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Warehouse D
Ahead Of Its Time
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Henry Ford’s Amazing Hemp Automobile


By James Donahue


Not many people know that Henry ford once built a car constructed of a plastic made from hemp. He envisioned auto engines built to run on bio-diesel manufactured from hemp, although the engine made for his first Model T, made in 1908, was designed to burn ethanol.


A Popular Mechanics magazine published in 1941 depicted Ford standing among his hemp fields, on his personal estate. The story promoted the hemp manufactured vehicle as a car “grown from the soil. The sedan had hemp plastic panels with an impact strength testing 10 times stronger than steel.


Ford is best known for streamlining an assembly-line manufacturing process, which established a model for world industry early in the 20th Century. He also paid his workers a wage in proportion to their ability to buy his cars, something contemporary industry in America needs to remember. Also forgotten was that Ford, like many other creative geniuses of his time, was keenly aware of the impact the automobile, and large manufacturing plants like his own, might have on the environment.


Even before the Great Depression, as Ford and other automobile builders were racing to put their products on the market and change the American scene forever, he was experimenting with using agricultural plants in the manufacture of cars. He sought to find nonfood applications, such as soy beans, wheat gluten resin and hemp, in making components for his cars. He also believed ethanol, or later a clean-burning bio-diesel from plant products, was a better, cleaner and safer choice of fuel for the cars he was building.


Ford was always looking for a better-made product, even though he sold his cars for just over $850, well under the $2,000 rate charged by competitive automakers of that day. While designing his Model T, Ford attended a race in Florida and examined the wreckage of a French made car. He noticed that it was made of a different kind of steel and that the parts were lighter than normal steel. He found out this was a vanadium alloy that had almost three times the tensile strength of the alloys used in making American steel.


Ford financed and set up his own steel mill to make vanadium alloy steel, and for five years, was the only carmaker to produce cars with this quality steel in them. Some believe this is why the Model Ts were so durable, some of them still on the road as antiques to this day.


Even as he was designing those early cars, ford was experimenting with plants as a source of material for making some of his car parts. The 1915 Model T had coil cases made from a wheat gluten resin reinforced with asbestos fibers.


Ford hired Robert Boyer, a chemist, to lead the research in utilizing soy oils in automobile paints and enamels, rubber substitutes and the production of glycerol for shock absorbers. Soy protein was extruded and set in a formaldehyde bath to form fibers used in making upholstery cloth.


Ford’s primary interest was in finding a way to turn plant products into plastics. The first successes in his laboratory were with soy meal. By the time the Model T was going out of production, Ford came out with his infamous hemp-mobile. It was made of a steel chassis with fiber and plastic made from hemp resin. While it was a brief sensation in the news, Ford never utilized hemp plastics in making his cars, possibly because of the cost involved in the manufacturing process at that time.