The Long Road to Plastic Fiberglass Cars
Note: This story was originally published in the November 2022 issue of Vette Vues Magazine: “Chevrolet To Make Plastic Cars Here” was the headline from St. Louis Post Dispatch on September 29, 1953. That must have been startling to the general public in 1953. Plastic products were not yet ubiquitous. Besides, from the beginning of the automobile era, cars and trucks had steel bodies. The earliest vehicles had wooden platforms and spoked wheels because those were carryovers from the wooden wagon days. Car bodies were made from stamped steel, period.
It is interesting how slowly technology progressed in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. The early days of the modern American petroleum era started in 1859 with Edwin Drake‘s first oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania. It took forty-nine years for Ford to start mass-producing automobiles. As scientists, engineers, and tinkerers, such as Henry Ford, slowly toiled away, much was learned about the uses of crude oil, besides kerosene for lighting. This lead to the petrol-chemical era and launched all manner of things that could be created with “Black Gold”, and “Texas Tea”.
FiberglassWwas Officially Invented in 1933
What we know as “fiberglass” wasn’t invented and patented in America until 1933 by Owens-Illinois researcher Games Slayter. Owens-Illinois was the successor to the Owens Bottle Company, the creator of the first automated glass bottle-making machines. In 1929 the company merged with Illinois Glass Company to become Owens-Illinois; which joined with specialty glass, ceramic, and optics maker, Corning Incorporated, to become Owens-Corning.
But the first-ever patent for “glass fibers” was issued to Herman Hammesfahr, a Prussian-American scientist in 1880. People had been playing around with glass fibers for centuries before but didn’t quite know what to do with the material. It would take another fifty-three years for the second critical element to be created at the chemical level; petrochemical resin.
Slayer accidentally discovered that he could make glass “strands” by directing a jet of compressed air at a stream of molten glass. The material was originally called, “glass wool”. But again, what do you do with it?
Enter the chemistry know-how of “E. I. Du Pont de Nemours de Company”, aka, “DuPont”, originally founded in 1802 as a gunpowder mill by French-American chemist Eleuthere Irenee du Pont. In 1939 DuPont developed a new resin compound to work with Owens-Corning’s glass strands. The American Cyanamid Company started producing industrial-use chemical resin (not plant resin) in 1942, just in time for the war effort.
Say Hello to GRP – Glass Re-enforced Plastic
The new material was called, “Glass Reinforced Plastic”, or “GRP” for short. In other words, glass fibers, are reinforced with resin to form a plastic, mold-able material. The physical properties of this totally new material were amazing. It was discovered to be stronger, pound-for-pound than many metals, is non-magnetic, non-conductive, and transparent to electromagnetic radiation, such as military radar systems. Later we’ll get into the many uses for fiberglass. Plus, GRP can be molded into complex shapes that would soon be explored like crazy.
Henry Ford, ever the tinkerer, loved the idea of plastics and seriously helped lead the way for GRP in the automobile industry. Ford was fascinated with the idea of plastic-body cars and the lightweight, rear-engine VWs he saw in Germany in the late 1930s (Ford had manufacturing plants in Germany). Ford engineer Robert Boyer was the lead engineer in developing Ford’s new mold-able plastic sheets. In 1940 Boyer fitted a plastic trunk lid on a new Ford that Henry loved to whack at with a rubber-booted ax! He even invited skeptics to “take a whack!”
But Ford’s plastic was made from plant material; soybeans, hemp, wheat, ramie, and flax. In 1941 Ford created a prototype car with an all-plastic body mounted to a round tubular space frame. Henry forecast that plastic-bodied cars would be in production in one-to-three years, but then WW-II broke out and the auto industry was put on hold. Henry Ford died in 1947, but he did see the first completed plastic-bodied Ford car, almost six years before the first Corvette made its debut at the Waldorf-Astoria GM Motorama. Continue reading “Story of Fiberglass, Pt. 1: Before the Corvette: 1880-to-1953”