Agriculture and Automobiles

DID YOU KNOW THAT IN 1941 HENRY FORD DEVELOPED a car that was made out of soybeans? And did you know that this car ran on ethanol? He did.

“I will build a car for the great multitude,” proclaimed Henry Ford in October 1908, as he announced the release of his first mass-produced automobile called the Model T. Indeed, Ford’s introduction of the Model T revolutionized both personal transportation and much else in American industry. Ford was a prolific inventor who received 161 U.S. patents in his own name. And as owner of the Ford Motor Company he became one of the wealthiest and best-known people in the world.

Henry Ford used mass production to turn out large numbers of inexpensive automobiles. In order for his workers to be able to afford to buy the product that they built, Ford was among the first large employers to pay the then-astonishing wage of $5.00 per day to line production workers (today’s equivalent is $225 per day, adjusted for inflation). Ford was committed to lowering costs, which led to many of his business innovations. Initially, Ford’s Michigan factories turned out parts and shipped automobiles in kit-form to regional assembly sites in large cities.

There, workers put the kits together into complete automobiles. Later, as the costs of nationwide transportation declined, Ford put together automobiles on giant assembly lines and shipped the completed cars. To sell the cars, Ford created a franchise system. This system established a dealership in virtually every city and town of any size in North America, and in many major cities on six continents. And if the customer could not afford the entire price of a car, Ford even created a finance arm to loan the necessary funds.

Ford believed in controlling both costs and access to resources. Over time his company acquired resources ranging from iron ore mines to rubber plantations. To assure supplies of automobile-grade metal, the Ford Company even established its own steel mill at River Rouge, Michigan. Thus Ford was one of the pioneers in building an integrated industrial business. Ford and his company made money at every stage, from digging ore out of the ground, to fabricating parts and assembling a product, to shipping a finished automobile to the final customer.

Cars, Food and Ideas Ahead of Their Time

Indeed, some of Henry Ford’s ideas were way ahead of their time. In fact a few ideas were so far out that they went nowhere, but not for lack of merit. For example, Ford was always looking for ways to save money on the costs of materials but without sacrificing quality, design integrity or safety. From his childhood background on a farm, and because many of his customers were farmers, Ford was deeply interested in agriculture. Ford often commented that crops could grow quickly, “as compared with lumber or especially iron ore.” So Ford funded a laboratory to assist farmers to find a way to use crops in industrial applications. Ford hired a highly regarded chemist named Robert Boyer to run the lab, where dozens of workers researched industrial uses for farm crops such as cantaloupes, carrots and beets.

Among other crops, Henry Ford was a great promoter of soybeans. In one marketing effort that Ford intended to impress his farmer-customers, every vehicle that Ford sold came with a bushel of soybeans on the front seat. And during the Great Depression, Ford entertained visitors at luncheons in which every course contained locally grown soybeans. The Ford menu included tomato juice with soybean sauce, soybean cookies and soybean candy for dessert.

But Ford used soybeans to do more than just amuse visitors at lunch. Ford was looking for projects that combined industry with the output of agriculture. Among other things, Ford had an abiding interest in developing soybean-based plastics. Throughout the 1930s Ford pioneered the use of soybeans in plastics that he used in his automobiles. The soybean components included plastic parts (even body panels), seat covers and paint. Ford’s soybean-automobile project culminated in August 1941, when he patented an automobile made almost entirely of soybean plastic, attached to a tubular welded frame.

Ford’s soybean-car weighed 30% less than a car made of steel. Even better, the plastic panels did not rust. And an array of experiments concluded that they were ten times as durable as steel. Ford claimed that plastic panels made the car safer than traditional steel cars because the car could roll over without being crushed. Ford hoped that the new soybean plastic would replace metal, which was in short supply in the years just before World War II as the U.S. government was building up the country’s navy. Furthermore, Ford’s soybean-car ran on grain alcohol — yes, ethanol — instead of gasoline.

Ford’s engineers were building a second soybean-based car when the U.S. entered World War II in December 1941. Because of the war, the federal government suspended all U.S. automobile production for the duration of the conflict. Thus Ford’s soybean-based car experiment languished. Almost all of the Ford Company’s resources were directed towards war-related production. Indeed, in one gigantic undertaking Ford converted the massive facility at Willow Run, Michigan to building B-24 bombers. At one point during the war, the Willow Run plant rolled a brand-new B-24 — made of over 140,000 separate parts — off the assembly line every hour. This was a far cry from building automobiles — made of soybeans or otherwise. By the end of the war in September 1945 the idea of a soybean car had simply fallen through the cracks.

Henry Ford died in 1947, aged 84. And we can only speculate about what might have happened if Henry Ford and his company had continued to pursue the idea of a car made out of soybeans, and powered by ethanol. But even six decades later — with or without the soybean car — much of the automobile business of the world reflects the image of Henry Ford. We certainly owe an immense debt to the man.

Until we meet again…
Byron W. King
March 12, 2008