—Tim Bean

The US Army had a simple request: America needed a multipurpose carrier that could go places the Willys Jeep could not.

Studebaker gave them a Weasel.

In 1942, Allied forces needed to conquer the snowy slopes of Norway. It required a vehicle sturdy enough to carry troops and cargo, light enough to parachute onto terrain, with a reliable engine that could operate within a decent range at a decent speed in a harsh climate. Project Plough, the codename given to infiltrating Norway, basically needed a vehicle that could out-Jeep the Jeep.

That’s a tall order.

Thus, the Weasel was born, churned out by the thousands at Studebaker’s northern Indiana factory, a factory so large it was really a city-within-a-city. Only a few years before, Studebaker’s Commander, President, and Big Six models, as well as the budget-friendly Rockne, had rolled out of this South Bend assembly line.

Just before America’s industrial production turned to war production, Studebaker had been enjoying booming sales of its new mid-size Champion. The war ended all that.

There are places even a Jeep can’t reach.

Just as the company had done during the Civil War and World War I, Studebaker manufactured transport vehicles for the US Army. The Studebaker US6 had a solid reputation as a vehicle that could take anything, anywhere. Now they needed something that take things even further. Studebaker introduced the Weasel, initially called the T-15 Cargo Carrier.

Compact and boxy, the Weasel looked like the miniature hybrid of a boat and a tank. Fleshed out by British inventor/spy Geoffrey Pyke, the Weasel could traverse the snowy hills of Norway with Allied commandos and kneecap the occupying Nazis army. This would keep Allied troops mobile.

Studebaker offered to put this revolutionary vehicle into immediate production. The South Bend car company hashed out the T-15 Cargo Carrier (later to become the Weasel), and the US military gave the Indiana automaker the nod.

2,000 T-15s were made.

The Studebaker assembly line at South Bend, Ind. T-15s/M-29s before painting.

Then…the Allies changed their mind. Instead of investing in guerilla actions, Allied bombers would step in and bomb, well, everything (aka, strategic bombing). That didn’t mean they were done with the T-15. Its trial performance had been outstanding, and while there might not be a whole lot of snow in Western Europe, Italy, and the Pacific, there was certainly plenty of mud and sand. The Willys Jeep struggled in that terrain, but the T-15 could chew it up.

Renamed the M28 and M29 Weasel, Studebaker manufactured 14,000 MORE of these all-purpose transports, saving both time and money by repurposing the Champion’s inline six-cylinder engine. These engines had 30% more horsepower than the Willys Jeep (49 hp vs 70 hp), but were nearly twice as efficient (just under 30 mpg).

To put that in perspective, the average American car hovered around 10 to 16 mpg in 1942. To an Allied army soon to face scattered supply lines in Europe, that fuel efficiency would make a difference.

Like the Liberty Ships manufactured during WWII at the other end of Indiana (Evansville), the Weasel’s greatest asset was its simplicity. By keeping the “box-on-treads” design uniform, Studebaker released many variants and subvariants, modified either in the South Bend factory or overseas.

One design added an outboard motor and fore/aft buoyancy tanks for amphibious work (M29C). Several models featured armor-piercing recoilless rifles or flamethrowers for tactical use (M29 C, Type A, B, and C). The speed and maneuverability of the Weasel made them a Panzer’s worst nightmare. The straight cargo carriers became ambulances, able to cart away wounded soldiers from locations no truck could reach (M28 or 29).

The multipurpose Weasel in action: amphibious (top), medical (middle left), snow carrier (middle right), anti-tank (bottom left) and cargo carrier (bottom right).

The Weasel wasn’t perfect, and its popularity with the public had more to do with its futuristic look than its practicality. Some despised the Weasel. Originally designed for icy climates, the Weasel suffered from near-constant overheating in the heat and humidity. Not only did the radiators boil out, but the engine overheated so dramatically the transmission oil “literally boils out.”

A Weasel used in mine-clearing.

Anyone that has owned a snowmobile knows hard, paved roads are no good for light treads and the Weasel was no exception. The hard roads and high speeds stretched and snapped treads, a flaw that could be a death sentence in combat.

Its other shortcoming was a complete lack of armor. The M29’s hull was designed for buoyancy and mobility, not defense. The thin sheet steel did nothing to stop or slow anything but the smallest arms. It was common to see sandbags stacked on either side of a Weasel when carrying personal, but too much makeshift armor would spoil the Weasel’s main asset: mobility.

Studebaker made over 15,000 Weasels, which saw action from World War II to the Korean War and even in Vietnam (briefly). They were also common in foreign military service. In the 1950s, many countries purchased surplus Weasels and by the 1960s, Weasels found their wat to private markets.

Today, restored M29s are readily available for enthusiasts with money to spare. In fact, it took only seconds to find one for sale on eBay…for a hefty price.

Want to Know More? 

Primary resources are gold for amateur historians, and this is as primary as it gets: the original M29/M29C Technical Manual in pdf format. Enjoy!

Here’s a comprehensive (and once confidential) 1943 FILM introducing the Weasel to the OSS. This video focuses on the Weasel’s potential in snow conditions, but the potential is obvious.