Early Cadillac Cars in Canadian Service

A Driver of the Canadian Expeditionary Force standing beside a fresh looking 1916 Type 53 Cadillac. (War Department Image)

At the outbreak of the First World War the Canadian military was just beginning to introduce mechanization into its structure. The primary types of wheeled transport acquired by the Canadian government during these early days were cargo trucks and passenger cars. The first recorded wartime purchase of passenger vehicles for the Canadian army was for seven Canadian made Russell touring cars acquired in the first days of the war, for use by the 1st Canadian Contingent overseas. Beginning in 1915, the Department of Militia and Defense began to acquire a number of different makes of cars from across the auto industry. These purchases included Fords, Briscoes, McLaughlins, Cadillacs and Chalmers, with 119 cars of all types delivered between June 1915 and October 1916 alone.

Passenger Cars

Amongst all of the car types ordered in the first years of the war, the US built Cadillac was the standout. The model received was based on the large seven passenger luxury car from the American company. It was fitted with the newly introduced Cadillac V8 engine and was manufactured between 1915 and 1918 as the Type 51, 53, 55 and 57 respectively. Although Cadillac began production of left hand drive cars in 1915 those ordered by the Canadian government appear in both left and right hand drive configurations. 

In July 1916 a large order for 55 passenger cars was placed for use by the Canadian army with the justification indicating that the type was best suited for overseas service on several accounts. The type went on to be the largest number of any passenger car delivered with more Cadillacs acquired than all other types combined. Cadillac corporate records of the period indicate that 221 vehicles of all types were sold to the Canadian Government over the course of the war. 

Cadillac cars began to appear in CEF references overseas during 1917. The passenger cars were used in England and France primarily as staff cars for use by officers. At least one car (M-19910) was assigned to the War Records Office Photographer and his staff for use in recording the Canadian war efforts in France and Flanders. This car appears in numerous official CEF images, often in interesting settings. Another Canadian Car of note (M-44852)was assigned to Lt. Colonel George H. Johnson, Deputy Director of Timber Operations with the Canadian Forestry Corps. Johnson used this car for 2 years in France and Germany, covering 11,000 miles with no major breakdowns. At the end of the war, Johnson wrote a letter to Cadillac thanking them for producing a wonderful product. In his letter he recounted that his car was the first Canadian car into Germany after the Armistice and possibly the first allied car to cross the Rhine River at the wars end. 

The configuration of the Canadian cars is usually standard with few alterations as the war progressed. All were of the open top “touring” design with leather covered seats and interior panels and canvas weatherproof soft-top roofs with side curtains. The standard equipment for cars operating in France and Flanders included blackout driving shields on both headlamps and two spare tires fitted to the rear of the body. Some examples are seen fitted with glass windscreens for the rear passengers, extra petrol and oil cans secured to the running board while others gain locally installed wooden storage bins in the same location. 

Ambulances

In addition to the standard seven-passenger configuration, Cadillac also supplied a chassis with limited bodywork to Canada for use in the creation of ambulances.  

Although the Cadillac was determined to be the best suited chassis for cars used by the CEF in Europe, by mid-1915 the number of vehicles required necessitated the adoption of numerous vehicles of British origin to augment those shipped from Canada.

The War Diary of the 1st Divisional Ambulance Workshop in early 1915 recorded that the unit arrived in France on February 11th with 21 Ambulances, 4 Lorries, 3 motorcycles and 1 car. The ambulances were of Daimler, Austin and later Talbot designs and the car was a Sunbeam and later a Canadian made Russell. The early months of the War Diary record that the Daimlers experienced gearbox issues from the start, the Austins suffered from damaged springs and frames due to overloading and rough conditions and all types experienced high rates of tire and wheel rim damage due to poor road conditions caused by overuse and shelling.

The Cadillac ambulances acquired by Canada were fitted with wood and canvas ambulance bodies supplied and fitted by Canadian companies. These bodies had a rated capacity of 4 litter patients or 8 sitting patients. Although information on the supplier of the bodies is scant the partial records available indicate that 11 bare chassis were acquired from Cadillac for use in ambulances in 1916 and that shipping of Cadillac chassis was occurring from a well-known Canadian Coach-builder, the Ledoux Carriage Company, of Montreal in September 1916, further to this 32 ambulances were crated for Shipment to Montreal in December 1916. Unfortunately nothing concrete had linked the Ledoux Company to the production of ambulance bodies to date but hopefully further research will shed light on this possible connection.

Images of Cadillac ambulances in France and Flanders are usually from the late 1917 to 1918 period when they became more common overseas, although numerous British makes remained in service with the CEF until the wars end. Standardization of vehicle fleets appears to have remained elusive for the Canadians during the War. In order to provide some consistency, ambulances were often organized by the divisional workshops into sections of up to seven vehicles all of the same manufacture. This would at least allow for some interchangeability of parts and organization of maintenance schedules.

Cadillacs used overseas by the CEF are usually marked with basic Geneva Cross markings, capacity markings and often include a large “Canada” stencil on the body sides and on top of the cowl. These vehicles are usually marked on the hood sides with a War Department registration number incorporating an “A” prefix and may include a “broad arrow”or “C broad arrow” followed by the individual vehicle number. Interestingly, those ambulances supplied overseas are not fitted with a glass windscreen, using a half height solid deflector panel in its place.

Not all of the Cadillac ambulances built for Canada served overseas with the CEF. Many examples remained in Canada serving with field ambulance units, military hospitals and the Red Cross. These home service ambulances are usually marked with basic Geneva Cross markings, capacity markings and often include a large “Canada” stencil on the body sides and on top of the cowl. These home service vehicles are not usually marked on the hood sides with registration numbers using license plates instead. Records show the vehicles in use across Canada are generally the same configuration, incorporating a full glass windscreen with no variations beyond commonly missing spare tires in the two storage bins under the body. 

Other Users

Cadillac first came to the attention of the US army in the early years of the 20th century. The large, well built cars were well liked as staff-cars in the Mexican border war of 1910 and again in 1915 when they featured prominently in the Davidson Automobile Corps convoy of 1915. This convoy from Chicago to San Francisco was completed with 8 Cadillacs in various configurations, including armoured cars, driven by US military academy cadets accompanied by US army officials. The purpose of the expedition was to prove that automotive transportation of US forces was possible over long distances. The trip took 34 days and was the first successful military crossing of the United States by car. 

A newly assembled 1918 Type 57 Cadillac. This car is finished to the late-war US Army standard with an accessory fuel tank on the running board and matt green paint overall. The sign on the grille indicates that the car is on “Test” probably at the time of acceptance. (National Archives)

 When the US entered the First World War in April 1917 the Cadillac Type 57 was quickly named the Official Seven-Passenger Car of the US Army. The configuration of the cars basically conformed to those ordered by the Canadian government but were all delivered in left hand drive. Cadillac went on to produce the car as a military knockdown (CKD) version, pre final assembly and packed in crates for overseas shipment to a factory that would complete the final fittings once arrived. In addition to the standard open cars, the United States army also held a small number of special closed cars for use by senior officers in the field. 

By the end of the conflict Cadillac had delivered 2095 cars to US forces overseas and 199 to the US Army at home. Very few of the cars shipped overseas were returned home and the remaining inventory of cars in US stores were disposed of as newer designs were acquired.  

Post-War Use and Disposal

By the end of the First World War the Cadillacs that were shipped overseas had served for 2-3 years and in often horrible conditions. They had been used in the heat of summer and the wet cold of winter with limited servicing and repair. In many cases, the lifespan of a car in France and Flanders was determined by the skill of its driver, an enlisted soldier, who had to not only skillfully navigate the roads, traffic and shellfire but perform basic maintenance and repairs in the field. 

It was determined that the vast majority of mechanized transport used by the CEF overseas during the war would not be returned to Canada in 1919. Even General Currie’s Rolls Royce Silver Ghost limousine was disposed of in England shortly after the war, being sold at public auction.

The Cadillacs that were retained in Canada appear to have served on for a few years with examples finding use as base vehicles. With the newly formed Canadian Airforce at Camp Borden in Ontario in 1921, some examples were observed as aging airfield ambulances, no doubt issued from Canadian Army Service Corps wartime stocks. It is reasonable to believe that the last of the wartime Cadillac’s would be withdrawn from service by the late 1920’s or early 30’s as more modern types of cars and ambulances became available. 

Table of Known Cadillac Registration Numbers

Reg. No.Config.Date UnitNotes 
16103CCar CEF- Training Div. HQListed as being involved in traffic accident with a charabanc. 
58099KCar CEF-CAVC Listed as being involved in traffic accident while overseas.
A142AmbulanceCEFImage taken overseas.
A145AmbulanceCEFImage taken overseas.
A162AmbulanceCEFImage taken overseas.
A59146Ambulance CEF – 5th Can Div.Image taken overseas. Shows Div. markings. 
M19475Car CEF- Can. Sect. 1st Ech. GHQ Documentary reference.
M19908CarJune 1917CEF-France Image taken overseas.
M19910CarJune 1917CEF- FranceOfficial image O.1471 and O.4592. Car assigned to Canadian War Records Office Corps HQ. 
M44501CarCEF-2nd Can. Div. Documentary reference.
M44852CarNov.18, 1918 CEF – CFCRecorded as first car to Cross the Rhine into Germany. Staff car of Lt. Col. George H. Johnson DD of Timber Ops. Story and picture of car in Cadillac book 1919
RC298CarDec. 1918Canadian Red Cross Canadian Red Cross Committee from London visit the Corps HQ in Schleiden, Germany. Image O.3919

Table of Known Canadian Goverment Purchases

The records of the War Purchasing Commission are quite complete for the years 1915-1916 but become less so in the later years of the conflict. The entries below reflect those Cadillac purchases held in the records that are available at the time of writing and are by no means to be considered complete.

DateQuantityValueNotes
1915/06/254 6,885.804 Cadillac cars and 15 Ford Cars in same purchase.
1915/11/0334,939.353 Cars for the Corps Troops Supply Column. Originally ordered as Fords in Sept. 1915 but requirement amended to Cadillacs in Nov. 1915.
1915/11/2523,292.902 seven-passenger Cars. 1 each for Divisional HQ’s in Toronto and Quebec City.
1916/02/1558,651.005 Cars 
1916/06/135545,198.0055 Cars
191611 11 Chassis for Ambulances.

Passenger Car Image Galley

SELECT SOURCES

American Military Vehicles of World War I, Albert Mroz, 2009. pg.100

Standard Seven Passenger Army Car, Cadillac Motor Car Company, 1919

Making Cars in Canada, Richard White, Canada Science and Technology Museum, Transformation Series #15, 2007. pg. 28