Henry Ford was both an inventor and an agriculturist at heart. His Model T was famously useful for pulling stumps, bumping happily along rutted rural roads, and clearing streams with its high ground clearance. Ford’s innovations didn’t stop with the Model T, he went on to develop the Ford Tri-Motor, America’s first widely used commercial airliner and worked on inventing an “everyman’s” airplane. When discovered the many uses of soybeans, he saw a way to unite his agrarian and industrial interests.
Fascinated with soybeans’ potential, Ford established a Soy Bean Laboratory at his Dearborn factory. His engineers found this modest bean useful in unexpected ways–Ford even had a business suit made from soy fabric. They developed plastic from soybeans, a project that led to Ford having a trunk lid fabricated for his 1941 sedan. He held a press conference where he whacked the plastic trunk lid with an axe that bounced off and flew fifteen feet away. Following this experiment, Ford commissioned a complete car body from the new material. Called The Plastic Car, the fresh looking two-door sedan sported smooth, advanced styling for its day. Ford wanted it compact–he hated big cars, and ordered it to be as streamlined as possible.
The Ford Plastic Car was introduced in 1941 at Dearborn Days, an annual celebration. Powered by the company’s standard V8, it was a radical departure that predicted ideas that become common in later years, such as aerodynamic styling, an “envelope” body lacking separate fenders, plastic body parts, and compact size. Its tubular framework with body panels attached became standard practice for race cars. The Plastic Car weighed a thousand pounds less than a comparable steel body and also boasted soybean fabric upholstery. But there was an unpleasant surprise. The car’s distinctive formaldehyde funk smelled like a stuffy funeral home on a hot summer day.
The New York Times predicted that Ford would market a plastic car by 1943. The press’s reception was generally positive. Then came World War II, and Ford was forced to wake from his soybean dreams. He suffered several strokes during the 1940s and lost the ability to pursue such projects. The Plastic Car was soon forgotten. Stored in the basement of Ford’s design department until it disappeared sometime in the 1970s, this lost experiment nonetheless accurately predicted aspects of cars to come.