The good and the bad
Mention the word plastic and what instantly comes to mind? Scenic highways of our 7,000 islands marred by galaxies of stray plastic bags. Anti-plastic bag ordinances and laws are an upcoming legislative trend. Plastics are everywhere and like anything that multiplies in quantity and qualities, there are good plastics and bad ones. We cannot entirely do without plastic. Think of what our cars would be without plastic? And since it makes up most of the surfaces we come into contact in cars, most car reviewers never fail to mention the tactile and visual appeal of a new car's plastics.
Though plastics have been around longer than the automobile, plastic was viewed by the automobile industry as a savior of sorts when the car took off as a mass produced consumer item. As early as the era of the Ford Model T, plastics or synthetic materials created from oil, became an important mix for rubber tires, improving their life span and wearing properties of natural rubber. Plastics found its way to better wiring insulation, oil seals and packing. In 1941, Ford already had a plastic bodied concept car made of soya fiber and plastic resin. Plastic was the wonder 'drug' , the magic substitute material that would keep costs down if ever the world runs out of rubber, leather, wood, glass, mohair, horse hair, goose feathers, ivory, molded cardboard, fiberboard and even steel.
On the ornamental side, one of the first interior exposure of plastics was 'Bakelite', a brittle marble of moldable plastic that became a popular housing for vacuum tube radios of the era. Bakelite found its way as a cheap substitute for dashboard and window sill trim, knobs and steering wheel rims. Bakelite was extensively used during the early twenties as a 'streamlining' decorative material of the Art Deco age. It also had fine insulating properties although it wasn't always completely waterproof over time. In time, Bakelite was replaced by cheaper PVC and polyethylene based plastics but traces of Bakelite can still be found this 21st century in those brown plastic fascia light switches of 60s houses.
The War effort
Plastic soon developed into leatherette or synthetic leather, which was lighter, far more water proof and crack proof than genuine leather. Being a leather substitute, it was sewn and stitched the way leather was, before electro-heat fusing was developed. Leatherette found its way, sewn and padded over metal dashboards. The profusion of plastics in the automobile and in the daily lives of the population took a hiatus during the 2nd World War as all the nations' technologies were focused on the war effort. The evolution of plastics application continued under military guidance. Countries with difficult access to oil supplies, the basic ingredient of plastic, were left behind so those who had access to oil, pushed plastics research forward and won the war.
After the war, the race was on for space and space age thinking started to influence domestic life. Plastic played a trendy role: Melamine plates, Tupperware storage, plastic glasses, plastic furniture, plastic clothes and even plastic houses. More convoluted car styling, though still rendered in metal, aped the molded aerodynamics of rocket ships, which fed the imagination of plastic modelers influencing the fantasies of generations to come.
With the invention of foam injection molding in the 60's coinciding with more stringent interior crash safety standards being mandated, molded impact absorbing dashboards started to replace the all metal dashboard. Door panels slowly evolved from foam lined fiberboard wrapped with leatherette to whole pieces of injection molded plastic integrating upholstery surface, foam padding, armrests and door pulls. Door pulls, which used to be elegant chromed hinges with stitched leather pulls were turned into the plastic injection molders art.
Large savings in weight were achieved when chrome plating for plastics was invented. With chromed plastic, instrument panels and door panels lost weight. Plastic found its way under the hood where almost all electrical, electronic housings and some engine parts like intake systems were made of lightweight plastic. Better thermoplastics allowed radiators to be topped by plastic tanks while fuel tanks became plastic.
On the outside, more chrome trim, wiper arms, headlight lenses, grilles, bumper assemblies, tail light assemblies, anti corrosion arches and even whole fenders were made of impact absorbing plastic. Plastic was the savior of weight saving engineers and car stylists alike in the 70s when the US required 5 MPH crash resistant bumpers. Stricter emissions controls and mandated fuel economy standards expanded the application of lightweight plastics as substitutes. Those of us who have owned cars in 70s were already happy with the plastics of the era until the vinyl started getting shinier and began cracking at the corners 15 years later. That's when aftermarket dash-shields, armor-all and windshield sun reflectors became popular accessory items then.
From Robin to Carrera
In the pursuit of lower power to weight ratios, sports cars like the 1952 Chevrolet Corvette, 1973 Matra Simca Bagheera, 1977 Ferrari 308 GTB and all Lotus models since 1957 went into production with fiberglass plastic bodies. Plastic's weight saving advantages wasn't lost to car makers on the opposite end of the scale. French mini-econo-car makers Axiam and Microcar made plastic bodied cars to compete with the likes of the Reliant Robin and the Bond Bug from Britain. In 1998, the Smart For Two, with interchangeable plastic panels came into production just a little bit later than the iconic 1993 McLaren F1 super car, whose latest iteration, the MP4 12C keeps to the plastic script. Like the original 60s Porsche 904 Carrera GT, the latest Porsche Carrera GT continued with the plastic tradition.
From Bx to X-trail
Mainstream cars like the 80s Citroen Bx had plastic body parts. The first generation Nissan X trail, had plastic fenders. GM's defunct Saturn brand made a virtue of having the most plastic parts in any volume car. As to paintability, corrosion resistance and programmable collision crush zones, plastic body parts performed as well as or even better than their metal counterparts. But an all plastic bodied volume car never came to fruition as the steel industry got better at extruding and alloying techniques, bringing costs of production of steel to less than plastic. As it stands, plastic in today's cars are, on the average, still at 11% by weight.
By the late 80s and early 90s, the European car makers caught the ecology and recycling bug. They started fitting their cars with plastics that were biodegradable. But the technology of that era resulted in plastics that were peeling, discoloring and/or disintegrating while the car was still with its first owner. Happily, technology moved forward and plastics today meet green specs and recyclability while keeping intact for several ownership experiences. Car stylists have been moving away from aping leather grain on plastic surfaces. There's been creative use of industrial surfaces and graphic designs or even textures that appear in nature, such leaf grains in the Nissan Leaf or the Toyota Prius.
Testing for quality?
Short of bringing a portable laboratory, how does consumer Joe know what is good plastic and not? I remember a showroom scene when an entire driver's door trim tore apart upon opening the door, and this was a known luxury brand SUV that was infamous for poor assembly workmanship. If only the manufacturer was brave enough to admit that it had a shoddy workforce, never mind if consumers have been mouthing the received opinion of motoring hacks, they should have at least opted for a less delicate kind of plastic for the door panel.
Use your knuckles
It seems that every car shopper's expectation of what is quality plastic is near universal. Most of us expect a matte non-slip finish on brand new plastic. It should also be scratch, crack and scuff resistant. Thanks to 60s Mercedes and Volkswagens hyping flexible dashboards and knobs, consumers were taught that some amount of flex or yield implies that padded surfaces are safer to human flesh in an accident than hard and brittle plastics like those used on model airplane assembly kits. I've known of a current popular branded family minivan losing custom to its Japanese rivals simply because the sun visors were hard plastic. Consumers, almost to a man, knock or rap the plastic looking for that hollow sound that, at least to them, spells low quality and that the cost saving accountants had their say over marketing and stylists.
So what makes for 'quality' plastic when shopping for a new car? As laymen, we can only guess the durability of plastic from initial first impressions. Plastic as a luxury material? It may be unthinkable today but witness how PET bottles are recycled into microfibers which allows the intrepid to weave all synthetic fabric with a far higher fiber count than the most luxurious sheets made of Sea Island or Egyptian cotton. Or some new fangled synthetic leather like Lexus's NuLuxe or Mercedes's M-B Tex which is claimed to be kinder to the environment than the already environmentally conscious tanning of Pelle Frau. Some plastic based synthetic wood look far better than the genuine stuff.
Not all plastics are created equal
Plastic quality can also vary across the range of models offered by a brand. When perusing models of a known brand, one would be surprised that the plastic quality of dashboard, seats, door cladding and flooring of the truck based model is a far cry from the cars. A Mercedes E300 will have far nicer plastic than a Mercedes Actros truck.
Plastic quality can even vary depending on the specification of certain regional markets. Thai made or Korean made models of certain global brands have better plastic than the models produced in the brand's home country. The Chinese brands even have some plastic parts that are better than the original that they allegedly copied. This is no surprise as China is the worlds' biggest maker of all kinds and qualities of plastics. Having said that and owing to the relative youth of China's consumer market, some plastics of Chinese branded cars won't pass muster for any ASEAN car shopper on initial contact in the showroom.
As plastic gets better and cheaper, we would like to see a trend away from breaker yards that crush whole cars mixing glass, metal, rubber and plastics. With different levels and degrees of recyclability, more attention is being paid in sorting out the different parts of junked cars. Some European recycling laws require the manufacturer to buy back the cars at the end of its life cycle, but then there are better ways to deal with old cars. New Zealand's reputation as being a haven for decently restored early postwar British cars like Jaguars, Austin's and Triumphs endeared it to the marques many fans. Car makers, continuously plagued with production overcapacity, would like to sell more new cars, but recoverable and restorable salvaged cars in Third World countries have provided stiff competition. Though these restored ex-First World cars would be way behind in current emissions and safety standards, there's still plenty of life left in them. Thanks to ever increasing amounts of indestructible plastic, there's plenty of room for plastics to 'breed' in the cars of the future.