We gotta hand it to Ford’s PR people for writing a catchy headline and getting plenty of media exposure for the company’s latest press release about teaming up with Heinz ketchup to develop plant-based plastics for use in new cars. But they totally overlooked the fact that Ford has a long history with plant-based plastics, experimenting on using farm byproducts in car production as far back as the 1930s.
As we’ve pointed out before, and as Ford spokesman Michael W.R. Davis wrote in Special Interest Autos #11, June 1972, Henry Ford himself instituted the company’s experimental program back in 1929. Partly as an attempt to boost the economy – specifically farmers who struggled through the Dust Bowl and Depression years – and partly because he always felt a strong indebtedness to his agricultural roots, Henry Ford gathered a few dozen teenagers and young men, mostly graduates and students from his trade school, in a new research laboratory on the grounds of Greenfield Village. He believed that industry could benefit agriculture – and vice versa – and more importantly looked for less expensive ways to source raw materials to build a car, specifically by growing them. “Ford’s only orders were to find ways to convert farm products to Ford products,” Davis wrote.
To that end, according to an article that Mary Sharon Vrobel wrote for the November 1973 issue of The American Road, a magazine for Ford employees, Henry Ford would routinely drop off loads of farm products and byproducts to the lab in Greenfield Village: a bag of chicken bones, 20 truckloads of cantaloupes, watermelons, cabbages, carrots, cornstalks, onions, and more. Every load would one-by-one go into a cauldron – actually a retort, used to heat up the farm products and accelerate their decomposing process – and the trade school boys would go through the resulting mush to see what they could make of it.
Most of the experiments didn’t yield much – at least, not much that could be used in cars – but Ford persisted, particularly when it came to soybeans. As Davis related, Ford’s interest (some would say obsession) in the legume came after he wandered into the laboratory one day, read The Soybean by Charles V. Piper and William J. Morse cover-to-cover, then ordered everybody in the lab to throw out everything they were working on and focus exclusively on soybeans. He had 8,000 acres of Ford farmland converted to growing 300 varieties of soybeans, had a six-and-a-half-ton pressing machine designed for processing the beans, reportedly spent $1.25 million on soybean development, and ordered Ford Motor Company cafeterias to serve soybean-based dishes (soybean milk and ice cream, soybean bread and butter, soybean cheese, soybean croquettes with green soybeans). He would later don entire outfits – suit, shirt, tie, hat, the works – made from soybeans.
While the laboratory’s experiments with soybeans didn’t directly lead to any car parts, Davis wrote, they did indirectly lead to research into new forms of plastic, research that culminated with the Lowell Overly-designed experimental plastic-bodied Ford of 1941 and the plastic decklid that Ford famously swung an axe at. The research also resulted in a number of other innovations ranging from insecticides and solvents to imitation meat, but more importantly it helped jumpstart the cultivation of soybeans in the United States, giving farmers a crop that would regenerate their soil and leading to a multibillion-dollar industry today.
So, Ford, good luck with that tomatoes thing. Maybe check your archives to see what the Greenfield Village boys did with them.
Article courtesy of Hemmings Daily, written by Daniel Strohl.