Seen and unseen - in cars

21 February 2024


This blog post has been inspired by our current exhibition, Seen and unseen, and one display case in particular, In cars.  The use of plastics in cars is not a new phenomenon.  In the 1940s, Henry Ford’s investigations resulted in a vehicle described as a ‘plastic car made from soybeans.’  The car’s body was a frame of tubular steel with 14 plastic panels attached and weighed half that of a steel bodied car.

Just like the Ford experiment a number of car builders were interested in new materials during the late 1940s early 1950s.  Some were short runs and experimental, the Glasspar G2 was initially created in 1949 by California-based Bill Tritt.  It was a sports car that was based on the chassis of a wartime Willys Jeep and fitted with a V8 engine.  He designed the Glasspar G2 for his ex-air force friend Major Ken Brooks, designing and moulding a sporty low-slung fibreglass or glass reinforced plastic (GRP) body for the Jeep-based hot rod, later christened the Brooks Boxer.  In the UK, RGS were creating build at home kit cars, which needed a body shell to go along with the other components.  Dick Shattock, the owner of RGS, understood that building an alloy or steel body on a tubular or wooden frame was skilled work, time consuming and the result frequently too heavy and unwieldy for the amateur car builder at home.  Like Tritt, Shattock looked to the skill of the boat builder and was the first to offer complete GRP car body shells commercially in the UK and Europe, only a few months after such bodies were offered in the USA in September 1952 and November 1952. Four companies were involved in the manufacture of the RGS Atalanta fibreglass moulds and body shells; North East Coast Yacht Building and Engineering Company, Blyth (NECYB); Necolam Ltd, Beach Road, Blyth, Northumberland (a subsidiary company of NECYB); Precision Reinforced Mouldings Led, Rickmansworth (PRM Ltd) and; Wemys Woodhouse Ltd, Rickmansworth (a subsidiary company of PRM Ltd). The polyester into which the glass fibres were laid came from Bakelite Xylonite as can be seen in the images below which show bodies made by the North East Coast Yacht club and Neoclam Ltd.

A sports car in the process of being maintained with no doors.

Photo: Moulded car body, BXL : 1124.2  'Car body moulded from glass fibres and Bakelite Polyester resin by Necolam Ltd. These bodies are intended for the amateur car builder and are marketed with chassis components by RGS Automobile Components Ltd.'

A man wearing a shirt and tie and smoking a pipe whilst sanding the bodywork of a fibreglass bodied car.

Photo: Repairing car body work, BXL : 1106  'Repairing a car body made from glass fibres and bonded with Bakelite Polyester resin. These bodies are moulded by Necolam Ltd, Blyth, Northumberland, and are marketed with chassis components by RGS Automobile Components Ltd, being intended for the amateur car builder. These bodies have very high impact strength and repairs are easily carried out, as shown here, by covering the damaged part with glass fabric and bonding it in with Bakelite Polyester resin.'

An MG sports car outside a large Tudor style house.  The car body is in an unfinished state.

Photo: Fibre glass MG, BXL : 1126.2 'This special body for an MG Sports Car has been built to private order by W Jacobs & Son Limited, South Woodford, from Bakelite reinforced plastics. With these materials the body is moulded in two main parts from glass fibres bonded with Bakelite Polyester Resins, the resulting product having great impact resistance and also being easily machined to suit individual requirements. It is mounted on a tubular steel frame, usually hinged fore and aft for easy access to the working parts, and is fixed to it by strips of glass fabric bonded with Bakelite resin. This body, which is intended primarily for those who want a special design, is moulded by Necolam limited, Blyth, Northumberland and supplied in the unfinished state by RGS Automobile Components Limited, Winfield, Berks. Although no effort was made to light this, an all-up saving of 2 and a half cwt. over the standard 'TD' MG was, in fact, achieved, and a redistribution of weight took place making it equal fore and aft.'

An MG sports car with a split windscreen.

Photo: MG, BXL : 1125, 'A saloon car moulded from glass fibre mat bonded with Bakelite polyester resin by Necolam Ltd and supplied in five pieces by RGS Automobile Components Ltd to W Jacobs & Son Ltd who have fitted it to an MG chassis and engine. This body is a development from RGS Automobile Component's original design for an open sports car body.'


The image below shows some of the uses of plastic in a Saab-Scania car from 1972.  The article is the fourth in a series relating to the use of plastics in vehicles in the British Plastics and Europlastics Monthly trade Journals.


A scan of part of a double page spread showing the different parts of a car from 1972 which were made of plastics.

Europlastics Monthly, April 1972 -

Most of the mouldings in the heating and ventilation system are made of polypropylene (PP).  The controls for the vents are acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), and the defroster jets are made of high-density polyethylene (HDPE). Under the bonnet the fuse box has a polycarbonate (PC)base and a polyvinyl chloride (PVC) lid, the fan and the air cleaner are made of PP.  Glass reinforced nylon is used in the junction between the air cleaner and its HDPE nozzle.  The wiper-washer bottle is HDPE whilst its tank is a modified polyphenylene oxide (PPO).  Most of the facia trim is made of ABS and the upholstery is filled with polyurethane (PU) foam.  The sun visors ha moulded in expanded polystyrene (EPS) with a PVC surround.  The upholstery trim for the roof and door surround is PU foam, and lastly the defrosting arrangement for the rear window and the air conditioning evacuation boxes are all made of ABS.

Between 1965 and 1972 the plastics usage in Saab cars doubled.  At the time of the article 90% of the PU used by Saab was being created in its own plant north of Trollhatten, Sweden.

The automotive industry continues to use plastics throughout cars just like the example of the 1970s Saab.  Some car bodies or body parts are made of GRP, in particular Lotus cars, and some are made of carbon fibre composite like the radiator grill currently on display.

A carbon fibre composite radiator grill for a BMW car.

BMW 06 series radiator grill, AIBDC : 009718

Louise Dennis

Curator of MoDiP


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