“1st to ‘Grow’ Automobile Parts on the Farm” Advertisement for Ford Motors, 1946″

Henry Ford, Charles Kettering and the fuel of the future
by Bill Kovarik / Automotive History Review / Spring 1998

“The fuel of the future, according to both Henry Ford and Charles F. Kettering, was ethyl alcohol made from farm products and cellulosic materials. Ford, of course, is well known as an automotive inventor; Kettering was the head of research at General Motors and a highly respected inventor in his own right. Henry Ford’s outspoken support for alcohol fuel culminated with the the Dearborn, Mich. “Chemurgy” conferences in the 1930s.

Little is known about Kettering’s interest in ethyl alcohol fuel and how it fit into G.M.’s long term strategy. Moreover, aside from the Chemurgy conferences and a brief period of commercial alcohol-gasoline sales in the Midwest during the 1930s, very little is known about the technological, economic and political context of alcohol fuels use. This paper examines that context, including the competition between lamp fuels in the 19th century; the scientific studies about alcohol as a fuel in the early 20th century; the development of “ethyl” leaded gasoline as a bridge to the “fuel of the future” in the 1920s; the worldwide use of alcohol – gasoline blends in the 1920s and 30s; and the eventual emergence of the farm “Chemurgy” movement and its support for alcohol fuel in the 1930s.

“George Washington Carver, father of chemurgy”

Ford’s optimistic appraisal of cellulose and crop based ethyl alcohol fuel can be read in several ways. First, it can be seen as an oblique jab at a competitor. General Motors (and Charles Kettering) had come to considerable grief that summer of 1925 over another octane boosting fuel called tetraethyl lead, and government officials had been quietly in touch with Ford engineers about alternatives to leaded gasoline additives.

More importantly to Ford, in 1925 the American farms that Ford loved were facing an economic crisis that would later intensify with the depression.2 Although the causes of the crisis were complex, one possible solution was seen in creating new markets for farm products. With Ford’s financial and political backing, the idea of opening up industrial markets for farmers would be translated into a broad movement for scientific research in agriculture that would be labelled “Farm Chemurgy.” The history of ethyl alcohol fuel has been partially explored by Giebelhaus, 3 Bernton 4 and this author, 5 but the historical focus of all three works tended to be on the U.S. Farm Chemurgy Movement in the 1930s. The context of Ford’s support has not been well understood. And the ideas of Charles F. Kettering, in particular, have been grossly misrepresented. American farmers embraced the vision of new markets for farm products, especially alcohol fuel, three times in the 20th century: around 1906, again in the 1930s with Ford’s blessing, and most recently, during the oil crisis of the 1970s.

By the mid-1980s over one hundred corn alcohol production plants had been built and over a billion gallons of ethyl alcohol were sold per year in the fuel market. In the late 1980s and 1990s, with an apparently permanent world oil glut and rock bottom fuel prices, most of the alcohol plants shut down. Some observers joked that ethyl alcohol was the fuel of the future — and always would be. “Gasohol” had become passe. Why, then, delve so deeply into this history? Even if infinite amounts of petroleum were available, the history of alternative energy sources is worthy of study from many points of view, not the least of which is the pragmatic need to understand alternatives to oil supply from politically unstable regions of the world. Francis Garvan noted the problem in a speech promoting alcohol fuel at the Dearborn, Mich. “Chemurgy” Conference on Agriculture, Industry and Science in 1936. “They say we have foreign oil,” he said. “It is … in Persia, and it is in Russia. Do you think that is much defense for your children?”6

In short, technical research into ethyl alcohol as a fuel ranged from neutral to extremely positive, with very few negative findings. By 1925, an American researcher speaking at the same New York Chemists Club told an audience: “Composite fuels made simply by blending anhydrous alcohol with gasoline have been given most comprehensive service tests extending over a period of eight years. Hundreds of thousands of miles have been covered in standard motor car, tractor, motor boat and aeroplane engines with highly satisfactory results… Alcohol blends easily excel gasoline on every point important to the motorist. The superiority of alcohol gasoline fuels is now safely established by actual experience… [Thus] the future of alcohol motor fuels is largely an economic problem. 82 Yet in the 1930s, oil industry opponents of alcohol blends in the US claimed that technical problems prohibited their use. “Alcohol is much inferior, gallon for gallon, to gasoline as a motor fuel,” claimed the American Petroleum Industries Committee. While admitting there was some anti-knock advantage, the committee said the blends would be “unstable in the presence of small amounts of accidental moisture.”83

“Henry Ford Hitting Soybean Plastic Trunk with an Axe, 1940”

The American Petroleum Institute’s Conger Reynolds, in a 1939 barb aimed at Henry Ford and the Farm Chemurgy conferences of the 1930s, said: “With all due deference for the dream chemists, armchair farmers and platform orators who have touted alcohol-gasoline as the greatest of all fuels, oil industry technologists know and automotive engineers know that it is not as satisfactory a fuel as straight gasoline of normal quality.”84 The context of Reynolds speech to fellow oil men was that of fending off (by his count) 19 federal bills and 31 state bills on alcohol gasoline tax incentives and blending programs between 1933 and 1939. To be forced to use alcohol gasoline would mean giving consumers an inferior fuel at an exorbitant cost, Reynolds said.

“Henry Ford sits next to his hemp field”

At the time, the API had virtually no technical data to back up claims of inferiority. The vast bulk of scientific research pointed very much in favor of alcohol blended fuels. That soon changed as industry-sponsored tests found phase separation, cold starting and other problems. Ten years later, British researcher S.J.W. Pleeth would observe: “The bias aroused by the use of alcohol as a motor fuel has produced [research] results that are incompatible with each other … Countries with considerable oil deposits — such as the US — or which control oil deposits of other lands — such as Holland — tend to produce reports antithetical to the use of fuels alternative to petrol; countries with little or no indigenous oil tend to produce favorable reports. The contrast … is most marked. One can scarcely avoid the conclusion that the results arrived at are those best suited to the political or economic aims of the country concerned or the industry sponsoring the research. We deplore this partisan use of science, while admitting its existence, even in the present writer.”85

After legislative setbacks in 1933, the movement for alcohol fuels then came to be seen as part of a broader campaign for industrial uses for farm crops to help fight the Depression. It was called “farm chemurgy,” and it was, in part, a populist Republican alternative to Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s agricultural policies. Henry Ford backed the idea by sponsoring a conference at Dearborn, Mich. in 1935. The conference created the National Farm Chemurgic Council, and annual conferences followed.142 Another key supporter of the farm chemurgy concept was the Chemical Foundation, quasi-federal agency which administered German patent royalties as part of reparations for World War I. The Chemical Foundation, with Ford’s blessing, decided in 1936 to finance an experimental alcohol manufacturing and blending program in the Midwest. The chemurgy movement, with alcohol fuel as a controversial centerpiece, had far outstripping original legislative proposals and had grown into an unprecedented mixture of agronomy, chemistry and Prarie Populism. Many felt that the time had come to compete directly with the oil industry.

“Cover illustration from Congress des Applications de L’Alcool Denature, 1902”

By 1937 motorists from Indiana to South Dakota were urged to use Agrol, an ethyl alcohol blend with gasoline. Two types were available — Agrol 5, with five to seven percent alcohol, and Agrol 10, with twelve and a half to 17 and a half percent alcohol. “Try a tankfull — you’ll be thankful,” the Agrol brochures said. The blend was sold to high initial enthusiasm at 2,000 service stations. However, Agrol plant managers complained of sabotage and bitter infighting by the oil industry,143 and market prices were also a major influence. Although Agrol sold for the same price as its “main competitor,” leaded gasoline, it cost wholesalers and retailers an extra penny to handle it and cut into their profit “spread,” Business Week said. “Novelty appeal plus ballyhoo provided sufficient increase in gallonage to offset the difference in spread. Now jobbers and dealers, having done their share, are again plugging the old house brands with four and a half cent spreads. Agrol is in the last pump — for those who want it.” By 1939, the Atchison Agrol plant closed its doors, not in bankruptcy, but without viable markets to continue.

The experiment had failed, but it was not the end of the story. As war broke out two years later, California assembly considered a motion to create an auxiliary fuel from surplus fruits and vegetables. President Franklin Roosevelt wrote the speaker of the assembly and said: “While it is true that a number of foreign countries process agricultural materials for the production of alcohol as a motor fuel, it is equally true that the motor fuel economy of countries possessing no petroleum resources is very different from such economy in the United States. It has never been established in this country that the conversion of agricultural products into motor fuel is economically feasible or necessary for national defense. On the other hand, it has been recognized for a long time that a real need exists in this country for the development of all the information possible on this very contentious subject…” 144

Roosevelt’s intense political feud with the Republican forces who backed chemurgy, and especially with Sen. Guy Gillette over the Supreme Court issue in the late 1930s, would have led him to oppose virtually anything that the Midwestern Republicans advanced, but Roosevelt’s judgement was premature. Several months later, as war industry plans were accelerated, the need for alcohol became apparent. Within two years, chemists and agricultural engineers from Midwestern universities who had tried their alcohol production ideas at the Agrol plant would be mass producing enormous quantities of ethyl alcohol for synthetic “Buna-S” rubber and for aviation fuel. From a pre-war peak production of 100 million gallons of alcohol per year, well over 600 million gallons of new capacity was created.

The alcohol based system which in 1942 seemed capable of providing only one-third of the raw materials for the total synthetic rubber demand ended up supplying three quarters and making a significant impact on the war effort.145 The Agrol experience had clearly helped pave the way for this war effort, in terms of providing trained personnel, novel techniques and a history of mistakes to avoid. The resilience and flexibility of agricultural systems was well demonstrated, the chemists believed, because petroleum based synthetic rubber technologies owned by Standard and the German chemical company I.G. Farben had faltered at the critical moment. Without the previous experience in alcohol fuels production in the 1930s, the war effort might have been considerably delayed.146

142 See, for example, Proceedings of the Third Dearborn Conference, Farm Chemurgic Journal, National Farm Chemurgic Council, Dearborn, Mich., various volumes. Numerous references to the Farm Chemurgy movement are found in the literature.”

What was the Inspiration Behind the Hemp Car?
Henry Ford Invented a Hemp Car that Ran on Hemp Fuel 80 Years Ago
By Jess Mac / November 22, 2021

“Initially, Henry Ford envisioned the cannabis car in response to the problems of the 1940s, the main one being World War II. The war effort led to a global shortage of steel, which was eventually rationed in America. Warships, tanks, and other machinery of war required all the available steel resources. During this time, steel was consistently diverted from the automobile industry to order to support the war. Henry Ford sought to circumvent this material problem by developing a car entirely out of agricultural products.

Ford, an avid farmer himself, saw great potential in experimenting with different plants. He developed a few modern materials through this exploration. Ford also believed that a plastic car was much safer than a metal car due to the substantially reduced weight. His thoughts on the safety of hemp products came years before we fully understood the dangers associated with the fossil fuel industry.

“Chemurgy is the concept of using agricultural waste for productive and useful forms like industrial products. Henry Ford organized the National Chemurgic Council meeting at his campus in Dearborn. His intrigue in natural materials like trees, grass and soybeans created a framework for chemurgic research and organic chemistry.”

Ford saw agriculture as far more than a food source. He believed that America could rely on products like soy, corn, and hemp to fill a wide variety of needs. Ford foresaw the ethanol industry of today. He predicted the rise of plant-based fuels more than half a century ago. One of the primary reasons there is no more information about the hemp car today is that the original recipe no longer exists. Also, the first hemp car, driving around in the original video clip, was destroyed.

It wasn’t until recently that people became enamored with the idea again. One theory why the hemp car never took off is due to the steel and oil lobby. Once the war ended, the steel shortage also ended. Because the oil and steel industry were no longer required for the war, they fought to remain relevant. Through extensive lobbying, they pushed the auto industry to keep using their products on the production line. It’s also suspected they had a hand in limiting hemp production and the eventual prohibition. The hemp industry didn’t stand a chance.

Part of the appeal of the hemp car wasn’t just because of its novelty. Besides a metal frame, the entire car was made using a variety of different agricultural products. The original recipe is long gone. There are a few speculations about what it might have contained. Most sources believe that hemp was a primary component of the exterior panels of the hemp car.

“Henry Ford Wearing Soybean Suit on His 78th Birthday, July 30, 1941”

Some authorities theorize that soybean resin was also used in the process. Perhaps because Henry Ford himself owned vast fields of soybeans, he may have pushed for their use. Some sources call it the soybean car. Other places, including in the original video, talk of using wheat, sisal, flax, or ramie as the basis of the plastic.

Whatever the case, the final panels proved to be ten times more resistant to dents than traditional steel. And while they didn’t measure for environmental issues back then, the car was vastly superior to conventional materials. The materials also made it 25 percent lighter than other cars of the time. The final product was 1,000 pounds lighter than a car made from steel. Finally, Ford built the vehicle to run on what was essentially bio-fuel.

Instead of running on diesel or gas, Ford wanted his hemp car to run on hemp fuel. He wanted to grow a car entirely from seed. Inspired by the hemp car of 1941, Bruce Michael Dietzen from Florida decided to build his hemp vehicle. Through a bit of research and a lot of experimentation, he turned a standard Mazda sports car into a new-age cannabis car. Just like Henry Ford’s car, produced so many decades ago, he made the panels of the Mazda without steel.

Instead, rely on hemp. Dietzen used three-ply hemp fabric coated in resin to create the plastic-like panels of his Mazda. Dietzen has recreated one of the earliest technological applications for hemp. Thanks to his Mazda hemp car, the lost recipe has been recreated. Despite the missing recipe, the hemp car lives on as a little red sports car driving around Florida.

Just like the original prototype did in 1941, the new convertible version serves as an excellent source of inspiration to the auto industry. Through the development of hemp-based plastics and fuels, there is potential to revolutionize modern-day transportation. It goes without question that the environmental impact of hemp is far gentler than fossil fuels.”

“Pennsylvania produced hemp through the 1900’s. The crop depicted on the currency is too tall to be wheat or flax, so it’s rather obvious that it’s hemp”


Industrial grade hemp is not marijuana. Yet, since the 1950’s the growing of hemp has been effectively prohibited. But this has not always been the case. Going back to 1619 America’s first marijuana law was enacted at Jamestown Colony, VA. All farmers were ordered to grow Indian hemp seed. Mandatory cultivation laws were enacted in MA in 1631, in CT in 1632, and in the Chesapeake colonies in the 1700’s.

Cannabis hemp was even used as legal tender in most of the Americas from 1631 until the early 1800’s. The reason for making it legal tender was to encourage farmers to grow more. You could then pay your taxes with cannabis hemp throughout America for over 200 years. If you did not grow hemp during periods of shortages, you could be jailed. In fact, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson used enslaved African labor to grow this crop on their plantations…”



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