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Yesterday’s cars of the future as seen from the K show floor.

September 28, 2022

7 Min Read
race car displayed at Lanxess stand at K 2019
Image courtesy of Messe Düsseldorf

Stephen Moore and Norbert Sparrow

My first recollection of the K show host city dates back to my teen years in the early 1980s, when I became engrossed in a song by Scottish band Associates, “White Car in Germany,” in which vocalist Billy McKenzie insisted that “Düsseldorf’s a cold place.” Roll on to my first K Show in1992 where I discovered to my amusement that Düsseldorf taxis were actually a lighter shade of beige.

What hasn’t changed since then, to my knowledge, is that similar Mercedes taxis continue to ply the streets of Düsseldorf and they are still diesel-powered, which is somewhat of an anachronism given the rapid shift to electric vehicles being seen throughout Europe. Oh, and yes, with gas likely in short supply in October, Düsseldorf is likely to be a cold place this K show!

Speaking of vehicles, over the years K has delivered its fair share of innovations, from high-heat materials for turbocharge ducting to all-plastic bodies and plastic glazing, but this year, make no mistake — electric drive chains and battery technology will be high on the agenda, as will be sustainable plastics for automobile applications. Plastics are key enablers in lowering battery costs and improving performance, which are paramount in making EVs more affordable and alleviating range anxiety, while automakers are keen to embellish their green credentials though use of natural fiber reinforcements and bio-based resins.

But before we hit the show floor to confirm our predictions this October, it’s time for a car trip down memory lane.

— Stephen Moore

First, a detour via Dearborn, MI

Before we get to the heart of our journey in Düsseldorf, let’s stop by Dearborn, MI, home to the Ford Motor Co. and an early experiment in plastic mobility. In the early 1940s, Henry Ford was engrossed with the potential for plastic parts in automobiles, according to the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, which ultimately led to the creation of what was called a “plastic car made of soybeans.”

In fact, 14 plastic panels were attached to a tubular steel frame, according to information on the museum’s website. “The exact ingredients of the plastic panels are unknown because no record of the formula exists today,” the site goes on to say. “One article claims that they were made from a chemical formula that, among many other ingredients, included soybeans, wheat, hemp, flax, and ramie; while the man who was instrumental in creating the car, Lowell E. Overly, claims it was " . . . soybean fiber in a phenolic resin with formaldehyde used in the impregnation.”

Ford plastic car

Only photos remain of the "plastic car made of soybeans." Image courtesy of the Henry Ford.

The car was shown at a local event, Dearborn Days, in 1941 and at the Michigan State Fair later that year. All auto production in the United States was suspended shortly after with the outbreak of World War II, and when it resumed, the “plastic car” project apparently was abandoned. The car was destroyed, and all that remains are a few photos.

Now, flash forward to 1963

In 1963, K became a pure trade fair, according to the K website. The first show in 1952 featured 270 exhibitors, all from Germany, welcoming 165,000 visitors, and no, that is not a typo! It was primarily an opportunity for the general public to ogle newfangled products made from the “miracle material.” By 1963, the K was attracting larger companies presenting plastics processing technology. That was also the year the sports car shown here with a polyester body wowed visitors. It is reportedly the first series-produced plastic body for passenger cars in Germany.

car with plastic body circa 1963

The car body's swooping curves are made possible by polyester.

The polyester, under the brand name Vesto, came from Chemische Werke Hüls AG, which has a fascinating pre- and post-war history that is recounted in some detail on the Evonik website. Today, the company is part of Evonik Industries.

As the decade turned groovy, so did the concept cars. Featured at K 1967, the Bayer K67 was jointly developed by Bayer AG and BMW.

K67 concept car

The Bayer K67 concept car.

Beyond the plastic body, the so-called  “polyurethane car” included some innovations that, in time, would be widely adopted by carmakers, one of which was the integration of turn signals in side mirrors. (A fuller description of the car can be found here.) Only five models reportedly were built, two of which are still in existence: One is on exhibit at the Deutsches Museum in Munich; the other one is parked at Covestro headquarters in Leverkusen, Germany. (Covestro, formerly Bayer MaterialScience, was spun off by Bayer AG in 2015.)

At the 2016 event,  a concept vehicle jointly developed by BASF and South Korea’s Hyundai Motor Co. incorporated lightweight materials from BASF, such as Elastolit rigid integral foam.

concept car at K 2016

Lightweighting was a key feature in the RN30 concept car.

Reaction injection molding (RIM) systems were developed for the body panels, and the car also featured semi-structural sandwich solutions for the trunk floor, providing a considerable weight reduction as well as a highly efficient production process. Read our article from 2016 for more information about this stunning vehicle.

Re-thinking car interiors

Covestro was back at the K in 2019 with a different take on the future of automobiles. Under the influence of autonomous driving, car interiors would become mobile living spaces and required a complete makeover.

Covestro concept for car interiors

At the 2019 show, Covestro re-imagined car interiors in the age of autonomous driving.

Writing about the car in PlasticsToday, Stephen Moore noted: “As the classic function of the driver's seat is no longer required, the car interior can be given a new look and design. Not only should the seats be comfortable, they should also offer enough flexibility to expand the interior space. An integrated and individually configurable lighting system ensures comfort and safety and enables car manufacturers to differentiate their brands.”

One feature that may strike a perhaps unintended chord with baby boomers is the movable Privacy Dome, shown here.

concept car interior

The Privacy Dome is movable.

It’s made of a polyurethane-based acoustic foam that envelops the passenger in a quiet space. The dome, it must be said, bears a resemblance to the cone of silence from the Get Smart TV series. (If you have no idea what I'm talking about, this will enlighten you.) Let’s hope that the Privacy Dome works better.

VisionVenture camping van

The VisionVenture vehicle's pop-top roof self-inflates in less than 60 seconds.

As camping is to glamping (a neologism coined for the luxury camping trend), so is the humble camper van to the VisionVenture vehicle featured at the BASF booth at K 2019.  More than 20 high-performance plastics are used to fabricate the VisionVenture, developed in partnership with camper and motorhome OEM Hymer. The features are too numerous to mention here — Stephen Moore went into great detail in his article — but just a quick word about the self-inflating pop-top roof, a world first at the time. It inflates in less than 60 seconds and is coated with Elastollan thermoplastic polyurethane to create a water- and wind-resistant outer wall to ensure a peaceful night’s sleep.

The time-honored tradition of rolling out plastic-based concept cars will continue at K 2022 — and PlasticsToday will be there to report on it — but one car that has already captured our attention is the AKXY2, developed by Asahi Kasei to mark its 100th anniversary.

AKXY2 concept car

Coming to the K show this year is the AKXY2 developed by Asahi Kasei. 

In the AKXY2 (pronounced “ax-ee”), the materials supplier reimagines how values for sustainability, satisfaction, and society will influence the needs of future mobility on the road to automation and electrification in a changing society. Stephen Moore wrote a preview back in May, but you’ll be able to kick the tires on this beauty at the K show in Düsseldorf, Germany, from Oct. 19 to 26. Asahi Kasei is exhibiting at booth E23 in hall 8a.

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