, 450 horsepower vehicle that weighed 20 tons. (For scale, a Roadmaster of the era weighed about two tons.) Despite the weight, the Hellcat had a top speed of over 60 miles per hour thanks to its engines, which were actually designed to power airplanes.
"The Hellcat was considered the hot rod of World War II," says Bill Gross, an historian with M18 restoration experience. "And Buick engineers also made it quiet by tank standards, so it was very successful at getting in, hitting a target, and getting out. To give perspective, most German tanks of the day were capable of just 20 mph and even today's M1 Abrams tank is outpaced by the Hellcat."
It needed that speed in order to be effective. German tanks of the day had front armor that was so impenetrable that anti-tank shells bounced right off of it or were deflected by the front end's angled designs. The lightning-quick Hellcats were designed to whip around to the sides and even the rear of the enemy tanks, to lay into them where the armor was weakest. (This performance philosophy was dubbed "shoot and scoot.") And because tank battles didn't always take place in flat, level fields, the M18 was designed to plow through six feet of water, climb stone walls, and smash through whatever might be in its way in its bid to encircle the enemy.
The M18's speed, however, necessitated a trade-off: The armor could be no more than an inch thick. (Good enough to stop bullets, but not much more.) Any thicker, and the weight increase would slow it down. M18 crews needed nerves of steel, as they'd be flying into the fray with the full knowledge that suffering a single direct hit would be disastrous. Luckily for them, the Hellcat's speed was often quick enough to beat the turret rotating speed of the German tanks they came up against.
One interesting feature of the M18 came from the designers understanding that the harsh conditions in which it was fighting would take a toll on the engine. The engine was thus mounted on steel rollers and made to be easy to disconnect from the transmission; during service in the field, the entire engine could be rolled out onto the rear engine flap, quickly serviced, then rolled back in and hooked up.
Earl's team had begun designing the Hellcat in 1942, and by 1943 it was rolling off of the assembly line. All told some 2,500 were produced, and platoons of M18s helped win decisive battles in France.
By 1946, Buick was back to making Roadmasters. Buick, the M18 design and engineering team, and Harley Earl had all played their part in the war effort.