13 January 1942: Henry Ford patents his plastic car

On this day in 1948, Henry Ford was granted a patent for his method of making cars with plastic bodywork.

Automotive pioneer Henry Ford was a big fan of soybeans. He was also a big fan of farmers, who made up a substantial portion of his customers. And he was always looking for a way to make more use of the crop, and boost his customers' income so they could buy more tractors. So much so that in 1930 he built his own Soybean Experimental Laboratory in Greenfield Village, near to his factory in Dearborn, Michigan.

He often took reporters out to lunch, where soy was on the menu in various forms. In 1937 he invented “soybean wool”, and proudly sported his own soybean suit and tie. And in 1941, he built a car with bodywork made out of a plastic formed from soybeans. It had many advantages over traditional steel cars, the principal ones being that it was lighter, more fuel efficient, and the body panels could be easily replaced in the event of an accident.

But building a plastic car wasn't that easy – it wasn't a matter of simply replacing steel panels with plastic ones. Cars built of steel derive much of their strength from the welded steel panels that are attached to the chassis. With plastic panels, this isn't possible. So Ford came up with a tubular steel framework which he could bolt his plastic panels on. It is this that he received US patent no 2,269,451 for.

Unfortunately, World War 2 came along and car production was halted; the plastic Ford never made it into production. But there were some famous plastic cars that did make it into production. The Chevrolet Corvette, which began life in 1953 and is still produced today, is made of fibreglass composite. And in the UK, our very own “plastic pig”, the Reliant Robin, was produced from 1973 to 2002.

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