The modern car has evolved from petrol and diesel consumption to biofuels and electricity. Concern for the effect of car fuel consumption on our global carbon footprint grows by the day. Hardly a day goes by without news of progress in the science of eco friendly cars, take Elon Musk’s Tesla models for example. You could be forgiven for thinking all these technological advances are part and parcel of the modern era and by contrast, the early days of the automobile were all about ‘gas guzzling’. That’s not exactly true. What if we told you that the man who manufactured and developed the first affordable automobile (he didn’t invent it, contrary to a popular misconception), a certain Henry Ford spent over a decade researching into the possibility of not just fuelling cars but potentially building cars partially using hemp!
Before you pass off this claim as a tin foil hat concocted conspiracy theory, take a second to examine the source of this claim. Popular Mechanics is a magazine regarded as an American institution with a history that dates back to 1902. The magazine remains popular to this day. Readers enjoy the varied content of articles on Technology, Science and the automotive industry. The magazine even boasts celebrity columns like the famous ‘Jay Leno’s Garage' column (you may have seen Jay on episodes of Top Gear in the UK). In this very publication, the following quote appears from Vol. 76, December, 1941, No. 6:
“When Henry Ford recently unveiled his plastic car, result of 12 years of research, he gave the world a glimpse of the automobile of tomorrow, its tough panels molded under hydraulic pressure of 1,500 pounds per square inch (psi) from a recipe that calls for 70 percent of cellulose fibers from wheat straw, hemp and sisal plus 30 percent resin binder. The only steel in the car is its tubular welded frame. The plastic car weighs a ton, 1,000 pounds lighter than a comparable steel car. Manufactures are already talking of a low-priced plastic car to test the public's taste by 1943”
While it may be a stretch to refer to this early prototype as a ‘hemp car’, it is fair to say it included a percentage of hemp in the production process. For a balanced view on this disputed subject, this blog post by ‘The Angry Historian’ offers some useful insight:
“Turns out that Henry Ford loved the farmers, and wanted to help them during the Great Depression. He knew that cars were always increasing in popularity, and if he could make plastic cars out of farm products, he could benefit Americans twofold.”
The blogger cites a New York Times Article from 1941:
“Although it [the plastic] uses the same time of binder employed in some well-established plastics, which are not a Ford development, the remaining portion, that is, the fill, comes partly from the farm, in the form of strong fibers, such as hemp or ramie, and partly from the forest”
It can be said with certainty that there is at the very least some truth to the ‘hemp car’ inasmuch as it was a partial component of the proposed formula. And why not when hemp was and still is a cheap and efficient crop with numerous benefits?