Do you know the first plastic part that was used in Automobile?

Various vehicles which form part of ‘Automobile’ are cars (sedans, SUVs hatchbacks etc.), trucks, buses, commercial vehicles, passenger vehicles, large transport vehicles, etc. In 2019, about 91 million automobile units were sold, and it is estimated that by 2026 more than 110 million units will be sold; which enumerates a CAGR of 3% from 2019 to 2026.

Some of the major factors contributing to the above mentioned growth in the automobile industry are:

  • Increase in the standard of living
  • Easy availability of credit system
  • Proliferating component market

Listed below are some of the key market players in the automobile industry:

  • Tesla (United States)
  • Toyota (Japan)
  • BYD (China)
  • Volkswagen (Germany)
  • Daimler (Germany)
  • General Motors (United States)
  • BMW  (Germany)
  • Volvo (Sweden)
  • Ferrari  (Italy)
  • Great Wall Motors (China)
  • Stellantis (Netherlands)
  • Hyundai (South Korea)
  • Honda (Japan)
  • Ford (United States)
  • Tata Motors (India)
  • Ashok Leyland (India)


Automobile industry originated in Europe (Germany and France) in the late 19th century due to the development of gasoline engine. However United States led the industry during the first half of the 20th century attributed to the implementation of mass production techniques by Henry Ford; which subsequently was also adopted by General Motors and Chrysler. But, the second half of the century was dominated by the European and Japanese producers.

Mr. Carl Benz applied for a patent titled ‘vehicle powered by a gas engine’ in January 29, 1886, with the patent number 37435; which is also regarded by many as the birth certificate of the automobile.

Major historical events in the automobile industry can be summarized as below:

  • 1900 Ransom E. Olds sets up Oldsmobile manufacturing factory in Detroit (the place later called as the “Motor City”)
  • 1908 Henry Ford produced its first automobile Model T Ford selling up to 15 million units by 1927
  • 1911 Hand crank start-up process replaced with electric starter
  • 1913 Ford Motor Company installed first moving assembly line
  • 1914 First time car bodies were made of steel instead of wood
  • 1939 General Motors introduced automatic transmission using hydraulic
  • 1940 Packard became first car to be equipped with A/C units
  • 1966 Car engine efficiency improved by electronic fuel injection system
  • 1968 Safety of vehicles improved by installing seat belts in the front seats
  • 1970s First car equipped with airbags
  • 1990s Introduction of Hybrid Cars
  • 2000s Vehicles equipped with Smart Technology

Various plastic parts used in an automobile unit

Of the approximately 30,000 parts used in an automobile vehicle, 10,000 (1/3rd) are made of plastic materials; which are manufactured using about 40 different types of base polymers!

Major reasons for usage of plastics in automobile industry are:

  • Affordability
  • Lightweight
  • Fuel-efficient vehicles
  • Very little corrosion
  • Extended vehicle life
  • Better design freedom
  • Provides versatility in integrating components
  • Improved safety
  • Higher comfort

Interestingly, more than 70% of the polymers used in these automobiles are either of the following four important polymers:

  • Polypropylene
    • Most frequently used polymer material
    • Can easily be formed into almost any shape
    • Excellent chemical and heat resistance properties
    • Good impact resistance
    • More economical substitute to expensive plastics of similar strength and sturdiness
    • Major usage:
      • Car bumpers
      • Gas cans
      • Carpet fibers of car’s interior flooring
  • Polyurethane
    • Provides benefits in terms of:
      • Comfort
      • Protection
      • Energy conservation
    • Cushioning property of the materials helps reduce drivers stress and fatigue
    • Durability and light weight material with excellent sound and thermal insulation properties
    • Major usage:
      • Foams in seats
      • Armrests
      • Headrests
  • Polyamides
    • Major benefits:
      • High temperature stability
      • Better chemical resistance
      • Higher impact resistance
      • High elongation
    • Resistant to any wear and tear and provide better performance
    • Parts in automobile
      • Engine covers
      • Rocker valve covers
      • Air bag containers
      • Headlamp bezels
      • Fuel lines
      • Handles, wheel covers, caps etc
  • Poly Vinyl Chloride
    • Flame retardant plastic that can be formed into either flexible or rigid components.
    • Provides formable and sleek finish largely used for dashboards and automotive body parts.
    • Light weight and durable
    • Inexpensive alternative

Cars manufactured in 1950s had very few plastic components; whereas, a typical automobile today has more than 120 kilograms of plastic components. The automotive industry is the third largest consumers of polymers after packaging and construction industries.

First Plastic Part

Phenol formaldehyde was the first thermosetting polymer invented in 1907 in New York by an American chemist Leo Henricus Arthur Baekeland (patent for a “Method of making insoluble products of phenol and formaldehyde” on December 7, 1909) which is popularly known as Bakelite.

One of its earliest application of Bakelite was noted for making the knob on a gear lever in a Rolls Royce automobiles. Bakelite was found particularly suitable because of its extraordinarily high electrical as well as chemical resistance. Bakelite was the first commercial plastic that was completely synthetic, hot-mouldable and, once cooled, produced a hard material.

Major automotive uses of bakelite include:

  • Distributor caps
  • Radiator caps
  • Instrument panels
  • Door handles
  • Heavy-duty steering wheels
  • Rotors

It was determined that the composite materials manufactured with bakelite are more than 30% light weight than aluminum, ensuring fuel efficiency.

Some of the major manufacturers of bakelite are:

  • Sumitomo Bakelite Co. Ltd
  • Elkor
  • Hexion
  • Romit Resins Pvt. Ltd
  • O-Yang Product Co. Ltd, etc.

Due to the recent rapid adoption of electric (EV) and hybrid (HV) vehicles, coupled with increasingly complex IT systems in new mobility solutions.

Bakelite is widely used in industries such as electrical, electronics, construction, plumbing, automobile, automotive, power, marine, telecommunication and many more, hence it was rightly also called as ‘the material of a thousand uses’. India is one of the largest manufacturers and exporters of Bakelite from Asia.

Dear Readers, do go through the above literature and let me know your viewpoints in the Comments section.

Thanks for reading!

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