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Payne: Q&Auto: When Motor City became Bomber City

Henry Payne
The Detroit News
  • War in Europe, war between Fords
  • When Ford made bombers, not cars
  • Will Brad Pitt play Henry Ford II?

The auto industry has a history of big moments and big egos. And no one tells its stories better than A.J. Baime.

Baime's latest epic is "Arsenal of Democracy," a sprawling tale of World War II, wartime Detroit, and Ford family intrigue. Run, don't walk, to the nearest bookstore and buy it for Christmas. The book's title is taken from President Roosevelt's 1940 rallying cry for a joint military-industrial "arsenal of democracy" that would help England defeat Hitler's Germany.

But what drew Baime into the project was the conflict within the Ford family between a pro-war son, Edsel, and his pacifist father, Henry. Baime uncovered these raw nerves while writing another epic, "Go Like Hell," about another trans-Atlantic battle — the bitter rivalry between Edsel's son, Henry Ford II, and Enzo Ferrari for world racing dominance.

"Hell" is now in development as a movie with 20th Century Fox. Its reported co-stars? Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise. "There have been a lot of very good racing movies made — but a long time since a great one was made," muses Baime. "My dream is that is that this will be the one."

Baime recently tore through Detroit on book tour. I sat down with him to talk about war, Fords, and muskrat meat.

Q: What's "Arsenal of Democracy" about?

Baime: It's about FDR's vision to win WW2. It was going to be a war of mass production and naturally Detroit and its automobile industry would play the starring role.

Q: Why is Ford's Willow Run plant, which built the B-24 Liberator bomber, the book's center?

Baime: I focus in Willow Run for a variety of reasons. But most importantly because it's the best story and has everything in it. It's that one story that illuminates everything that was happening on the home front.

Q: Did General Motors, Chrysler, Ford actually become full-time munitions makers?

Baime: That is correct. Ford was actually the last car company to roll a car off the assembly line. If memory serves, it was February 22, 1942 — not long after Pearl Harbor. These companies started building things for the war effort. All kinds of amazing things. Chrysler built field kitchens. Ford built the B24 bomber but also built invasion gliders up in Kingsford. And tanks and tank engines . . . .

Q: So where did people find cars?

Baime: During the war there was an amazing amount of stuff that was difficult to find. You couldn't buy a new car. You weren't allowed to drive very much because of strict rules to replace tires. Everything was used for the war effort. Every raw ingredient. There was a shortage of aluminum, rubber, and gasoline because all of those things were needed for the war. You couldn't get a steak anywhere. People would actually go to their butcher stores and buy muskrat and horse meat.

Q: In the auto industry today we're used to breakneck, four-year product cycles. But that's nothing compared to the production promises of Willow Run is it?

Baime: They broke ground on Willow Run (in March, 1941) – and they expected to be turning out bombers in 14 months. They had to remove an orchard first. The idea was to build the biggest airplane factory under in the world under one roof. And to build the biggest, fastest, most destructive bomber. (This at) a time when no airplane — let alone a 60,000-pound bomber — had been mass-produced.

Q: A bomber contains a million parts and the goal was to make one an hour?

Baime: They finally achieved the goal just after D-Day in June, 1944. By end of the war, this one factory was building 70 percent of the B-24 bombers. The B24 is the most mass-produced military aircraft in history.

Q: How did Ford build bombers while company's founder, Henry Ford, was opposed to the war?

Baime: It was very difficult on a number of levels. There's this incredibly dark battle between good and evil within the company — within the family — that really came to a climax at the same time as WW2 came to a climax.

Q: Ironically, Edsel Ford died of cancer before the end of the war. So his father survives him is the war hero?

Baime: Henry Ford opposed entry into the war right up until Pearl Harbor. But the Willow Run factory captured the imagination of the masses — even in Europe. Ford was deemed a war hero.

Q: You a gearhead?

Baime: I am. I grew up playing with matchbox cars and watching Dukes of Hazzard. I always loved cars and motor racing – and the big epic stories the industry has produced, the dark side of industrial progress, the heroes. But right now my Subaru's battery is dead and I can't get my car running.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne.