Things You Didn't Know Came From The Automotive Industry

Sometimes everyday things have origins in the most unexpected places, and there are more than a few fairly-commonplace items that had their origins as by-products of the automotive industry. For example:

Fordite

Photo courtesy rockngem.com

In the earliest days of the automotive industry, car bodies were hand-painted with a brush, and would take as long as a month for the paint to fully dry and cure. The result was a dull-looking, uneven finish that didn't hold up well. By the early '30s, automotive bodies were hand-painted with a spray gun in a paint booth. The car's body would then bake in a kiln for a set amount of time before the application of the next coat, and then the process is repeated. Automotive paint work was taken over by robotics decades ago, but at Ford the paint slag and overspray collected in the paint booths and nearby for years and years. Tracks, skids and equipment would be coated with multiple layers of paint in many colors, and the enamel would be baked over and over with the oldest layers baked as many as 100 times.

Eventually enough slag would accumulate, and it'd have to be removed. What workers found was a cured, rock-hard material with a psychedelic pattern of colors, as stunning as any gemstone. Depending on the type of paint processes that were done in a given paint booth, Fordite (sometimes known as “motor agate" or "Detroit agate") can have swirls of color, striped patterns, a slight sparkle from metalflake paint or pitting from air bubbles that made their way into paint layers. Of course, this wasn't exclusive to Ford, but "Fordite" rolls off the tongue a lot better than "Buickite" or "Chryslerite." The term "agate" isn't accurate since this is a man-made substance. But agate has stripes and layers of colors that all tell the story of the formation of the rock, much like Fordite tells its own story.

You can almost regard Fordite as an industrial-archaeology artifact; older Fordite specimens have a lot of black, dark green and brown in them since those were popular colors for cars up through the late '40s. It wasn't until the '50s onward that bright lacquers and acrylics really started to become vogue. Interestingly, it took nearly 1,000 coats of paint to form a one-inch-thick layer of Fordite.

Today's paint process involves an electrostatic charge that essentially binds the paint to the primer and the body magnetically. That means little or no overspray and slag, and the methods that produced Fordite are long gone. There's only so much of the material around (finite Fordite!), meaning it may become more valuable for jewelers in the future. Enamel and acrylic paints are hard, but brittle; if you have Fordite jewelry, be careful with it. Not surprisingly, it can be buffed to a fantastic shine with an automotive polish like Turtle Wax.

Charcoal Briquettes

Photo courtesy forums.aaca.org

You know, the little lumps of charcoal that you put into a pyramid in your grill, soak 'em in starter, light them, wait a little while and then lay on the burgers. Chances are you didn't know they originated at Ford. By 1919, Ford was selling more than a million Model Ts, and each Model T had over 100 board-feet of wood tied up in the steering wheel, dashboard, wheels, frame, floorboards and other parts. It turned into a supply problem, and Ford recruited real estate agent Edward Kingsford to secure a tree plantation.

Ford then acquired land in Iron Mountain, Michigan and erected a sawmill and parts manufacturing facility in a nearby town (which was later named Kingsford). The mill and plants could easily handle the demand for wood parts, but waste like stumps, bark, branches and sawdust were left over. Always thinking of efficiency and profits, Ford suggested that these byproducts could be processed as charcoal. A University of Oregon chemist had developed a way to combine sawdust and mill waste with tar and cornstarch, then compacting them into briquettes. Ford then built a briquette factory next to the sawmill (with none other than Thomas Edison designing the factory). Amazingly, it could produce over 600 pounds of charcoal for every ton of scrap wood, and the briquettes were available only at Ford dealerships, providing another income stream for the company.

At first, charcoal briquettes were sold to meat and fish smokehouses but by the '30s, supply was outstripping demand. Ford marketed “Picnic Kits" complete with both charcoal and a portable grill, helping to link cars and mobility to outdoor fun and freedom. After WWII and the rise of suburban living, backyard barbecuing began to take off and Ford Charcoal was bought by an investment group, which renamed it Kingsford Charcoal. Clorox, in turn, bought Kingsford Charcoal in 1973.

Fender Guitars

Photo courtesy pinterest.com

In the early '50s, there was a race of sorts to develop a solidbody electric guitar. Hollowbody guitars were fragile, difficult to manufacture and tended to feed back and howl at high volume. A solidbody guitar would be sturdier, easier to produce, more versatile and affordable, making them ideal for working guitar players on a budget. Famed guitar player and innovator Les Paul worked with Gibson to introduce his namesake model in 1952, and Fender brought the simple, elegant Telecaster to market the previous year.

By '54 the solidbody guitar was around to stay, and Fender rolled out the Stratocaster as a more-versatile development of the Telecaster design. Since the market was heating up, styling and aesthetics were becoming big factors in guitar design and sales. The curvy contours of the Stratocaster were far ahead of the time, but by the late '50s Fender wanted a wide range of custom colors for their guitars. Company founder Leo Fender was also pretty cost-conscious, however. What Fender needed a finish that was durable and attractive, yet cheap to produce.

The answer was in DuPont Imron enamel. General Motors had been using this type of DuPont paint for Cadillac, Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Buick models for several years, so for Fender it was easy to get, affordable and relatively easy to work with. The paint shades also tied in with other carmakers, so Ford's paint code 2219-H for the Thunderbird became Fender's Fiesta Red. Surf Green, Shell Pink, Sonic Blue and Burgundy Mist, familiar colors for guitar players, all had their counterparts in the automotive world.

Like with the automotive industry, planned obsolescence was part of the deal for guitars as well. Many of these colors were all discontinued by the late '60s, only to be reissued for short runs occasionally over the years. And like with their car counterparts, Fender guitars painted in those colors and still carrying their original paint are worth a fortune.

Car manufacturers have been making waves outside of their own industry for years and these are just a handful of examples of the impact they've had.

Did you know all of these came from the automotive industry? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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Last updated March 6, 2020

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