The legal trouble that hemp has overcome in recent years doesn’t reflect how the plant was viewed at the beginning of the 20th century. Hemp was regarded as a promising material, and to prove it, Henry Ford created the first car made out of hemp.

Henry Ford’s hemp car

Looking for ways to incorporate agriculture in his processes, and questioning the sustainability of material like metal, Ford embarked on this particular project. It took him 12 years, but finally, in 1941, the businessman revealed his prototype: a car made entirely out of the cellulose obtained from hemp and other plants. The automobile even ran with hemp oil-based fuel.

There are no records of the exact recipe Ford used to create the materials for the car. However, magazines like Popular Mechanics reported at the time that the only steel in the vehicle was “its tubular welded frame.” The rest was made out of “70 percent of cellulose fibers from wheat straw, hemp, and sisal plus 30 percent resin binder.”

Henry Ford soon died after revealing his invention in 1947. The vision he had for the future of manufacturing didn’t come to fruition. Many point to the powerful oil companies that lobbied so regular gasoline prices could go down, killing the prospect of a car constructed and ran from sustainable materials.

The hemp car of today

The world had to wait more than 80 years before seeing a new effort in hemp-based automobile manufacturing. Car enthusiasts took a glimpse of this new generation of vehicles in Jay Leno’s show Jay Leno’s Garage. There, he featured Bruce Dietzen and his invention: a little red convertible made out of hemp.

The car doesn’t differentiate itself from other stylish vehicles. An untrained eyed wouldn’t suspect the machine has hemp in it. Dietzen put $200,000 of his own money to create this car and the company that builds them. According to High Times, he is “aiming to produce a line of vehicles within the next 10 years that are free of carbon fiber, steel, and petroleum-based plastics.”

Dietzen is already selling the cars, and prices go from $40,000 to $197,000. He is enthusiastic about the future of his company and the possibilities it proposes. Comparing himself to the old car Ford once constructed, Dietzen said to Green Camp, “His prototype used randomly oriented natural fibers instead of woven hemp like I do. As a result, his body panels were likely about a quarter-inch thick and were only about 7% hemp fiber. By contrast, mine are roughly 70% hemp, 30% bio-epoxy, and are as thin as 1/16″, and a fraction of the weight.”

The impact on the environment

One of the reasons hemp is starting to enjoy attention from car manufactures is because of its environmental implications. Making the materials needed to construct a car out of plants means that manufacturers wouldn’t have to rely on polluting processes.

“Most folks are unaware that for every pound of carbon fiber produced, 31 pounds of CO2 is dumped into the atmosphere. That’s totally unsustainable,” said Dietzen to Green Camp, and added that “we are currently focused on making advanced third-generation hemp reinforced biocomposites, which will help any manufacturer currently using steel, aluminum, fiberglass, and carbon fiber to make greener products.”

What about electric vehicles?

If we are talking about environmentally-friendly cars, electric vehicles have been in consumers’ minds for much longer. Elon Musk’s company Tesla is the leader in this regard and has been selling cars that don’t use fossil-based fuel for years now.

But the comparison begs to be made: which has a better effect on the environment? According to Dietzen, hemp cars are projected to produce a negative carbon footprint, unlike current electric vehicles. A negative carbon footprint means that future hemp-based fuels will actually reduce CO2 levels.

However, hemp has already been taken into account in electric vehicle manufacturing. The Kenyan company, Alternet Systems Inc., has confirmed an investment of $1,000,000 to produce electric vehicle batteries based on hemp. And they are also working on a prototype for a car body.

The race for hemp-based material still has a long road ahead. Nonetheless, it has proven to be a useful alternative in the past. As more prominent players start to experiment with the material, it will be just a matter of time for every American to have a hemp car parked in their garage.