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  • Dan Isenstein

Henry Ford's Hemp Car: Fact or Fiction?

Updated: Mar 7


Funny how a girl that was born and raised in the Motor City, where just about everyone’s employment was tied to the automotive industry in some fashion, had to extend her reach all the way south of the Mason Dixon Line to get the truth about a car.


Now, I have seen plenty of publications and documentaries on Henry Ford’s famous “hemp car” over the years, but when gathering information on the subject I had found that none of them seemed to

match. So, I reached out to the distinguished author of Tales from the Kentucky Hemp Highway, Dan

Isenstein, for some clarification from a true hemp historian. Dan has been gracious enough to contribute the following summary on the subject, and if the history of hemp’s use in the US sparks your interest, be sure to check out his book!


"Henry Ford’s Hemp Car That Wasn’t"


There is a popular legend that in the 1930s Henry Ford grew hemp so he could make a car out of hemp that ran on hemp fuel. Thanks to the internet, this is a widely circulated story, but how much of

this legend is true and how much is just hempsters blowing smoke? Interest in exploring non-food uses for crops started to gain favor in the years following the First World War, and reached its peak during the Great Depression, especially in the years just preceding the United States entry into the Second World War. The advocates of this new avenue of scientific investigation believed that through chemistry, America’s agricultural bounty could be converted into the raw materials for countless products from fuel to plastics. The promise of converting agricultural produce into alternative fuels and raw materials for manufacturing caught the attention of Henry Ford. Ford’s interest in the potential of chemistry and the farm to supply the materials required to manufacture and power automobiles helped to provide scientists with a great deal of credibility. This interest culminated in the production of a prototype vehicle, and legend has it this car was made from and powered by hemp.


While many toiled developing “nonfood uses for crops,” the new field of science was not named

“Chemurgy” until 1934 when William J. Hale, an important figurehead of the Dow Chemical

Corporation, wrote the highly influential book The Farm Chemurgic.


Ford saw potential in the chemurgic movement and on May 7, 1935, the first National Chemurgic

conference was held at his research lab in Dearborn. The conference identified developing a fuel-alcohol product, “Agrol” as the top priority for the council. Initially conceived and proposed as a gasoline additive, “Agrol” was developed to eliminate knocks and increase octane. However, the leadership of the National Farm Chemurgic, namely Garvan and Hale, were outspoken in their almost religious belief that fuel-alcohol could eventually re- place gasoline altogether in internal combustion engines.


The obstacles facing the development of fuel-alcohol were substantial. The sometimes antagonistic

and outlandish statements made by some of the council’s leaders made them worse. A project of

such scope required partners both in government and the private sector. But, both Francis Garvan of

the Chemical Foundation and Hale had made powerful enemies; Garvan vocally targeted the petroleum industry, while Hale was an outspoken critic of the US Department of Agriculture.

While the fuel alcohol project was the council’s focus, research into alternative manufacturing

materials was the second priority. Ford was personally interested in finding new materials that

could replace imported raw materials like rubber and expensive domestically produced materials like

steel.


In 1941, just prior to World War II, Ford’s in-house team completed a prototype vehicle. The car

was built on a tubular steel frame and incorporated phenolic res- in body panels embedded with

natural fibers, which included among other things hemp, flax, and kenaf. It was designed to run on

Agrol. A second prototype under construction at the outbreak of the Second World War was scrapped

as Ford and the rest of the nation dedicated its manufacturing capacity to the war effort. Like-

wise, all chemurgic research was now devoted to supporting the war effort. The first prototype was

also destroyed.149 150


The manufacturing process used to make plastic body panels for Ford’s prototype was time-consuming and would have been inefficient for large scale production. The narrative that there was

significant hemp content in Ford’s chemurgic car is simply not true. Hemp comprised an extremely

small proportion of the prototype vehicle produced. The premise that “anything made from plastic can be made of hemp,” is essentially meme bait simply paraphrasing a concept Hale considered core to “chemurgy,” that anything made from a “hydrocarbon” (petroleum) could be made from a “carbohydrate” (plant matter). Research into developing industrial raw materials from organic material or agricultural products continues to this day. No longer called “chemurgy,” this field of research is now called “biomechanical engineering.”


If there were truly more to the story of Henry Ford’s “hemp plastic car that runs on hemp fuel,” it

would be more than a meme. The idea of a “hemp” car or a “hemp” airplane inspires the imagination,

but the reality of hemp-based manufacturing materials is that they were and currently remain a

novelty.



Uekotter, Frank. The Revolt of the Chemists: biofuels, agricultural overproduction and the chemurgy movement in New Deal America History and Technology, 37:4, pg. 431 Pursell, Carroll W. The Farm Chemurgic Council and the United States Department of Agriculture, 1935-1939 Isis, Vol. 60 No. 3 Autumn 1969 pg. 310 Ibid; 309

Uekotter, Frank. The Revolt of the Chemists: biofuels, agricultural overproduction and the chemurgy movement in New Deal America History and Technology, 37:4, pp. 435-436

Van Duyne, Schulyer. Henry Ford Demonstrates Plastic Bodies for Cars Popular Science March 1941 Harris, Kathryn. New Book on Henry Ford Libel Trial Sheds Light on History of Hate Speech https://www.americanbarfiundation.org/news/345 June 14, 2012 accessed March 8, 2023

Uekotter, Frank. The Revolt of the Chemists: biofuels, agricultural overproduction, and the chemurgy movement in New Deal America History and Technology, 37:4, 429-445, DOI

Ganzel, Bill. Postwar Economic Boom Affects Farmers Wessel’s Living History Farm https://livinghistoryfarm. org/farminginthe40s/money_11.html accessed March 7, 2023

M Lúcia Rodriges. 2019. "Industrial Hemp Fibers: An Overview" Fibers 7, 6. https://doi.org/10.3390/fib7120106 accessed March 22, 2023


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