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Henry Ford was immortalized as the man who popularized the use of automobiles with the creation of the first mass-produced car, the Ford T.
The assembly line, which the American invented, was what allowed the automobile market to explode, revolutionizing the transportation industry at the beginning of the 20th century.
One hundred years later, the proliferation of internal combustion vehicles, which emit carbon dioxide (CO2) – the main gas that causes global warming – is considered one of the great causes of climate change.
But few know that the man who gave birth to our insatiable passion for cars was also an ecological pioneer.
Because in the 1930s Ford was one of the first to manufacture and use what we now call bioplastic: a plastic made from plants that, unlike traditional plastic – made from hydrocarbons – is biodegradable.
Ford didn’t just create eco-friendly plastic. He was also the first in history to make a car with this material: the nickname Soybean Car (or Auto soybean seed), which he presented to the public in 1941.
So convinced was he about the virtues of this plastic – which, he claimed, was ten times stronger than steel – that he took an ax and struck a panel of each material, showing that only the metal had dented.
However, despite the fact that the magnate himself predicted that “tens of thousands of articles and auto parts currently made of metal would be made of plastic created from materials harvested on the farm,” he never realized his vision.
In fact, their Soybean Car was never even marketed and the only model ever made was destroyed. There is not even a replica.
At BBC Mundo we tell you the curious story behind this “green” project that could have revolutionized one of the most polluting industries on the planet, and we explain why it did not prosper.
Farmer and industrialist
According to the Benson Ford Research Center, dedicated to preserving and promoting the work of Henry Ford, the famous businessman grew up on a farm in Michigan and all his life searched for a way to combine “the fruits of industry with those of agriculture”.
Ford created laboratories dedicated to finding industrial uses for plants such as soybeans, corn, wheat, and hemp.
The idea of building a plastic-based car made from these plants not only fulfilled its purpose of uniting their two passions, but also had other merits, highlights the research center.
One was that 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.”
But there was also a practical question: with the start of the Second World War in Europe, in 1939, there was a “metal shortage” in the world.
In an interview with The New York Times during the presentation of his “car made of plastic” in August 1941, Ford estimated that using this novel material instead of steel to build automobiles would reduce the use of plastic by 10%. that metal in America.
“Plastic raw materials may cost a little more,” he told the newspaper, “but we anticipate considerable savings as a result of fewer manufacturing finishing operations.”
What is known about the Auto de Soya
The Benson Ford Research Center itself acknowledges that very little information was preserved about this original invention, which, however, continues to arouse the interest of many people, especially now that there is so much attention paid to environmental issues.
One of the big unknowns is what the car was made of.
“The exact ingredients of plastic panels are unknown because today there is no record of the formula“explains the center.
The New York Times article says that “one of the plastics developed by Ford chemists is a material composed of 70% cellulose fiber and 30% resin binder.”
“Cellulose fiber is made up of 50% southern cut pine fibers, 30% straw, 10% hemp and 10% ramie, the material used by the ancient Egyptians for mummies,” he details.
Instead, the man in charge of creating the car, Lowell E. Overly, gave a very different version.
In another interview he said it was made from “soy fiber in a phenolic resin with formaldehyde used in impregnation.”
What is more documented is how the Soybean Car was designed and assembled.
Ford entrusted the task to Overly, who was a tool and die designer at the Soybean Laboratory, which was part of the complex created by the automotive entrepreneur.
Overly’s supervisor, Robert A. Boyer, who was a chemist, also helped with the project.
The car had a frame made of tubular steel, to which they were attached 14 plastic panels.
In addition to making the car more shock resistant, plastic had another great advantage: it was much lighter.
The Soybean Car weighed just 2,000 pounds, 1.000 pounds less than traditional cars.
This was another factor that Ford highlighted when he presented his innovation on August 13, 1941 at Dearborn Days, a community festival in Michigan.
The “plastic car” was also displayed at the Michigan Fairgrounds later that year.
But despite his backing for his new invention and how confident Ford was in the future of plant-based plastics, the project came to nothing.
According to Overly, the only model ever made was destroyed, and plans to produce a second unit were discontinued.
What stopped the project – and all US car production – was the entry of that country to the Second War, from which he had remained on the sidelines until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
“By the end of the war, the idea for a plastic car had collapsed as energy was going to recovery efforts,” says the Benson Ford Research Center.
Others claim that the disinterest in plant-based plastic was due to a purely economic factor: the abundance of cheap oil after the Second War.
In any case, the fact is that the Soybean Car remained just a memory that today continues to generate surprise and curiosity.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.