While it seems that more and more parts of modern cars are made with plastic, the trend could have actually started much earlier, if an experimental car developed by Henry Ford had made it into production.
Seventy-nine years ago this week, Henry Ford received a patent for a plastic car made of soybeans, claiming that he would “grow automobiles from the soil.”
Why was the Ford Soybean Car built?
Ford had been obsessed with developing industrial uses for farm products as a way of boosting the economy during the hard times of the 1930s. He was looking for less expensive raw materials to use in car manufacturing by converting farm products into Ford products.
According to “The American Road,” a Ford employee magazine, Ford would drop off random products such as fruits, vegetables and chicken bones. They would be put in a caldron and heated, to see in the goop that resulted could be used for anything.
But then Ford saw a copy of “The Soybean” written by Charles V. Piper and William J. Morse at his Greenfield Village Trade School.
After reading it, he began to focus on soybeans, growing 300 varieties on an 8,000-acre Ford farm. Spending $1.25 million on soybeans, it’s no surprise that Ford Motor Co. cafeterias began serving soybean-based dishes. He was even hoping to use them in Ford cars. By making a car from agricultural materials, he was also hoping to overcome the metal shortages incurred by World War II.
A false start, and then success
Henry Ford initially developed the car with Eugene Gregory from the styling department, but Ford was not satisfied. Ford’s Soybean Laboratory in Greenfield Village was put in charge of the project under the supervision of Lowell Overly, an expert in tool and die design, and chemist Robert Boyer, Overly’s supervisor.
Their experiments never resulted in car parts made of soybeans. However, it led them to making parts out of plant-based plastic. Ford’s enthusiasm for a plastic car came from his belief that plastic body panels made the car safer than steel.
Furthermore, by using plastic, he could avoid the headaches being caused by steel shortages. Ford also thought using plastic brought with it a safety benefit: the car could even roll over without being crushed.
Unique construction for the time
The car’s 14 plastic panels were attached to a tubular steel frame. The car weighed 2,000 pounds, about 1,000 pounds lighter than if it used steel body panels. As for the panels themselves, no record survives of how they were created.
Claims have been made that the panels were made of soybeans, hemp, wheat, flax and ramie, leading some to believe the car was made from hemp. But Overly, who helped create the car, said the panels were made of “soybean fiber in a phenolic resin with formaldehyde used in the impregnation.” Windows were made of acrylic sheets, not glass and it was powered by a 60-horsepower flathead Ford V-8 that ran on hemp fuel.
The car debuted at the Dearborn Days community festival in 1941 before appearing at the Michigan State Fair Grounds later that year.
Ford received a patent for his Soybean Car this week in 1942. The patent was filed in July 1940.
So, what happened?
With the outbreak of World War II, all automotive production was suspended, as was the plastic car experiment. A second unit was being built at the time, but was never completed. The project was abandoned, and Gregorie destroyed the experimental car after the war.
But the experiments led to more than just the experimental Soybean Car.
The famous picture of Henry Ford hitting a car with an ax is not a picture of the Soybean Car. It was Ford’s personal car fitted with an experimental plastic rear trunk lid. The plastic proved to be so strong, the ax would fly out of his hands.
But Ford’s soybean obsession had a more far-reaching impact. The research yielded new forms of plastic, insecticides, solvents — even imitation meat. It also stimulated what is now a multi-billion agricultural staple.
So while you have had high hopes for a car made of hemp, or soybeans for that matter, the world would have to wait until 1983, when the Pontiac Fiero debuted using a steel space frame and plastic body panels.
But Ford had a better idea 41 years earlier.