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A Relic of Time: Fordite

Henry Ford had a famous partiality to black cars. “Any colour so long as it’s black,” you may recognise as a widely cited but perhaps shoddily substantiated paraphrasing of Ford’s philosophy on ornamentation. Plucked from a wider discussion about his function-over-form approach to his product, his monochromatic preferences run inextricably throughout the rest of what makes him an inimitable precursor to late capitalism. In reality, his Model T retailed in a handful of colours. But owning a car at this point in time was a novelty, and personal expression through colour wasn’t yet a significant determinant of market offerings. In the early 20th century, drab hues like black, grey, dark blue and brown prevailed the roadways.

By the 1950s, American streets looked a bit different. Post-war sentiments of euphoria were reflected in candy-coloured hues and an abundance of chrome in consumer vehicles. Dodge famously created the “LaFemme” model, which was outfitted with special umbrella and lipstick holders for the ladies, and painted fairy floss pink. Almost every car at the time was hand-painted on an assembly line. The era particularly popularised multi-colour jobs, wherein separate parts were masked and sprayed by hand with various paints. For a clean finish, a strip of chrome inevitably covered the imperfect lines between colours (interestingly enough, today’s classic car restorers duplicate this factory sloppiness for authenticity’s sake).

The method was labour-intensive, but imprecise. Part after part was sent down the line and sprayed, ultimately resulting in a ton of superfluous paint, which would collect and clog within the assembly line tracks. As the cars baked in a massive oven, the cumulative deposits were also subject to extreme heat, hardening alongside them. Eventually the layers of petrified paint would interfere with the movement of the tracks and need to be chipped off.

Shrewd workers soon discovered that once these mounds of enamel slag were cut and polished, they revealed a dazzling array of colourful rings, similar to those found naturally within agate stone. They began to create jewellery out of the unique fragments, or they took them home as souvenirs. The automotive relics are today referred to as “Fordite”, “Detroit agate” or “motor agate”.

Its semi-eponymous doppelgänger, agate, is born from a naturally-occurring, brutal concoction of volcanic heat and relentless pressure with a wait time of a few thousand (or million) years. And while it carries a sense of living, breathing time within it, Fordite feels temporally stunted in comparison – an ephemeral relic confined to a few decades in a particular place. The months it takes to build up layers of paint are still a fraction of the duration it takes to create agate – Fordite’s space of conception is a space of manufactural efficiency, after all. It isn’t meticulously crafted, although like agate, it’s a beautifully-packaged phenomenon of the right elements interacting at the right place and time. Art imitates life, history repeats itself.

To me, an interesting concept of simulacrum evoked by Fordite is its ability to tell time. Within agate, the inner rings document a story that is dictated entirely by chance occurrences in nature, spread out over thousands of years. You may be able to trace an agate specimen back to an ancient volcanic eruption in Brazil or a glacial event around the area of Lake Superior that occurred billions of years ago. The layers within Fordite tell a different narrative, one of market trends and consumer preferences. While early bits of Fordite are primarily monochromatic, a piece from the 1960s could be comprised of dozens of hues like sea-foam green, bright yellow, metallic violet, and pearlescent rings resembling oil slick. The most coveted pieces contain colours that are today very rare or no longer available.

The process of hand-painting cars is now largely defunct, at least in the mass production sense. These days the process is fully automated, with paint administered to such programmed accuracy that several layers never surmount to more than one-tenth of a millimetre in thickness, rendering Fordite a bygone vestige of American automotive history. A quick search on Etsy would present you with the chance to get your hands on your very own colourful chunk of polished slag. Just don’t expect it to promote inner stability, balance your chakra or elicit metaphysical vibes of a higher power.

– Meghan