M18 Hellcat tank destroyer, a Buick-designed and built WW II speedster

Buick M18 Hellcat

Buick M18 Hellcat

Although the M4 Sherman tank is the most famous armored vehicle in the Allied arsenal of World War II, the fast M18 Hellcat “tank destroyer” lived up to its description, being particularly effective against German heavy tanks. The latter thick armor on the front, virtually impenetrable by allied ordinance coming in from ahead, which German designers in hubris thought would be the only angle of battle. They didn’t count on the speed of the Buick-built M18.

The M18 was designed to rely on being fleet of tread. Its armor was a mere inch thick, but its suspension, power and light weight—only about 20 tons—allowing at top speed of up to a relatively blinding 60 mph. Saysg to Bill Gross, a historian who restored an M18 now on display at the Sloan Museum in Flint, Mich, “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.”

And every M18 was built by Buick, which is now celebrating the M18’s seventieth anniversary, which coincidentally marks the GM division’s 110 year of existence.

The M18 was, in fact, a creation of General Motors from the beginning, and from all places, the design studio of acclaimed “stylist” Harley Earl, who’s better known for the P-38 fighter-inspired tailfins on the 1948 Cadillac. Earl’s sense of style, however, did extend to the Hellcat logo on the M18’s front corner and patches worn by its crew. It depicted a wildcat biting down on a crushed tank, surrounded by the words “Seek, Strike, Destroy.”  Like a wildcat, the M18 would be light, quick and deadly.

Buick M18 Hellcat logo

The Buick M18 Hellcat logo was designed by legendary GM stylist Harley Earl.

The M18, serendipitously designated a “Gun Motor Carriage,” or GMC, was uncomfortable in cold weather, with its open turret also the intake for its air-cooled Continental 9-cylinder radial aircraft engine. The open turret also left the crew more vulnerable to small arms fire and shrapnel than a heavy tank. Thanks to its suspension design, however, it has a surprisingly smooth, one might say Buick-like, ride. A further GM connection was its three-speed Hydramatic transmission. Buick built all 2,507 M18 tank destroyers.

The speed, acceleration and maneuverability of the M18 allowed it to outflank the heavier German tanks, and with its quickly-traversing turret hit from the side. The M18 also used an ambush tactic. The M18’s ability to “shoot-and-scoot” gave it an impressive kill ratio in the battle of the Nancy Bridgehead, an advanced use of armor by Patton. The Hellcat’s speed enabled the M18 to feature in the capture of German fuel dumps in the Battle of the Bulge, stranding the Germans’ heavy armor and blunting their counter-offensive. For the month of July 1944, the M18 Hellcat claimed 53 German Panther and Tiger I kills, along with 15 self-propelled track vehicles. During the same time, only 17 Hellcats were lost to enemy action and other factors.

The term “kill ratio,” however, indicates the bitter reality of war. Each Hellcat lost had a crew of eight. Even among the victors, courageous die. This year, the Buick-built M18 Hellcat celebrates its 60th anniversary of entering service, along with Buick’s 110th year of existence. On this Memorial Day, let’s not only celebrate, but also remember.

Advertising and the M18

Buick promoted war bonds–and itself–in advertisement with the slogan, “When better automobiles war goods are built, Buick will build them.”

Buick M18 Hellcat war bond advertisement

The breathless prose of the Buick-sponsored war bond advertisement was typical of wartime hype, mostly accurate and always positive. (click to enlarge)

 

Long ago we decided something about the American fighting man.

Give him good weapons to fight with—and he’ll do the rest.

That thought guided us in building the big Pratt & Whitney aircraft engines that keep the B-24 Liberator boring relentlessly through the skies.

It guided us too when we sat down to design the M-18 as an answer to the German Tiger Tank.

Shortly after the breakthrough out of Normandy, stories began to trickle back about what the Tank Destroyer Batallions were doing with this lightning paced slugger.

Typical of the exploits is the tale of a single battalion—21 Hellcats—that spent 24 days in continuous action. Score: four Tigers, two Mark IV’s, four armored vehicles knocked out—and hundreds of enemy troops killed, wounded or captured!

It seems the men like to keep busy—especially with the Hellcat. For in all this action only two M-18s were damaged—neither beyond repair—and the crews suffered only minor injuries.

That’s what Buick men and Ordinance officers were after when they joined hands to perfect the M-18.

They gave it hitting power in a high-velocity 76-mm cannon. They gave it traction to go anywhere and speed to outrace any other land vehicle.

It now appears they gave it ability to take care of itself.

And given tools like that, you can count on the boys who use them to do the job!