The First World War broke out in 1914, dragging into the maelstrom the major powers of Europe and beyond. As early as 1915, faced with the carnage wrought by the industrialization of war exemplified by the use of the machine gun, armed men were being killed at enormous rates on the battlefields of Europe. Different armies took different approaches to resolve the problem. For Britain and France, this took the shape of armored machines to convey troops across enemy barbed wire or just to clear a path. This resulted in tanks like the British Mk. I and French Schneider. The Germans and Italians were not far behind with their own programs, yet the United States, having isolated itself from the fighting in WW1, had no development program of its own and, despite seeing these allied machines go into battle, took relatively little notice of this new epoch in warfare.
When the United States did finally enter the war in April 1917, it did so with a naive and mostly untested military, more resembling European armies of 1914 than the battle-tested forces and tactics of 1917. The one thing it certainly lacked was the tank and, for a while, would have to try and get hold of some wherever it could. These first vehicles initially came from the French, in the form of their own FTs and the license-produced version, the M1917, and later with the British, as a joint program to develop the Mk. VIII heavy tank.
In the middle of this was the automotive manufacturer, the Ford Motor Company. Ford would clearly take a hefty amount of inspiration from the Renault FT tank and put it into a diminutive package weighing just 3 tons. This was the Ford 3-ton, America’s first true independently-designed tank.
The concept of such a small, lightly armored, and lightly armed tank is questionable, especially with the benefit of hindsight over a century later. In 1917, however, there was little to go on from a design point of view for inspiration and even less in the form of combat experience on which to base a decision. The British had employed quasi-rhomboidal tanks at the end of 1916 but the deployment, whilst successful in the context of previous infantry attacks, was still not the giant breakthrough as hoped for.
Those British tanks were large, and slow, weighed over 30 tons carrying bulletproof armor and carrying either machine guns or 6 pounder guns or both, they were at least well-armed. The French had pursued their own tank program and would deliver an equally slow but less well-armed Schneider CA. They would, on the other hand, produce a far more effective tank in the form of the Renault FT. The trend, therefore, suggested smaller vehicles were more effective, which may also be cheaper and lighter. A lighter tank was easier to move both by train and on a road where the Renault FT was even moveable on the back of a truck.
The Ford Motor Company, it seemed, wanted to emulate the small tank concept. Small and light meant the advantages of both strategic and tactical movement but also faster and easier production. For a major car manufacturer, the opportunities of mass production of a tank made from straightforward components – like those already known to be successful on the Renault FT – was clearly the inspiration.
The Ford 3-ton prototype was built as an artillery tractor, with significant work being done on the suspension of the vehicle. However, the US Army wanted a tank to ship to the battlefields of Europe, so a light machine-gun was added, along with some other minor changes, and 15,000 Ford 3-ton tanks were ordered.
Despite witnessing the employment of the first tanks by the British and then the French, work in the US on their own tank had started late and progressed slowly. Even if a design was going to be more easily producible, it would take some time to overcome the significant lead in tank building by the British and French. The Americans had wasted valuable time converting the French FT design from metric to imperial measurements to suit American manufacturing, delaying the introduction of the tank. By March-April 1918, little progress on any tanks had been made, although the first prototypes of the 3-ton were at least finally ready.
The first prototype vehicle was little more than a lightly armored and unarmed steel box for towing guns or equipment around a battlefield. With only one man needed to command and steer the vehicle, the layout left space for a second man in the front left of the vehicle. The development of a ‘tank’ version of the tractor was an obvious step forward, achieved by sticking a weapon in the front left for this extra man to operate, with the only cost being that access would go from two hatches to just the single hatch in front of the driver and the second hatch repositioned on top of the projection in the front housing the machine gun. That would not be the only change from the prototype tractor to a production tank though. The suspension would also be revised to progressively improve its performance. Even so, this first American-designed tank was never going to see combat and was clearly inadequate compared to the far more capable Renault FT or the American version which, at the time, still had not been finished.
The shape of the Renault FT has, since the end of WW1, become iconic with its egg-shaped track run, with the sprocket at the narrow end of the ‘egg’ at the back, and large idler wheel at the big end at the front. The large front wheel assisted with climbing obstacles and the top of the track run was held in place by means of springs, providing track tension for the whole system. The prototype Ford 3-ton had adopted this basic shape and even the French style track at the prototyping stage. This would be retained, albeit with some modification as the vehicle entered production.
Arrangement for the tank was also similar to the French Renault FT, with the engine to the rear, although with no separating bulkhead, under an angled roof. Ahead of this was the compartment for the crew. The most notable difference between the two ideas (this 3-ton and the Renault FT) was obviously the lack of a turret. The first prototype would also clearly be more ‘tractor’ than ‘tank’, as the front was devoid of any armament, with a flat front face angled slightly backward. The second version, the ‘tank’, would not have a turret but it would at least allow the US to have some armored ability to bring firepower to battle.
Nonetheless, the outcome would still end up inferior to the French tank. Still, something was better than the nothing the US Army had at the time.
Despite being smaller than the Renault FT, the vehicle carried armor just ½” (12.7 mm) thick at best and down to ¼” (6.35 mm) for the floor, just like the prototype.
With just 12.7 mm, it was very much vulnerable not only to anti-tank rifles but also potentially to concentrated machine-gun fire and the ‘reversed’ German rifle bullet. On top of that, if the armor was perforated and a fire ensued with the fuel, the Renault, with its engine separated by a bulkhead from the crew, allowed some chance of escape, especially as each crewman had his own hatch. The Ford 3-ton tank, for whatever other failings it had, still provided one hatch per man to escape, although, with no divider between the engine and crew, a catastrophic and fatal fire was a very real hazard.
Powered by a pair of Ford 4-cylinder petrol engines taken from the Model T car, spares would not be an issue. The engine was in mass production already so was known as a reliable and robust unit, albeit an anemic one. The engine itself had first been introduced in October 1908 – it would stay in production until May 1927.
Each engine consisted of a cast-iron block with 4 cylinders and 2 side valves per cylinder, reliant upon splash lubrication of the oil and cooled by water. With a capacity of 2.9 liters, each one could deliver between 20 and 22 bhp at 1,600 rpm and 112.5 Nm (83 ft/lb.) of torque.
The solution to improve the power was not to develop a new and improved version of the engine, but to stick to what was known and to simply pair two of these engines as the powerplant. This gave a combined output of 34 hp at 1,700 rpm. At 3 tons, this would mean a calculated theoretical power to weight ratio of around 11 hp/ton, although the actually measured ratio was just 9.4 hp/ton due to the inherent efficiency losses in the transmission system. Nonetheless, the power plant selection, on the face of it, made a lot of sense. However, the selection of two engines made a combined single power output difficult and the outcome was that each engine would have to drive half the vehicle.
Arranged alongside each other, these engines had their own Ford planetary transmission and final drive, with each one only powering one side of the tank. Thus, the left engine drove the left track and vice versa. This was not the first vehicle to use this idea. The engines were started electrically.
Combined together like this, the Ford 3-ton could achieve a top speed of around 8 mph (13 km/h) on a good hard surface. This was plenty for WW1, when the primary role for tanks was one of infantry support. For reference, the French Renault FT could achieve just 7 km/h and the British Whippet 13 km/h.
The transmission provided for 2 forward and a single reverse gear, meaning the vehicle could have one engine put into reverse and the other forward to spin on the spot, although the official technique was to put one into neutral and the other into drive. The commander drove the vehicle using hand levers, for which one lever controlled each transmission. Two brake pedals, one for each track (left foot pedal braking the left track, and right foot pedal braking the right track) added to the steering system, so that a sharp turn was to be done by braking one side and putting that side into neutral whilst the other side went ‘forwards’ or into reverse, turning the tank.
A fuel tank containing 17 US gallons (64.4 liters) of petrol provided an operational range of just 34 miles (55 km), assuming it was operating on flat and firm ground running at a fuel consumption of 2 miles per gallon (0.85 km per liter). Air for the engine for cooling and combustion purposes was drawn in through a raised rib on the rear spine of the tank and the exhaust was vented out of the back, with one exhaust pipe on each side at the rear.
A crew of two men was to be provided for the tank version of the vehicle. The commander, situated on the right, could merely observe to the front, commanding the man to his left, assuming he could hear him over the din of two engines directly behind them in a steel box.
The commander’s only other job was to drive the vehicle. No armament was provided for the commander to use and no wireless either. The gunner, situated on the front left, had to operate the primary (and only) firepower for the tank.
The primary armament for the Ford 3-ton was a single 0.30 caliber machine gun in the front left of the hull. The original machine gun which had been selected was the 0.30 caliber M1917 Marlin (a stripped-down version of the M1895 Marlin), a rather ancient and fairly obsolete weapon that found use in both aircraft and tanks for the USA. This gun was soon switched to the 0.30 caliber Browning machine gun instead. Emulating the French Renault FT a little more was the consideration of making a version with a 37 mm gun as well.
Movement for the machine gun within its mount was limited. It had a traverse of just 10 degrees left or right, elevated to up to 42 degrees, and depressed to -5 degrees.
The Ford 3-ton was to go through some substantial revision work on its suspension. The initial attempts on the prototype had resulted in a track emulating the French Renault FT, with a raised front idler and a rear-drive sprocket both raised off the ground. The prototype had also opted for 5 identical steel wheels fixed to a framework on the side of the hull, with a sixth wheel above wheel number 4 to help keep the track tight. With no springing suspension and not even rubber tires on the wheels, the vehicle had no suspension at all.
The first simple step was to improve track tension by replacing that single return roller with a pair of smaller wheels connected to an inverted leaf spring connected to the same mounting point. The spring tension would thus ensure that, even as the track wore and became loose, the track tension could be maintained.
The track links were simple steel plates with a built-in spud protruding from one edge, just like the Renault FT. Measuring just 7 inches (178 mm) wide, the links were connected using a single steel pin. There were 40 track links on each side and a ground contact length of 56 inches (1.42 m per side), for a ground pressure of 9.2 pounds sq. in. (0.063 MPa). To complement this simple and effective track system, along with the improvement to the front idler and more robust rear drive sprocket, was a suspension system for the road wheels as well. Gone were the 5 rigidly fixed wheels and, instead, a new system formed from two triple-wheel bogies was added. Each bogie was attached to one end of a large leaf spring anchored centrally. This system allowed for a small degree of vertical movement for the wheels, improving both traction and ride for the crew. An angular cover plate was still used over these wheels, but did not serve to support the wheels. It was meant just to keep the bogies as clear of mud and debris falling from the track return run above them as possible.
There were very clearly two simple and distinct roles for the Ford 3-ton. The first, as exemplified by the version which was unarmed (the ‘3-ton tractor’), was a mobile lightly armored artillery tractor for towing field guns, machine guns, equipment, and men around a battlefield.
The second was for infantry support, using a front-mounted machine gun, although this armed version would also be able to tow a field gun just as well as the unarmed version could. As the hulls were the same, tracks were the same and power plant and transmission were all the same, simply put, the tank could do everything a tractor version could, making the tractor version redundant.
Being late to the party did not mean that the US Army had small plans for tanks. In fact, some 500 of these tiny tanks were to be delivered by January 1919, from an initial order of 15,000 vehicles. However, with the signing of the Armistice in November 1918, it was clear that the war would soon be over and that the fighting phase had ended. Thus, there would be no need for huge herds of these tanks for the Army, which might get a chance to spend some time developing something a little better for the future.
The result was that all orders were canceled, just 15 vehicles being built. The US Army Ordnance Department, in a measure of its frugality, admired this vehicle for its simple nature, which would make mass production simple (an estimate of 100 vehicles could be churned out every day by Ford if so required by Spring 1919) and low unit cost of just US$4,000 (US$63,200 in 2021 dollars).
Shipped to France by the US Army, the goal was to try and get these vehicles into combat, but they did not arrive until November 1918, whereupon the Tank Corps took the view of the French that it was not suitable for combat but might have some use as a light artillery tractor.
The French, who examined it, did not like the vehicle. They already had plenty of tank experience and saw no utility in this tank at all. Although it has been suggested that the US was trying to persuade the French to buy these tanks, that seems highly unlikely or at least just woefully optimistic given the Renault FT was a better tank or tractor in all regards.
The Renault FT and the US version, when it would finally be ready, were both substantially superior to the Ford 3-ton in almost every regard. More armor (22 mm vs 12.7 mm), wider tracks for improved traction, improved firepower, as the use of a turret allowed for all-round fire, a bulkhead to prevent an engine fire from immolating the crew, and two hatches for the crew to access or escape from instead of one, were just a few of the advantages of these still cheap vehicles. The only discernible advantages this tiny tank might have over the FT was its smaller size, making it harder to target, and a fractionally better top speed, certainly not enough to outweigh its serious shortcomings.
The Ford 3-ton, in many ways, exemplifies the US in WW1. It was small, inadequate, and far too late. The American version of the Renault FT was also seriously late, leaving the Americans having to use British and French-supplied vehicles instead (a single battalion equipped with the British-built Mk. V and Mk V* and various French-built Renault FT tanks to equip light tank battalions). In fact, no US-built tank served in combat in WW1 at all.
General John Pershing would end up arriving in France in June 1917 with no armored support at all. The Ford 3-ton received a huge order for production and no doubt the Ford Motor Company could have delivered these in vast numbers. Whether they would have found any useful function is unclear and, with the end of the war, they were quickly canceled – perhaps an indication that, all along, they were so seriously limited. Today, there are just two surviving examples of the tank, one at the National Armor and Cavalry Museum at Fort Benning, Georgia, and the other in the Ordnance Collection at Fort Lee, Virginia.
Aberdeen Proving Ground Series: Tank Data 1. WE Inc., USA
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Hunnicutt, R. (1995). Stuart – A History of the American Light Tank Vol.1. Presidio Press, USA
Jarret, G., & Icks, R. (1971). Portrait of Power. Normount Publishing, USA
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Mroz, A. (2009). American Military Vehicles of WW1. McFarland and Co. Inc., USA
|1.6 m high, 4.1 m long (including the tail) and 1.65 m wide
|Total weight, battle ready
|6,200 lbs. (3.1 tons) / 2,800 kg (2.8 tonnes)
|2 (driver/commander, and gunner)
|2 x Ford Model T 4-cylinder petrol engines delivering 35 hp
|8 mph / 13 km/h
|34 miles (55 km)
|Petrol 17 US gallons (64.4 liters)
|1 x 0.30 Marlin machine gun / 1 x 0.30 caliber Browning machine gun / 1 x 37 mm gun
|12.6 to 6.35 mm
|For information about abbreviations check the Lexical Index