Tuesday, December 13, 2016
Henry Ford and the Plastic Car -- a contribution from Leland Merling
Hi folks -- Leland wrote this paper for my HST 344 "The Automobile and American Life" class. Excellent work!
Henry Ford and the Plastic Car
“Considerable interest has been aroused [in Detroit] about reports of experiments conducted by the Ford Motor Company with plastic materials for automobile bodies” reads a New York Times article in 1940 (Callahan). What an exciting time at Ford with this potential major change in its manufacturing process. With these new cars, any color could be chosen for the body, the plastics would be see-through, and safety would be higher than ever before, or so proclaimed the media. The predictions of the new car on the market would turn out to be empty promises, and the project would eventually be scrapped post-WW2. Why is this car made of soybeans, hemp, and other crops so important then? Henry Ford with his “plastic car,” while ultimately failing, provides key insights to the past, present, and future of the automobile industry, as well as its use of agricultural products in production.
Henry Ford’s ties with agriculture begins with his birth to a relatively prosperous farmer named William Ford in Dearborn Michigan in 1863. His childhood was filled with both farm life duties as well as mechanical devices such as watches and steam engines (“Soybean Car”, 2016). From this childhood sprouted the lifelong familiarity with and love for agriculture which Ford would later incorporate into his automobile empire. Furthermore, his ingenuity and innovation with mechanical devices and tools would couple perfectly with his market foresight in helping him pave the way for his Model T. James Flink, automobile historian, captures the historical magnitude of Ford’s impact in using the opening of Ford’s Highland Park plant in 1910 as a stage marker in defining America’s automobile consciousness. With its opening, Flink argues, America’s attitudinal and institutional adjustments to the automobile came to full fruition (1972, p. 452). There was no going back; the automobile would be here to stay. The question was, how would it evolve? Ford’s creative mind would not stop with just his singular innovative success, though, and he would later aspire to invent a car made from agricultural products – a plastic car.
The widespread use of automobiles, as begun in the 1910s by Ford, was both harmful and beneficial to farmers. While allowing them the freedom to bring their own goods to market, it also ultimately killed the small family farm through the need for expensive machinery and fertilizers to compete with large agriculture (Flink, 1972, pp. 456, 457, & 466). By the 1930s, however, Ford’s production of the automobile was still friendly to agriculture, and Ford had plenty of investments in the industry. In 1931, Ford bought over 3000 acres of Michigan farm land, for the use of the crops as raw materials. This land usage was increased in 1932 when Ford was planting a variety of crops in over 12,000 acres of purchased land (Shurtleff, 2011, p. 27). This seems to mark the beginning of Ford’s investments into agriculture for relatively heavy use in automobile production. In 1933, the production of the Ford Eight, for example, used phenolic molded parts in ignition systems, horn buttons, hand throttle parts, and other parts of the car (Shurtleff, 2011, p. 33). In 1935, “from the fields, Ford [would] use 69 million lb of cotton, 500,000 bushels of corn, 2.4 million lb of linseed oil, [and] 2.5 million gallons of molasses from sugar cane” (Shurtleff, 2011, p. 47). These materials were used for a variety of applications, but most prominent among them was plastic molding, as would be necessary for creating plastic panels. It was then no paradigm shift for Ford when he wanted to utilize these same materials, but on a larger scale, for a plastic-body automobile in the early 1940s. Innovative, yes, but on the whole not outlandish or fundamentally unviable.
Leading up to the 1940s were a few years of growth for the plastics industry. “Somewhere between 1935 and 1940 the infant U.S. plastics industry turned a key corner. During those 5 years production nearly doubled, and the number of plastics increased from 5 to 10.” (Shurtleff, 2011, p. 105). Good news for Ford and his use of plastics in automobiles; however, with the coming of the early 40s also came World War 2. This was a bit of a blessing in disguise for the plastic car, in that the scarcity of metal forged another motivation for using plastics in place of metal in automobiles. “The latest step is timely,” William Callahan mentions about Ford’s foray into plastics in his 1941 New York Times article, “since there has been some question as to whether or not demands for steel for defense purposes and to fill foreign war orders would not deplete the supply and cause a curtailment in steel for automobiles” (Callahan, 1940). However, this motivational boost for plastics would turn out to be sour, for on February 22, 1942, the production of automobiles ceased as the American industry focused its attention on total war against the axis powers (Heitmann, 2009, p. 119). No more automobiles meant no more plastics research for automobiles either, as attention was turned to the production of war-time machinery and weaponry. As it would later prove, the plastic car project would not be picked up again after the war, and so Ford would die in 1947 without his project ever reaching production.
What was this plastic car of Ford’s, foretold to be “lighter, safer, and less expensive,” and which, in production of 1,000,000 cars, would consume 170,000 tons of agricultural products? (“Plastic Ford Lighter,” 1941; “The Plastic Car,” 1941). The design was structured on a patented tubular steel chassis, which would serve as the base for the plastic molded body (Ford, 1942). The plastic panels, as demonstrated by Ford famously bouncing an axe off of them, would be comprised of refined farm products. The fiber panel tested by Ford, in fact, “[weighed] about one-half the steel panel, of the same pattern. It [was] composed of 70 per cent fiber and 30 per cent soy resin binder. The fibrous element [was] compounded of 50 per cent southern flash pine fiber; 30 per cent field cereal straw; 10 per cent cotton; and 10 per cent hemp.” (Shurtleff, 2011, p. 107). A car built of such a material would be durable indeed, and would incorporate the agricultural products promised.
Ford’s vision of a production model plastic car fell short, however, leaving historians and enthusiasts wondering why more “soybean” cars were not built. According the Ford Museum, the reasons were mainly the aforementioned outbreak of World War 2 and its suspension of auto production, as well as post-war recovery efforts leading to the project falling through the cracks. But, is there more to the story? Was the plastic car actually viable, or just an engineering nightmare? Was Henry Ford nearing the end of his era, leaving his enthusiasm for agriculture unpassed to his successors? New York Times author and SAE member Herbert Chase gave insight to the former, as he was skeptical of the feasibility of plastics even in March 1941. He claimed “there is little experience with really large moldings and what there is leads to serious doubts. . . We know how to make steel bodies which are low in cost and quite satisfactory for our purpose. . . Why shift to something so problematical as a plastic body, especially as it is likely to cost more?” Indeed, without a metal shortage post-WW2, the economics of using plastic no longer worked out for Ford. Additionally, the economics of raw materials would hardly be the only obstacle, as public acceptance, conversion of manufacturing equipment, and a plethora of testing and design details would need to be worked out as well. Taken together, the capital costs, lack of interest besides Ford, and manufacturing issues with a brand new material took down the plastic car. In the end, there were no real savings to be gotten from using plastic for the automobile.
Does the plastic car have a foreseeable future in the auto industry today? It might have a shot with advancing technology; however, the same issues apply today as in the 40s, with manufacturing capital costs, public acceptance, and working out design and material details. Additionally, the cars would need to meet today’s higher standards for safety. For example, while durable, stiff plastic panels are unsafe for crashes, as crumple zones are necessary to reduce the impact force on passengers. These factors reveal an underlying answer: the plastic car will not be seen in the world of today. All hope for agricultural use in the auto industry is not lost, though. Bioplastics and biofuels are edging their way into industry, with innovations in polyethylene production as an example. One company, Braskem, has found a way to produce “green polyethylene” – sourced from sugarcane – that could serve as an alternative to petroleum-based polyethylene. “The major application [of polyethylene] will be in the automotive industry, where the bioplastic will be used in injection and blow molding” (Phillips, 2008). Although not exactly a complete plastic car, the use of agriculture-based plastics is a step toward Ford’s vision for agricultural use for manufacturing. “And though the technology is still new and the number of plants small, some companies are also using catalysts or microwaves to convert the polymers into gasoline or diesel,” giving another application, in recycling, for green plastics (Phillips, 2008). Although as Ford once stated “There's enough alcohol in one year's yield of an acre of potatoes to drive the machinery necessary to cultivate the fields for one hundred years,” using food crops as a fuel source may not be the best use of the nutrition with world hunger rampant (El-Mansi, 2011, p. 226). Instead of using food crops for fuel, using sugarcane as a source (as with Braskem), and even recycling the plastics for fuel would provide strength in diversifying fuel sources for power-hungry Americans. With these emerging technologies, perhaps Ford’s relationship attempts with agriculture and the auto industry may end in marriage after all.
The Henry Ford plastic car may not have been a success, but it certainly serves as a historical example of how scarcity and constraints are amazing drivers of innovation. As American automobile manufacturers drudged their feet throughout the second half of the 20th century with regard to innovation, Henry Ford stood up to the emerging status quo of laziness with his plastics research. And as an important driver, the expected shortage of metal due to WW2 pushed him to explore new possibilities. Imagine the results from what the automobile industry could have done with the everyday car given the right constraints and encouragement. Perhaps today’s emissions and safety issues would be somewhat alleviated. No matter the perspective, Henry Ford should be lauded for his efforts in researching and improving the automobile, as he has provided key insights into the past, present, and future of the automobile industry, and its potential marriage to agriculture, despite his cars’ failure due to WW2, capital costs, and public apprehension.
Callahan, W.O. (1940, December 15). To Make Car of Plastic. The New York Times.
Chase, H. (1941, March 30). Plastic Car Is Studied: Molded Body Panels Under Intensive Research By Henry Ford. The New York Times.
El-Mansi, E.M.T., Bryce, C.F.A., Dahhou, B., Sanchez, S., Demain, A.L., and Allman, A.R. (2011). Fermentation microbiology and biotechnology (3rd ed.). Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.
F.L.S. (1941, February 2). Plastic Car in Making: Colorful, Paintless Body May Replace Steel for Defense. The New York Times.
Flink, J.J. (1972). Three Stages of American Automobile Consciousness. American Quarterly, 24: 4, 451-473.
Ford, H. and G.E.T. (1942). U.S. Patent Number 2269452. Washington, DC: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Heitmann, J.A. (2009). The Automobile and American Life. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers.
Phillips, A.L. (2008, March-April). American Scientist, 96: 2, 109.
“Plastic Ford Lighter.” (1941, February 2). The New York Times.
“Soybean Car” (2016). The Henry Ford. Retrieved from: https://www.thehenryford.org
Shurtleff, W., and Aoyagi, A. (2011). Henry Ford and his Researchers – History of Their Work with Soybeans, Soyfoods and Chemurgy (1928-2011): Extensively Annotated Bibliography and Sourcebook. Lafayette, CA: Soyinfo Center.
“The Plastic Car.” (1941, August 17). The New York Times.