Henry Ford is famous for his car designs, but none as ‘fanastical’ as the hemp car, rumored to be even fueled by hemp. The true story of the hemp car is better than its legend.
It’s a story soaked in tinctured lore, passed from believer to non-believer in fits and starts; the kind of tale that you believe is true if you already support its underlying premise. The outline goes like this: Henry Ford spent years designing a car that not only ran on hemp fuel, but was made from hemp. He only stopped, the legend goes, because the plant was outlawed.
In the age of Elon Musk, that story may not sound ridiculous. But for years, people disputed that a respected Captain of Industry would ever consider hemp as a replacement for good ol’ American steel. But it’s turns out that there’s more truth than myth to the tale of Ford’s ingenuity — although some details may have been exaggerated for effect.
The story steams from a Popular Mechanics article that dates from 1941, which recounts a Henry Ford showcasing his concept car. It’s part of a long and unwieldly article on alternatives to metal being implemented throughout the American economy to help with the war effort. The piece is sparse on details, but notes the car is pressure molded cut plastic made from cellulose fibers of wheat straw, hemp, and sisal (a Mexican agave plant). Prototypes of the hemp car were to be wheeled out to gauge consumer interest in 1943.
Obviously, that didn’t happen. And Popular Mechanics never followed up with the story behind the death of the hemp car, which was supposedly 1,000 pounds lighter than what was already being stamped out on the Ford assembly line.
But a 1941 New York Times article picked up the slack, quoting Robert Boyer, Ford’s longtime assistant, about the possibilities of a plastic car made partially out of hemp. “Mr. Ford has a well-considered program and proposes to see where it will lead,” the article states, teasing out ideas about Ford’s ability to actually implement the project by buying large plastic-molding presses and acres of land.
Why plastic? It’s a nice thought that Ford was aiding the war effort, but it may not be all that realistic. Plastic, he thought, could be a cheaper alternative to steel — and it would merge American-grown agriculture with American industry. It might also be safer. Another article from ’41 New York Times details the unveiling of the hemp car, and the 78-year-old Ford taking a sledgehammer to its exterior, producing no dent. He tries the same to a run-of-the-mill steel model and — Wham! — the old man’s wallop leaves a visible crater.
The attractiveness of hemp (cannabis sativa) is that it’s resilient, strong, and flexible. It’s hardy enough to grow in infertile soils, freeing up good cropland for other stock, and reaches maturity fast enough to be sustainable.
Ford’s hemp dream was about disrupting the industry yet again — and in multiple ways. He showed the car could be made partially from hemp, but his dream went even further; the industrialist saw a future in hemp fuel replacing gasoline.
Although it’s hard to trace what hard science led to Ford’s speculation, today’s scientists have finally gotten around to testing his mid-century hypothesis. In 2010, researchers at the University of Connecticut found that hemp is viable, renewable source of fuel in two different ways.
First, hemp seeds are nature’s batteries. Just a few raw seeds contain enough stored energy to power a fully functioning farm. And that’s just as raw material. What Ford likely had in mind was channeling hemp seed oil into a different form, something more akin to biodiesel. Hemp, the UConn scientists found, is also great as a biodiesel component because it has high efficiency of conversion rating, meaning that when hemp seed oil is processed into fuel, most of the energy isn’t lost. In hemp’s case, 97 percent of the energy is transferable through the process.
Importantly, the kind of hemp we’re discussing here isn’t the stuff people smoke. Industrial hemp is a kind of cannabis sativa that contains less than 1 percent psychoactive ingredients.
So why didn’t the car ever make it to market? Well, for one thing, hemp was outlawed in 1937 — before Ford had finished a prototype, but well after he’d undertaken the project. That part of the legend is true. But it’s not the only reason. Another is demand. Thanks to a few shady government deals, the price of gasoline in America was outrageously low at the time. There wasn’t a need to look elsewhere or invest in disruption technology when so much money was coming in.
And finally? Ford was old. He died at age 83 in 1947. He’d endured a series of strokes that left him physically slow and mentally limp. He didn’t have the energy or the esteem to push through another disruption.
But who knows? Once Musk gets back from Mars, he might want to take up a more Earth-bound matter, and implement Ford’s forgotten dream.