It’s largely forgotten that Henry Ford was both an automotive inventor and an agriculturist. His Model T was designed for a farming nation. Famously useful for pulling stumps, bumping happily along primitive rural roads, and fording streams with its high ground clearance, it was a perfect fit for the then raw-boned U.S.A.
Ford's innovations didn't stop with the Model T. When he discovered the soybean’s multiple uses, Ford saw it as a way to unite his agrarian and industrial interests.
Fascinated with its potential, Ford established a Soy Bean Laboratory at his Dearborn factory. His engineers found the legumes useful in unexpected ways--he even had a business suit made from soy-based fabric. Ford engineers developed plastic from soybeans, and that led to an experimental trunk lid that he had fabricated for a test. Ford held a press conference where he whacked the plastic trunk lid with an axe. The axe bounced off and flew fifteen feet away. Following this experiment, Ford commissioned a complete car body to be constructed of the new material. Ford wanted it small; he hated big cars and ordered it to be as streamlined as possible. Called The Plastic Car, the compact two-door sedan sported smooth, advanced styling.
The Ford Plastic Car was introduced in 1941 during Dearborn Days, an annual Michigan celebration. Though powered by the company's standard V8, it was a radical departure from contemporary cars, predicting aerodynamic styling, an "envelope" body lacking separate fenders, plastic body parts, and compact, efficient packaging. Its tubular framework with attached panels became a standard construction practice for racecars. Weighing a thousand pounds less than a comparable steel body, the Plastic Car even boasted soybean fabric upholstery. But the bean brought an unpleasant surprise. The plastic formula's liberal use of formaldehyde made it smell like a stuffy funeral home.
The press's reception was generally positive, with The New York Times predicting that Ford would market a plastic car by 1943. Then World War II defense work came along and roused Ford from his soybean dreams. He suffered several strokes and lost the ability to pursue research projects. The Plastic Car was soon forgotten. Stored in the basement of Ford's design department until it disappeared sometime in the 1970s, his lost experiment nonetheless predicted important aspects of the cars we drive today.
Written by Jim Cherry