In 1941, Henry Ford created a car made almost entirely from plants. The car’s body was a mix of flax, straw, soybeans, and resins; its tires were goldenrod latex; its fuel was vegetable oil. The car was stylish and lightweight and the flax-based body was so strong that when Ford swung at it with an ax, the ax bounced off.
Ford hoped his bio-based car would help drive the nation out of a 20-year economic depression that had forced so many American farmers off the land. But before the flax car could go into production, the war was over and petrochemicals were transforming American industry.
Up until the 1950s, fields of blue-flowered flax flourished in the Willamette Valley. AES research developed new varieties, with longer fibers for linen fabrics and oily seeds for producing linseed oil and linoleum. Following the war, to stimulate new agriculture-based industries, various agencies supported new research on flax production and use. AES researchers worked with colleagues in the Department of Clothing, Textiles, and Related Arts to design and test fabrics made with Oregon linen, finding it compared favorably with imported yarns and fabrics. However, the Oregon linen industry could not compete with new, low-cost, synthetic fibers made from petrochemicals of the postwar economy.