Henry Ford’s Soybean Car

Mar 16, 2022 0 comments

You might blame Henry Ford and his hugely popular T-model for sparking our insatiable passion for cars and the environmental degradation it has brought, but did you know that Ford once tried to build a biodegradable car?

Henry Ford was born in a farm and spent his childhood working on his father’s farm. Although he despised farm work as a child, in the middle ages he became fascinated with the notion of merging farming with industry. Ford had a long-standing interest in plastics developed from agricultural products, particularly soybeans. He cultivated a relationship with American agricultural scientist George Washington Carver and built a soybean laboratory in Greenfield Village, where he experimented with soy-based oils and plastics, which he began to use in his vehicles such as in gear shift knobs. But Ford had bigger dreams; he wanted to build a car almost entirely out of plastic. The result is the so-called “soybean car” which Ford debuted in 1941.

The Soybean Car

The frame of the soybean car was made of tubular steel, to which were attached some fourteen plastic panels, about a quarter of an inch thick. The windows were made of acrylic sheets. This led to an overall weight reduction of 25 percent, making the car more fuel efficient. Furthermore, the car was designed to run on hemp fuel making it even more ecofriendly.

Ford believed that “the plastic panels made the car safer than traditional steel cars; and that the car could even roll over without being crushed.” One video shows Ford taking an axe to the rear end of a car fitted with soybean plastic to demonstrate that the panels didn’t dent. There was also a practical matter of building a plastic car—with the start of World War II in Europe, there was a metal shortage in the world. Ford estimated that using this new material instead of steel to build cars would reduce the use of metal by ten percent in the United States.

Ford invested millions of dollars into developing the plastic for the car. He proclaimed he would “grow automobiles from the soil”. But despite his endorsement and how confident Ford was in the future of plant-based plastics, the project fell through. One of the reasons being the United States entering into the Second World War, which suspended all car production.

The only model ever made was destroyed, and plans to produce a second unit were put on hold.

Very little is known about the soybean car today, such as what was it made of. One source claims that they were made from a chemical formula that, among many other ingredients, included soybeans, wheat, hemp, flax and ramie. Cellulose fiber represented 70 percent of the plastic while the rest 30 percent was resin binder. However, the man charged with creating the car, Lowell E. Overly, gave a very different version. He said that plastic was made of “soybean fiber in a phenolic resin with formaldehyde used in the impregnation”.

Some skeptics claim that the plastic did not contain any significant soy material at all. The body panels were more likely a conventional phenolic plastic similar to Bakelite.

Incidentally, one year before Ford debuted his plastic car, General Motors launched their own plastic car, a 1939 Pontiac Deluxe Six, fitted with transparent Plexiglas panels. It was unveiled in the New York World’s Fair of 1939-1940.


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