When Europe mobilized to war in the summer of 1914, its major players looked both home and abroad for viable vehicles to help mechanize what was sure to be a short conflict. It was World War 1 (1914-1918) that ultimately drove home the need for the first generation of military-minded armored cars armed with machine guns. For the Canadian Army, one notable entry into the history of the armored car was its "Armoured Autocar", a vehicle conceived of by the Canadians and built from American trucks, steel and machine guns - making it the first such vehicle to be serially produced in the United States.
The Armoured Autocar effort was led by Major Raymond Brutinel, a Canadian of French birth, who championed the basic idea of a force of machine gun-armed combat trucks capable of dominating the battlefield through mobility and firepower - this during a time when few powers were ready to embrace the concept of mechanized warfare. Wealthy businessman Sir Clifton Sifton agreed to back the venture which led Brutinel to a tour of the United States and its vast manufacturing options. He eventually settled on a 2-ton, 4x2-wheeled commercial truck built by the Autocar Company of Ardmore, Pennsylvania, and came to an agreement with the Bethlehem Steel Company of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania for the needed steel plating. The arms (0.30 caliber M1914 Colt machine guns) would come from the Colt Company at Harford, Connecticut due to the unavailability of British Vickers Machine Guns.
The truck would retain much of its road function including the standard 22-horsepower engine for drive power and the driving compartment would remain over the engine fit as in the original design. The major change was in the armored superstructure set over the chassis which was designed to provide the operating crew with basic ballistics protection against small arms fire and artillery spray. The structure was wholly open-air with hinged, fold-down sides, and featured the one-or two-machine-gun arrangement. The machine guns would be managed from trainable mountings but provision was made to keep them removable for tactical flexibility. The four, heavily-spoked roadwheels were set towards each corner of the boxy design, offering good road behavior but limited for cross-country ventures. A spotlight was added to the bow of the truck to light up the road ahead in low-light situations.
A typical operating crew involved no fewer than eight personnel and this included a vehicle commander, the driver and several machine gun operators. The vehicle's combat weight reached 6,000lb and the overall hull had a running length of 4.1 meters, a beam of 1.9 meters and a height of 1.9 meters. Armor protection reached 5mm at the critical front facing and this was reduced to just 3mm at the rear. The engine, with the armored chassis, could reach a road speed of 25 miles-per-hour on prepared surfaces - though, as with other armored cars of the war, held little to no cross-country capability due to drive power and weight.
Brutinel headed the design and development of what became a fleet of eight Armoured Autocars and, in September of 1914, the vehicles formed the newly-minted "Automobile Machine Gun Brigade No.1" in Ottawa. The brigade would encompass all eight of the armored cars as well as eight support trucks (carrying around 20,000 rounds of ammunition) and four standard cars. These would be accompanied by 130-135 men and carry about 20 total machine guns - forming what were essentially military history's first organized mechanized fighting force. Another three batteries were established to strengthen numbers and, when British Vickers Machine Guns finally became available in quantity, they superseded the American Colt installations when possible. The Lewis Machine Gun was another option.
With development and training behind it, the brigade was shipped to Europe that October. However, by this time, the war had bogged down in the slugfest known as "trench warfare" so the once-fluid fronts became stationary bloodbaths for participants along both sides. It was only when the fortunes of war began to favor the Allies in 1918 that the vehicles' value was finally seen and the stale fronts became mobile once again.
The trucks proved reliable enough and could traverse the mess that was the European countryside as well as could be expected. Machine guns had always been great support weapons in the ground fighting but the Armoured Autocars added a mobility quality that was unmatched. However, the open-topped nature of their hull superstructures, and inherently light armor to boot, also made operating crews highly susceptible to all manner of battlefield dangers -particularly artillery and machine gun fire.
At any rate, the Germans were forced to surrender in the Armistice of November 1918 and the war finally drew to a close. The Armoured Autocars certainly played their part (eventually) and became a very notable footnote in the war. The armored car would be revisited once again in the fighting of World War 2 (1939-1945) where all-new designs would emerge - sparking a renaissance of the type that would last into the Cold War period (1947-1991).