Currently reading: Throwback Thursday: Automotive tales from the front line, 1918
We look back at what the news pages of Autocar looked like during World War I with three tales from the front line and at home

Not much in the way of car building goes on during a world war.

Fortunately, that’s something we haven’t had to experience for 71 years now.

But what was it like to read a car magazine in a time of virtually no new cars?

In World War I, Autocar took to reporting motoring-related news from the front, as evidenced in this article from 7 September 1918, entitled “A motor ambulance driver’s notes from the Front”.


Tractors and trains

“Three hundred Germans taken prisoner and a number of casualties – all because a petrol engine roared!,” the driver in question, R. Cartwright, remarked. “The petrol engine concerned was a 40hp set mounted in the cabin of a light railway tractor drawing many a ton of ammunition,” he explained.

“Now, as the little train meandered up towards the front lines, a petrol caterpillar tractor was moving around drawing a big gun, the mission of which was to add to the distractions of the area miles behind enemy lines.

“The men aboard the fussy little rail tractor heard the rumblings of its creeping kinsman on the road, but, alack, they were signalled forward and carried on to where road and rail crossed; the innocent heedless caterpillar crew did the same, and the two outfits met.

“The petrol tractor rolled off the lines and the engine commenced to race; the gun swung round and ‘tapped’ a little of the ammunition which grumpily went off and splashed a great deal.

“The enemy thought a ‘strafe’ was on and banged back again to our lines. Presently, when he got his nerve once more, a crowd of 75s let fly, and over went a mob of poilus [French infantry soldiers]; they found only a few prisoners in the front trenches, but the number increased later, and a long stream of prisoners passed the aftermath of the collision.”

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Incredibly, in a testament to the precision of the British Army, “the next day, both caterpillar and rail tractor were repaired and on their way again, whilst way back the road was being repaired and the prisoners captured”.

Hannover cl iiia forest of argonne france 1918 restored

Getting it from the premium pump

Another of Cartwright’s tales was entitled “British and German petrol”.

“The petrol we get here is not by any means of No.1 grade,” he introduced grimly. “This is not intended to be a whisper of content, but it does annoy a driver to have to change down on a hill up which the petrol of the week before would have taken his car with ease on top gear.

“The 1914 carburettors are not easily adjusted for low-grade fuel, and somehow or other the paraffin, or other heavy constituents, in the present-day so-called ‘spirit’ chokes up the jets, gets onto the valves, and makes an internal clean more frequently necessary.

However, our man managed to source some nicer fuel in a rather incredible manner: “The other night a night-flying German ‘plane came down with a couple of large tanks full of refined petrol, and, as the captors of the machine feared that the place would be lit by the blazing fuel, I obliged them by removing the noxious fluid into my own tank; and very nice too!

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“It was especially appreciated at the time, as I was booked for a long run the next day up to the base, where I hoped to see what my sister looked like as a WAAC. The car purred like her old self, and we made a distinctively bon trip. There is no doubt that the enemy gets plenty of good petrol nowadays – more’s the pity!”

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New York’s motorless Sunday

Finally, Autocar reported on a most remarkable occurrence in the USA, where the majority of drivers west of the Mississippi River had given up using petrol cars one Sunday, at the request of the Fuel Administrator, in order to build up a reserve for war purposes.

In the affected area, it was estimated that there were two to three million cars, yet just a few hundred were used, saving at least one million gallons of petrol in New York alone.

Such was the spirit of wartime that “any motorists who ventured abroad in their cars had an uncomfortable time, for they found themselves under the necessity of running the gauntlet of the hoots and jeers of their fellow citizens”.

The restraint seemed sudden and spontaneous to us, and we proclaimed that “the self-denial involved, judging from Sundays in the past, when the whole countryside has been thronged with cars, must have been very real”.

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Even then-president Woodrow Wilson and his wife were seen to attend church in Washington, DC in a horse-drawn carriage. In fact, “horse vehicles, which had long since lapsed into desuetude, were brought out in force.”

Such was the success of the “inauspiciously inaugurated” day that it was announced that the practice would be continued indefinitely.

Note: original article lacked photos. Those that have been sourced may not reflect the exact vehicles in the story.

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