The eccentric engineer

How Ford company nearly became Soya Motors.

Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company and father of the modern assembly line, has been called many things - but rarely 'ecologically friendly'. Yet, were it not for the outbreak of the Second World War - we might all now be driving around in cars made from beans.

Having been raised on a farm Ford was a firm believer in alternative uses for crops commonly grown as food. By the 1930s he had established a large research team to look into the most promising of these crops - soya. Three things interested Ford: the oil; the fibrous protein that could be extracted from it; and that fact that its nitrogen-fixing roots might help restore the depression-era 'dust bowl' - large stretches of farmland ravaged by over-agriculture.

Having sent a team to investigate a possible soya-based revival, Ford set to work trying to find uses for the amazing bean in his main business - car production. The oil had obvious value and was added to the enamel paint that was just then beginning to replace the labour-intensive seven coats of hand-finished lacquer that his car bodies had previously sported. By 1935 around one million gallons of soya oil was going into this alone. Then there were the shock-absorbers, filled with glycerine derived from soya - another 540,000 gallons per year. 200,000 further gallons were used in the foundry as a binder for the sand-casting moulds. By the late 1930s Ford required 78,000 acres of soya beans a year to make its cars.

What was even more interesting to Ford than the oil was the fibrous protein left when the beans had been defatted. This, his team discovered, could be mixed with formaldehyde and phenol to make a plastic, enabling the company to 'grow' its own gear-stick knobs, electrical buttons, glove-compartment doors and even tractor seats. What was more impressive was that the plastic didn't need to be painted, as it could be dyed right through and could be polished to a high finish.

But even this was not enough for Ford. As he commented in 1934, 'Someday you and I will see the day when auto bodies will be grown down on the farm.' As Ford was not a man to wait for others to fulfil his predictions, he fulfilled them himself with the introduction of the first soya bean plastic car. From the late 1930s Ford's team of chemists had been working on making car panels from soya plastic, which they hoped would be both lighter and more resilient than sheet steel, making cars both more efficient and stronger. By 1940 a soya lid was ready to be attached to the boot of one of Ford's own cars and in November he arranged one of his famous publicity stunts to announce it to the world. Inviting the press to see his car, the 77 year-old suddenly produced an axe, its blade covered, and proceeded to slam the back of the axehead into the boot. The axe bounced off, proving that the soya bean lid was both stronger and more resilient than steel. He then asked the gathered pressmen if any of them would dare to perform the same act on the steel boots of their cars. All politely refused.

The following year, on 13 August 1941, at the Dearborn Day's community festival, Ford unveiled a car made entirely with plastic panels from cellulose and resin pressed into cloth. Unlike Bakelite and the other plastics of the day, this took a high shine like painted steel and would flex but not bend when deformed, as well as being rust-free and half the weight of steel. To celebrate, Ford invited the pressmen to join him in a 14-course lunch, consisting wholly of soya-based foods. In the general merriment it was quickly forgotten (if it was ever mentioned) that these plastic panels actually contained very little soya, as Ford's engineers had trouble making the substance fully waterproof, despite Ford's own belief in the miracle bean.

Ford himself lost none of his enthusiasm however, having a suit made of 30 per cent soya fibre and 70 per cent wool, to match a tie composed of the same. His chief soya scientist, Robert A Boyer even made his wife a soya coat, a process which also gave him the idea of 'knitting' textured soya protein into meat substitutes. Sadly, as with so much of the interwar entrepreneurship, the Second World War put paid to the bean research. The pilot plant built to make soya protein fibre was converted to producing aircraft engines and by the end of the war petrochemical-derived plastics were proving themselves more versatile and cheaper than soya ones. By the time Ford died in 1947 he had spent over $4m (around $50m today) on soya research but in an era when few worried about the supply or side effects of using fossil fuels, the soya bean car was sadly forgotten.

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