Soybean car

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World's first plastic car body
Plastic car frame patent 2,269,452 (January 13, 1942)[1]
Soybean car frame patent, Fig. 2

The soybean car was a concept car built with agricultural plastic. The New York Times in 1941 states the car body and fenders were made from a strong material derived from soy beans, wheat and corn.[2][A][4] One article claims that they were made from a chemical formula that, among many other ingredients, included soy beans, wheat, hemp, flax and ramie; while the man who was instrumental in creating the car, Lowell E. Overly, claims it was "…soybean fiber in a phenolic resin with formaldehyde used in the impregnation" (Davis, 51).[5] The body was lighter and therefore more fuel efficient than a normal metal body.[6] It was made in Dearborn, Michigan and was introduced to public view on August 13, 1941.[7] It was made, in part, as a hedge against the rationing of steel during World War II.[8][9] It was designed to run on hemp fuel.[10]


Henry Ford first put Eugene Turenne Gregorie of his design department in charge of manufacturing. Ultimately he was not satisfied with the proposed project, and gave the project to the Soybean Laboratory in Greenfield Village. The person in charge there was Lowell Overly, who had a background in tool and die design. The finished prototype was exhibited in 1941 at the Dearborn Days festival in Dearborn, Michigan. It was also shown at the Michigan State Fair Grounds the same year.[1]

Because of World War II all US automobile production was curtailed considerably, and the plastic car experiment basically came to a halt. By the end of the war the plastic car idea went into oblivion.[7] According to Lowell Overly, the prototype car was destroyed by Bob Gregorie.[1]

Others argue that Ford invested millions of dollars into research to develop the plastic car to no avail.[11] He proclaimed he would "grow automobiles from the soil" — however it never happened, even though he had over 12,000 acres (4,900 ha) of soybeans for experimentation. Some sources even say the Soybean Car wasn't made from soybeans at all — but of phenolic plastic, an extract of coal tar.[12][13][14] One newspaper even reports that all of Ford's research only provided whipped cream as a final product.[12]

Reasoning for a plastic car[edit]

The Henry Ford Museum[9] gives three reasons for Ford's decision to make a plastic automobile, the plastic car made from soybeans.[15]

  1. Ford was looking to integrate industry with agriculture;
  2. Ford claimed that his plastic made these cars safer than normal metal cars;
  3. Ford wished to make his new plastic material a replacement for the metals used in normal cars. A side benefit would have been easing of the shortage of metal during World War II.[7]

Car ingredients[edit]

The frame of this automobile was made of tubular steel, to which were attached some fourteen plastic panels,[B] said to be "only a quarter of an inch (6 mm) thick."[14] The windows were made of acrylic sheets. All of this led to a reduction in weight from 2,500 pounds (1,134 kg) for a typical car to 1,900 pounds (862 kg), a reduction in weight of about 25 percent.[3][16][17]

The exact ingredients of the plastic are not known since there were no records kept of the plastic itself. Speculation is that it was a combination of soybeans, wheat, hemp, flax and ramie. Lowell Overly, the person who had the most influence in creating the car, says it was "...soybean fiber in a phenolic resin with formaldehyde used in the impregnation."[16]

Internet video[edit]

A report circulating on the Internet shows a film from 1941 about the plastic car in the opening credits as being the plastic soybean car but at the end part it shows images of Henry Ford striking a hammer or axe onto a trunk lid.[18] It is not the Soybean Car he is hitting, but Ford's personal car with a plastic panel of the same material on the trunk,[15] and the hammer had a rubber boot placed on the sharp end of the axe.[16] When Jack Thompson, the narrator of the 1941 black and white film, stated in the introduction that this was the Soybean Car being shown he did not make it clear that the trunk Henry Ford was hitting with the tool at the end of the film was actually Ford's personal car made of the same plastic material—not the Soybean Car itself.[4] Henry Ford was doing this demonstration to show the toughness of the plastic material.[17] The demonstration was dramatic, since the tool rebounded with much force and a picture of this was shown worldwide.[19]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ "The first plastic car was manufactured by the Ford Motor Company, Dearborn, Mich., USA, in August 1941. Fourteen plastic panels were mounted on a tubular welded frame."[3]
  2. ^ "Fourteen plastic panels were mounted on a tubular welded frame."[3]


  1. ^ a b c Ford, Henry; Gregorie, Eugene T. (13 January 1942). "Patent 2,269,452, Automobile Chassis Construction". United States Patent Office. p. 1. Retrieved 20 October 2012.
  2. ^ "FORD SHOWS AUTO BUILT OF PLASTIC; Strong Material Derived From Soy Beans, Wheat, Corn is Used for Body and Fenders SAVING OF STEEL IS CITED Car Is 1,000 Pounds Lighter Than Metal Ones -- 12 Years of Research Developed It". The New York Times. 1941-08-14. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2018-05-18.
  3. ^ a b c Anzovin 2000, p. 189.
  4. ^ a b Davis 2011.
  5. ^ "Find answers to all your questions about the fascinating soybean car, a vehicle with a plastic body unveiled by Henry Ford in 1941 at a festival in Dearborn, MI".
  6. ^ Tomes 2010, p. 6.
  7. ^ a b c Woodyard 2010.
  8. ^ McCann-Erickson, Inc. (14 August 1941). "Ford Completes First Plastic Body as Steel Goes on Priority List" (Press release). Penobscot Building, Detroit, Michigan.
  9. ^ a b "Soybean Car". Popular Research Topics. Dearborn, Michigan: Benson Ford Research Center The Henry Ford. Retrieved 6 June 2015.
  10. ^ Rowan Robinson, The Great Book of Hemp: The Complete Guide to the Environmental, Commercial, and Medicinal Uses of the World's Most Extraordinary Plant, Inner Traditions, Bear & Co, 1996, p. 198.
  11. ^ Allen & Robertson 2002, p. 121.
  12. ^ a b "Soybean Car dream goes awry: It's cream (Section A)". Deseret News and Telegram. Salt Lake City. April 8, 1954. p. 17.
  13. ^ Bryan 1993, p. 48.
  14. ^ a b Maxwell 1994, p. 93.
  15. ^ a b Bayman 2007.
  16. ^ a b c Benson Ford Research Center (2011). "Soybean Car". The Henry Ford. Archived from the original on September 16, 2012. Retrieved October 20, 2012.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link) including an extensive bibliography.
  17. ^ a b Bial 2007, p. 33.
  18. ^ Henry Ford Plastic Car Archived 2011-09-10 at the Wayback Machine
  19. ^ Prestige Publications 1979, p. 425.


Further reading[edit]

  • Bryan, Ford Richardson (1997). Beyond the Model T. Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press. pp. 112–113.
  • Davis, Rusty. "Henry's Plastic Car: An Interview with Mr. Lowell E. Overly". V8 Times: 46–51.
  • "Ford Builds a Plastic Auto Body". Modern Plastics. September 1941.
  • Lewis, David L. (1976). The Public Image of Henry Ford. Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press. pp. 283–285.
  • McCann-Erickson, Inc. (August 14, 1941). "Ford Completes First Plastic Body as Steel Goes on Priority List" (Press release). Penobscot Building, Detroit, Michigan.
  • Wik, Reynold M. (1972). "Soybean Car". Henry Ford and Grass Roots America. Ann Arbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan Press. pp. 151–152.

External links[edit]