Motor Companies: Then & Now

Many of the automobile companies we see on the road today played a role in the Great War, be it manufacturing aircraft engines, ambulances, or staff cars.  In this post, we’ll take a look at a few of these companies and see where they were at the time of the war and where they are now.


Peugeot, a French firm, is one of the oldest mechanical companies in the world, and though their vehicles are not at all common here in the United States, they are everywhere in France.  Peugeot’s contribution was a model of armored car based off of a commercial truck model of Peugeot.  Armored cars, however, weren’t used all too often, at least on the Western Front, as a result of the trenches and rugged terrain of No Man’s Land.

A line of Peugeot armored cars.  These were hastily converted by the French in 1914 from commercial Peugeot trucks.
Nowadays, Peugeot makes various models of civilian vehicles.  The Peugeot 3008 S.U.V. is a popular model, and the one I drove when I stayed in France this past July.



Tatra, an Austro-Hungarian (now a Czech) company who, at the time of the war, had the name Nesselsdorfer Wagenbau-Fabriksgesellschaft. The first Tatra automobile, the Präsident, was released in 1897. During the war, Tatra serially produced a 4-tonne truck, the TL-4.

A Tatra TL-4, seemingly in civilian use.
A Tatra TL-4, seemingly in civilian use not too long after the war.
Tatra, today, continues to produce trucks, like this Phoenix truck (built for agricultural purposes).  Tatra continues to produce military trucks as well.


Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft, or the Daimler Motor Company, was founded in Germany Stuttgart in 1890 by Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach and became what is commonly known nowadays as Mercedes-Benz in 1926.  From its founding, D-M-G made various engines and automobile models.  The first automobile sale by D-M-G took place in 1892 and a motor car was sold to the sultan of Morocco.  However, in 1894 D-M-G produced the “Phoenix” engine, which revolutionized the world of mechanical engines, and was the biggest product offered by D-M-G until 1902 when the Mercedes model of vehicle was released.
During the war, Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft produced various types of (mainly) aircraft engines for the German military as well as some models of aeroplanes, such as the Daimler G.I.

A side-view of a D-M-G Mercedes D.III engine.  Introduced in 1914 with an output of around 160hp, this was improved to 170hp by 1917.  It is in an inline-six configuration and has a displacement of 903.15 cubic-inches.  It is said that this engine was inferior to the B.M.W. IIIa engine of 1916, but the B.M.W. engines were much less available, so the Mercedes engine had to do.
Nowadays Mercedes is known for their luxury vehicles and various engines.


Maybach Motorenbau

In 1909, co-founder of D-M-G Wilhlem Maybach left the company and founded Maybach Motorenbau as a subsidiary of Luftschiffbau Zeppelin (the company that produced the Zeppelin airships).  During the way, Maybach Motorenbau produced many engines for heavy German aircraft and Zeppelin dirigibles.
Today, they exist as a sub-brand of Mercedes-Benz known as Mercedes-Maybach.  The Mercedes-Maybach brand is known for their ultra-luxury vehicles.

A 1916 Maybach Motorenbau IVa engine.  It is in an inline-six configuration and had a displacement of just over 1,400 cubic-inches.  It produced 245hp.  This beast of an engine was used in the beast of an aircraft, the Zeppelin-Staaken R.VI.
The modern Maybach: an ultra-luxury vehicle costing around $210,000 M.S.R.P.



The Renault company was founded in 1899 by French brothers Louis, Marcel, and Fernand Renault.  Their first vehicle was sold in 1898, just a day before Christmas, but their first major sale was of AG1 models to the Société des Automobiles de Place in 1905.  These vehicles were used by the French troops during the First Battle of the Marne where they became the famed Taxis of the Marne.  Renault, even unto today, manufactures vehicles and engines; though during the war they produced engines, automobiles, and various ordnance for the French military.

A great video showing a Renault tank engine.  This particular example has been restored by members of the Museum of the American.  The Renault tank engine is of an inline-four configuration with a displacement of 274 cubic inches and produced 39hp.

Renault is now known for their European-style vehicles for civilian use.  They also produce powerful racing engines, such as those used in some Formula 1 race-cars.



The Italian automobile manufacturer Fiat was founded in Torino, Italy, in 1899; and produced their first vehicles in that same year.  In 1908, Fiat vehicles became available for purchase in the United States, where they were a luxury automobile.  Fiat, not soon after, began expanding into other industries, such as producing locomotives and electrical equipment.  At the time of the war, Fiat produced not only automobiles and automobile parts for the Allied war effort, but also produced various guns and ordnance, namely the Fiat-Revelli Modello 1914 machine-gun.

The somewhat oddly-designed Fiat-Revelli M.1914 machine-gun as produced by Fiat during the war.  This weapon was not fed by a belt or drum but rather through a tray-like system charged with Carcano M1891 rifle clips.
Fiat Tipo 4 Porte
Today, Fiat is owned by Chrysler but still produces automobiles. Though their product line-up here in the U.S. is limited basically to the Fiat 500 cars, their European market has many more options, such as this Tipo 4 Porte.



Ford automobiles are icons of the early American motors era and still are quite recognizable as being an American automobile.  The Ford motor company, founded in 1903, was able to introduce (relatively) cheap mass-produced vehicles to American consumers, causing a revolution in the auto-making industry.  Back then, Ford made a handful of vehicle models, most-known of which are the Model Ts and Model As, which had different body styles to meet different needs (such as roadster and truck).  During the war, Ford produced many vehicles to be used as ambulances and staff-cars, examples of which can still be found unto today.

A Ford Model T ambulance painted in the U.S. medical pattern, 1918.  Notice the cloth flap used to enclose the cabin.
Ford, as they did a hundred years ago, produces various models of civilian and commercial vehicles.



Cadillac motor cars are the premier brand of automobile produced in the United States.  Originally founded in 1902 and becoming a part of General Motors in 1909, Cadillacs were renowned for their luxury, durability, good craftsmanship.  At the time of the war, a couple-thousand Cadillac touring vehicles were sent to France along with the A.E.F. to be used as staff cars or in similar roles.  However, only one of these A.E.F. Cadillacs exist, which you can read about here on the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission website.



Rolls-Royce, an English company, since its founding in 1906, have been renowned for their excellent, prestigious luxury vehicles; even unto today, you can’t get much more luxurious or prestigious than a Rolls-Royce.  During a war, however, the demand for ultra-luxury vehicles usually isn’t that high, so to stay in business, Rolls-Royce had to turn their production to wartime materials, such as ambulances, aircraft engines, and armored cars.

A period photograph of the Rolls-Royce-type ambulance.
2019 Rolls-Royce Phantom
As they did a hundred years ago, Rolls-Royce still produces bespoke ultra-luxury motor cars, such as this 2019 Phantom.



Bayerische Motoren Werke (which translates to Bavarian Motor Works), commonly known as B.M.W., was founded in 1916 in the German state of Bavaria.  During the war, they produced aeroplane engines, only beginning to produce automobiles after the war.

In 1917, B.M.W. produced the IIIa engine.  It was in an inline-six configuration and was quite innovative in that it used aluminum pistons.  The IIIa engine had a displacement of 1,163 cubic-inches and produced 179hp.  Another great feature of the engine was the inclusion of a special carburettor that allowed for greater power output and fuel-efficiency in high-altitude environments.  It has been claimed by the Allies that the B.M.W. IIIa engine was superior to the Mercedes engines in terms of performance.
2019 B.M.W. M760i
B.M.W. now produces luxury-sport vehicles and are renowned for their performance and sportiness.