The First Stainless Steel Car

Allegheny Ludlum Stainless Steel Cars
Allegheny Ludlum’s stainless steel Fords. From the archives of Allegheny Ludlum

You’re probably thinking that a review of stainless steel cars would focus on the DeLorean. If you're a fan of the flux capacitor then you might even think the stainless car was invented for the "Back to the Future" movie.

Here we'll take a look at the first stainless steel cars produced in the mid-1930s. We will even discuss how and when they invented the stainless steel metal alloy. Finally, we will cover a little history about John DeLorean and his paint less Car Company.

Birth of a Stainless Steel Car

They produced the first stainless steel car through a partnership between the Allegheny Ludlum Steel Division and the Ford Motor Company in 1936. Allegheny Ludlum approached Ford with the idea in 1934. They wanted to build a car that could be used in the steel company’s marketing campaigns. The flashy automobile would showcase the many uses of this corrosion resistant miracle metal.

History of Stainless Steel

Allegheny Ludlum became the first major producer of stainless steel. However, they did not invent this metal. An English metallurgist is credited with the discovery in 1913. Harry Brearly was working on a project to improve rifle barrels. He accidentally discovered that adding chromium to low carbon steel gives it a stain resistant quality.

It maintains this stainless characteristic, because of the formation of an invisible and adherent chromium-rich oxide surface film. This oxide establishes on the surface and heals itself in the presence of oxygen. Modern stainless steel may also contain other elements. Things like nickel, niobium, molybdenum, and titanium further enhances the corrosion resistance of stainless steel.

Stainless Steel Cars

The Allegheny Ludlum website has a page dedicated to the history of their stainless steel cars and in it they write: “Of the six stainless steel cars that rolled off the Ford assembly line in Detroit in 1936, four exist today. This is living proof of the durability of stainless steel." One is on display at the Heinz Regional History Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Three of them are on permanent display at the Crawford Auto Museum in Cleveland, Ohio. Each of the original six logged at least 200,000 miles in the hands of Allegheny Ludlum officials before "retiring" to private ownership in 1946. These cars logged thousands of additional miles on the odometers since.

The shiny bodies have outlasted most of their regular steel parts. Allegheny Ludlum and Ford collaborated on two more stainless body models. These included a second generation 1960 Thunderbird and a fourth generation 1967 Lincoln Continental convertible. Of the 11 cars originally built, nine are reportedly still in use today.

John DeLorean Liked Stainless Cars

The 6'4" John Zachary DeLorean was born Jan. 6, 1925, in Detroit, Michigan. He would pass away March 19, 2005, at his home in Summit, New Jersey. They listed the cause of death as complications from a stroke. As you might expect from a car lover born in Detroit, John DeLorean had a strong automotive career.

He started working for the Pontiac Division of General Motors in 1956. Many considered him the driving force behind the Pontiac GTO. He moved on to the Chevrolet brand where he became the youngest division head in the company's history. In 1973 he left General Motors to start his own car company.

The DeLorean Motor Car Company produced the first prototype in 1975. The DMC 12 with its stainless steel body panels and gull wing doors, made a powerful first impression. Unfortunately, the French built PRV V-6 engine wasn't powerful or reliable. PRV stood for a joint venture project between Peugeot, Renault and Volvo.

The first cars didn't start to reach consumers until close to a decade after the company’s formation. By 1982 they had built 7000 cars, but half of them had remained unsold. They managed to build an additional 1700 units before the company was seized by the British government later that year.

The Turbulent Life of John DeLorean

Unfortunately DeLorean, the first carmaker to mass produce stainless steel cars, doesn’t have a glorious story to tell. Accusations of fraud, mismanagement, political interference and even the involvement of the Irish Republican Army are part of the alleged history of John DeLorean's car company.

It didn't help that John DeLorean himself became the subject of an FBI sting operation related to drug trafficking. But the DeLorean Car Company’s biggest problem was the operation costs well exceeded the profits. In 1982 a receivership sold the existing parts and cars at auction. Out of the almost 9000 stainless cars produced, it's estimated that over 6400 are still around today. So why aren’t more cars built with stainless steel?