Facts and Factoids

The Ford Made of Hemp

excerpt from:
Grown to drive ~ Metal, plastic, glass... and plants?
What kind of cars are they building?
by Curt Guyette

What some might call the car of the future has already made its big debut. The unveiling came in Dearborn ó more than 50 years ago. David Morris, executive director of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance, described the event in a recent issue of his organizationís newsletter:

"On August 14, 1941, at the 15th Annual Dearborn Michigan Homecoming Day celebration, Henry Ford unveiled his biological car. Seventy percent of the body of the cream-colored automobile consisted of a mat of long and short fibers from field straw, cotton linters, hemp, flax, ramie and slash pine. The other 30 percent consisted of a filler of soymeal and a liquid bioresin.


"The timing gears, horn buttons, gearshift knobs, door handles and accelerator pedals were derived from soybeans. The tires were made from goldenrods bred by Fordís close friend Thomas Edison. The gas tank contained a blend: about 85 percent gasoline and about 15 percent corn-derived ethanol."

To prove the vehicleís superiority, Ford demonstrated the strength of the car body by smashing an ax against the trunk, only to have it bounce off. For some it remains a landmark event.

"Thatís one of my favorite pictures," says Richard Wool, who is at the vanguard of an emerging industry thatís rediscovering what Ford thought to be a better way of making cars. Following in Fordís track, Wool is developing adhesive bioresins from soy oil at the University of Delaware.

"To Henry Ford," wrote Morris, "the vegetable car was the perfect vehicle for driving the American farmer out of a 20-year economic depression. But after World War II, the maturation of the petrochemical industry and the export-driven revival of American agriculture seemed to relegate the idea of a biological car to the dustbins of history. Fifty years later, at the twilight of the 20th century, Fordís dreams are again attracting attention. Working independently, scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs are finding more and more ways to incorporate vegetable-derived products into your standard car."


Popular Mechanics, December, 1941

Over in England it's saccharine for sugar; on the continent it's charcoal "gasogenes" in the rumble seat instead of gasoline in the tank. Here in America there's plenty of sugar, plenty of gasoline. Yet there's an industrial revolution in progress just the same, a revolution in materials that will affect every home. After twelve years of research, the Ford Motor Company has completed an experimental automobile with a plastic body. Although its design takes advantage of the properties of plastics, the streamline car does not differ greatly in appearance from its steel counterpart.

The only steel in the hand-made body is found in the tubular welded frame on which are mounted 14 plastic panels, 3/16 inch thick. Composed of a mixture of farm crops and synthetic chemicals, the plastic is reported to withstand a blow 10 times as great as steel without denting. Even the windows and windshield are of plastic. The total weight of the plastic car is about 2,000 pounds, compared with 3,000 pounds for a steel automobile of the same size. Although no hint has been given as to when plastic cars may go into production, the experimental model is pictured as a step toward materialization of Henry Ford's belief that some day he would "grow automobiles from the soil."

When Henry Ford recently unveiled his plastic car, result of 12 years of research, he gave the world a glimpse of the automobile of tomorrow, its tough panels molded under hydraulic pressure of 1,500 pounds per square inch from a recipe that calls for 70 percent ofcellulose fibers from wheat straw, hemp and sisal plus 30 percent resin binder. The only steel in the car is its tubular welded frame. The plastic car weighs a ton, 1,000 pounds lighter than a comparable steel car. Manufacturers are already taking a low-priced plastic car to test the public's taste by 1943.


Henry Ford: 1863 - 1947

"There's enough alcohol in one year's yeild of an acre of potatoes to drive the machinery necessary to cultivate the fields for one hundred years." - Henry Ford

Pioneering automotive engineer Henry Ford held many patents on automotive mechanisms, but is best remembered for helping devise the factory assembly approach to production that revolutionized the auto industry by greatly reducing the time required to assemble a car.

Born in Wayne County, Michigan, Ford showed an early interest in mechanics, constructing his first steam engine at the age of 15. In 1893 he built his first internal combustion engine, a small one-cylinder gasoline model, and in 1896 he built his first automobile.

In June 1903 Ford helped establish Ford Motor Company. He served as president of the company from 1906 to 1919 and from 1943 to 1945.

In addition to earning numerous patents on auto mechanisms, Ford served as a vice president of the Society of Automotive Engineers when it was founded in 1905 to standardize U.S. automotive parts.


Shamefully, Ford was an anti-Semitic and Nazi sympathizer. Comparable to Thomas Jefferson having slaves; it is paradoxical that Henry Ford (considered to be one of America's greatest minds) should also be preoccupied with racism.

Fuel of the Future

When Henry Ford told a New York Times reporter that ethyl alcohol was "the fuel of the future" in 1925, he was expressing an opinion that was widely shared in the automotive industry. "The fuel of the future is going to come from fruit like that sumach out by the road, or from apples, weeds, sawdust -- almost anything," he said. "There is fuel in every bit of vegetable matter that can be fermented. There's enough alcohol in one year's yield of an acre of potatoes to drive the machinery necessary to cultivate the fields for a hundred years."

Ford recognized the utility of the hemp plant. He constructed a car of resin stiffened hemp fiber, and even ran the car on ethanol made from hemp. Ford knew that hemp could produce vast economic resources if widely cultivated.


Ford's optimistic appraisal of cellulose and crop based ethyl alcohol fuel can be read in several ways. First, it can be seen as an oblique jab at a competitor. General Motors had come to considerable grief that summer of 1925 over another octane boosting fuel called tetra-ethyl lead, and government officials had been quietly in touch with Ford engineers about alternatives to leaded gasoline additives. Secondly, by 1925 the American farms that Ford loved were facing an economic crisis that would later intensify with the depression. Although the causes of the crisis were complex, one possible solution was seen in creating new markets for farm products. With Ford's financial and political backing, the idea of opening up industrial markets for farmers would be translated into a broad movement for scientific research in agriculture that would be labelled "Farm Chemurgy."

Why Henry's plans were delayed for more than a half century:

Ethanol has been known as a fuel for many decades. Indeed, when Henry Ford designed the Model T, it was his expectation that ethanol, made from renewable biological materials, would be a major automobile fuel. However, gasoline emerged as the dominant transportation fuel in the early twentieth century because of the ease of operation of gasoline engines with the materials then available for engine construction, a growing supply of cheaper petroleum from oil field discoveries, and intense lobbying by petroleum companies for the federal government to maintain steep alcohol taxes. Many bills proposing a National energy program that made use of Americas vast agricultural resources (for fuel production) were killed by smear campaigns launched by vested petroleum interests. One noteworthy claim put forth by petrol companies was that the U.S. government's plans "robbed taxpayers to make farmers rich".

Gasoline had many disadvantages as an automotive resource. The "new" fuel had a lower octane rating than ethanol, was much more toxic (particularly when blended with tetra-ethyl lead and other compounds to enhance octane), generally more dangerous, and contained threatening air pollutants. Petroleum was more likely to explode and burn accidentally, gum would form on storage surfaces and carbon deposits would form in combustion chambers of engines. Pipelines were needed for distribution from "area found" to "area needed". Petroleum was much more physically and chemically diverse than ethanol, necessitating complex refining procedures to ensure the manufacture of a consistent "gasoline" product.

However, despite these environmental flaws, fuels made from petroleum have dominated automobile transportation for the past three-quarters of a century. There are two key reasons: First, cost per kilometer of travel has been virtually the sole selection criteria. Second, the large investments made by the oil and auto industries in physical capital, human skills and technology make the entry of a new cost-competitive industry difficult.

Until very recently, environmental concerns have been largely ignored. All of that is finally changing as consumers demand fuels such as ethanol, which are much better for the environment and human health.


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