By on June 10, 2008

0610081126_m_gina450.jpgAdmirably, y'all responded rationally to BMW's GINA Light Visionary Concept. Instead of just screaming "yucky!" like the rest of the car blogosphere, TTAC's B&B took a step back and said, "Hmmm…." Trust me, as someone who has to think about cars all day, it's nothing but fresh air to see readers take such a cerebral tack. And so the GINA is skinned in fabric. Hmmm… Going on nothing but my observation that in normal usage convertibles seem to have a seven-year life span, this may not be the best idea. But, Bangle's comment about "Function over dogma" got my little brain spinning. Why not fabric? Or plastic? Or anything else? Why always metal? Would you drive a non-metal car? Really?

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47 Comments on “Question of the Day: Should Cars Be Made of Metal?...”

  • avatar

    Steel prices are going up up up, but it’s still cheap to have child labor stitch together a sweatshirt. The BMW GINA concept is a pretty great exercise in reforming the assumptions we have about cars, it’s that type of thinking that will help to introduce greater efficiency and lower weight into the cars we drive.

  • avatar

    Not necessarily. Composites (not just carbon fiber, but a composite construction of wood, steel, plastic, fabric, etc) are also an option.
    A fabric skin can conceal a compact, lightweight, robust frame without the weight of a metal body. There are lots of other options outside the metal cage that the brain could ponder.

  • avatar

    reinforce fiber-glasss I don’t mind, but this would mean that cars would be much lighter….

  • avatar

    As long as it looked good and had task-appropriate NVH, I’d drive a car made out of recycled water bottles and cell phones.

  • avatar

    If some other material has advantages over metal… why not?

  • avatar

    Plastic and plastic composites should be used more than they are currently. Any crash protection lost by the relatively inelastic plastic can be compensated by stiffer (still metal) frame and crash beams.

    While I can’t see why metal can’t be substituted for the outer skin, the frame should remain metal. The Boeing 787 uses carbon fiber liberally, but the structural frame is still aluminum. Metals have many favorable properties (strength, elasticity, easy workability, conductivity), so we shouldn’t do away with it completely, but rather find a way to use each material to its strength.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Chrysler’s interesting CCV used injection molded plastic, with the color already impregnated. Kinda’ like your garbage totes. Practical, cheap and recyclable.

  • avatar

    I’m not against any new application of materials as long as the material withstands all the necessary criteria.

    With that said, fabric would certainly reduce weight, perhaps be economical, and be durable enough. However, I would have a couple of concerns. One, even the best convertible tops can buffet and ripple in the wind–what would that do to reliability and mileage? Two, what’s to stop a vandal from slicing one’s car to ribbons? Granted steel can be keyed or dented, but it remains intact.

    Besides, how could I wax the thing?

  • avatar

    I already do, a plastic-fantastic Saturn SL2. But I paid $400.00 for it, not $40K.

    My concern with a cloth car would be vandalism. A smart-arse with a blade can cause a lot more trouble with cloth than just scratching paint.

    I actually like the look of this BMW though.

  • avatar

    go for it!!
    Its a new world.
    If we can keep the feds(who have pressure from steel lobbyists)out of it!!

  • avatar

    2 words: Active Aerodynamics

    How cool would it be for a car made of fabric to have some more elastic areas that can stretch to alter the shape to enhance downforce over a specific tire at high speeds? Or increase drag to improve high-speed braking stability (and help with braking period)? Or alter ground clearance based on the terrain ahead – pull up the skirts for speed bumps and parking maneuvers?

    And with plastic, I think we already saw with early Saturns that it certainly CAN work in a production car, and it’s one of the key points that folks bring up as a practical, attractive feature.

    Anything that can help reduce weight of a vehicle is certainly something I’m enamored with :)

  • avatar

    recycled plastic.

  • avatar

    I own a Saturn SL2 as well. Doesn’t bother me that there is plastic involved. Although the clear coat is pealing off the spoiler of my 1998 SL2 so they don’t last forever.

    I know someone who has offered to apply a new clear coat to the spoiler. I suppose I’ll have to see how that turns out.

  • avatar

    My mothers 1994 Saturn still looks decent.

    Now if you had something like the Audi A2 with an aluminum frame and plastic body panels it could really get the weight down.

  • avatar

    I’m willing to consider a car made from (or with) just about anything, be it heat cured spun graphite filament, recycled soda bottles, doped oxford cloth shirts, or even processed cow dung. Who cares as as long as the end result is affordable, durable, has high strength to weight, low NVH, and in the case of processed cow dung, doesn’t attract flies?

  • avatar

    I think there should be a literal “woody” to go head to head with BMW’s GINA. If not, perhaps the Splinter?

    I personally like composites for their greater ability to integrate body and structure (over steel) and limitless potential for shaping. Still the fabric idea is cool as is a promise of anything light from BMW. The potential for personalization with this technology, while potentially creating a whole new sphere of ugly, is pretty cool as well.

  • avatar

    If it’s one thing I learned to appreciate looking at the Ariel Atom, it’s the frame that counts. As long as they can come up wiht a lightweight aerodynamic shell to apply to the frame that successfully keeps out the elements, I’m all for it. I don’t know about fabric, but I see no reason the outer skin of an automobile needs to be metal.

  • avatar
    Cyril Sneer

    High-density foam. Yeah.

  • avatar

    It’s an old idea. And borrowed from aircraft fabrication. Gabriel Voisin built fabric-covered cars 1915-1930.

  • avatar

    GINA looks to be a very interesting concept. I’m suprised nobody’s cracked a joke about the bonnet yet. There’re some interesting details, as well, such as how the fabric stretching over the engine cover, is made to resemble a ribcage, or muscles.

    A lot of automakers seem to be using lightweight metals and composites more liberally in the last few years, as integrating these materials has become more cost effective on a large scale.

    Cars don’t seem to be getting any lighter, though.

  • avatar
    bill h.

    Composite cars made from recycled materials may not be easily marketable in certain parts of eastern Germany/Europe. Remember the Trabant? What exactly were its panels made from?

  • avatar
    Captain Tungsten

    It all boils down to cost and mass, and until now, cost has been king. All the advanced materials mentioned here can be used for vehicles, just wander down to an Indy Car or ALMS race, or a scooter store. But when it comes to low cost, high volume, high quality structures, steel continues to stand on home plate. As the cost of materials (especially steel) increases, and as the fuel economy and safety screws continue to tighten, we may see a time where vehicle manufacturers have no other choice but to use increasing amounts of higher cost, lighter weight materials, and learn to make money on the vehicles.

  • avatar

    If you have ever seen the equipment used to stamp body panels you would understand why the industry is reluctant to change to a composite body material. I think they can stamp a door panel faster than Hershey can mold a candy bar, although the process is a bit louder.

  • avatar

    Formula 1

    If something other then steel works good for them..

  • avatar

    Fabric bodies were popular in the 20s — the Weymann canvas body was very chic for a while, because it didn’t drum over rough pavement like contemporary steel bodies tended to, it was light, and it was easy to repair or replace if damaged. On the other hand, the canvas would rot, the wooden frame was vulnerable to termites and such, and buyers got tired of the dull-looking finish.

    The thing about fabric bodies, or fiberglass, is that any weight you save in the outer skin is usually balanced by having to beef up the rest (whether it’s body-on-frame, space frame, or superleggera) to compensate for the lack of rigidity and strength.

    I dunno, I think composites will continue to get a greater foothold in auto body construction, but I don’t see any compelling advantages to fabric-skinned cars.

  • avatar

    The Saturns of yore with misaligned panels and dull paint have conditioned me against plastic. I would have to see a well executed example to let metal go. Also don’t like the idea of a flammable exterior.

  • avatar

    Well, I always thought that cars should have “inner tubes around them,” just like the bumper-cars at the state fair.

    Short of that, it’s obvious that “steel” is wasting tankers-full of oil, every minute of every day. We certainly could make them out of stuff that weighs a quarter of what the steel behemoths weigh, and reap the savings in fuel economy.

    “Steel stamping,” indeed — I suppose you could say that the industry pops out steel panels “like potato chips.” Obviously, producing composite panels would be insanely more expensive, in comparison.

    So, “Wanna become a billionaire?” Just come up with a process that’ll produce lightweight composite panels just as efficiently as steel stamping. “Dammit, Jim, where’s Scotty and his transparent aluminum, when we need him??”

  • avatar

    I’m okay with anything that can be recycled just like steel and aluminum. Can’t imagine have 5 bizillion cars on the roads with some sort of exotic material that can’t be recycled.

    I’d like to have a composite of some sort that would not rust!

  • avatar

    If anything, they should decrease the amount of metal used in cars simply by making the greenhouse bigger. More visibility, less weight, more fuel-efficiency without drastic change in the automobile.

  • avatar

    @ Paul Neidermeyershlitzvagenugen

    The Plymouth Pronto was a much better attempt.

  • avatar

    Joe Harmon, a Master’s student at my Alma Matter, is building a wooden supercar, The Splinter

    I will be laser cutting the marquetry for the seats. It is an impressive show of what a college student can do with some determination and resourcefulness.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    Fabric, nah. Wood, no way. Fiberglass … no big advantages over steel, otherwise the Corvette would be a featherweight. Carbon fiber, oh yeah! Get the costs down and carbon fiber make a great mass market automotive material. Boeing is helping blaze a trail by building the new Dreamliner fuselage out of carbon fiber. You don’t see airplanes going back to their fabric stretched over a framework beginnings, do you?

  • avatar

    GRP/fiberglass, carbon fiber, plastic, I’m up for all of it. Lots of manufacturers use it. I had a Saturn with plastic panels, and though I had other issues with the car the panels never bothered me (what do I care about panel gaps?). I honestly don’t get why all the cars now weigh 3000 or 4000 pounds. Why not use more of this stuff?

    Half the cars I most desire have non-metal panels, like the Lotus Elise. Metal is great, but use it wisely where it’s needed.

  • avatar

    787 has carbon fiber composite skins that are structural. There are many aircraft that use composites extensively, for primary structure. Composites are stronger and lighter with exceptional fatigue strength but they cost more. With steel prices rising composites are looking more cost effective. I think a space frame car with a composite skin is lightweight and is the way to go.

  • avatar

    Morgan still uses wood for structure in their vehicles. It has the added bonus that it absorbs crash energy real well.

  • avatar

    This BMW concept may look cool, but I recall that the Pontic Aztek was intended to resemble fabric stretched over a framework (think of a tent). We know how well that worked out. I hate to think that’s the next upcoming automotive styling trend.

    As for why steel is still used predominantly for building automobiles (other than legacy reasons) I highly recommend the book “The New Science of Strong Materials or Why You Don’t Fall Through the Floor”. It’s an entertaining read, probably even if you’re not an engineer.

  • avatar

    Eventually, I would think that nanotechnology will allow for more flexible composites. Design projects like the GINA get people thinking about the future. Our needs as consumers change, why shouldn’t our transportation? Weight is the enemy with our current fleet.

  • avatar
    William C Montgomery

    As a origami enthusiasts and a car guy, I would like to see more cars made of paper.

    As for the BMW GINA Light Visionary Concept, imagine – do you have to unzip your fly to drain your radiator?

    Perhaps my juvenile comments reveal that I am neither best or bright. I need more sleep.

  • avatar

    Foam-cored fiberglass subframes for the front and back would be awesome. Stiff, strong, absorbs energy real well in a crash and crumbles into dust as the crash progresses. Cheap and simple, too.

    As for body panels, my friend’s Saturn proves the point. ABS plastic is the way to go. 12 years have passed, and it still looks mint (except for a big crack in the front fender where he hit a deer :) )

  • avatar

    The Trabant exterior was made from multi-layered, painted, cardboard. Not so great at preventing occupant injury, but really lightweight. Judging by the hundreds you still see on small country roads in what used to be “iron curtain” territory, they held up extremely well.

    Having had several Saturns, the plastic exterior was a plus. The look, however, was not. With the new paints that M-B is using this may be something they can get around.

    The key is if no one notices that you replaced the steel panel with a plastic one, you did it right.

    But please, no aluminum framed vehicles below $40k. It’s just too expensive to repair and would jack up insurance rates beyond belief.

  • avatar

    OK here comes the “unofficial TTAC” automotive historian again. Fabric covered wood body construction was used earlier last century for automobile bodies. It was known as Weymann coachwork.

    It was more popular in Europe.

    Yes, it did look like the whole car (behind the cowl and hood, not including the steel fenders) was a huge vinyl top.

  • avatar

    Last year at Targa Newfoundland, there was a leather bodied car from the 20’s. I can’t recall the make or model for the life of me.

    But it was red.

  • avatar

    Saturn wasn’t the only car to use plastic body panels.

    The 1st gen Concorde/Intrepids had plastic front fenders, as did some of the 90s Buick midsizes. It was impossible to tell them from steel unless the panel got hit hard enough to crack it. So it is entirely possible to do plastic body panels without it being as obvious as it was on the Saturn.

  • avatar


  • avatar

    “Plastic and plastic composites should be used more than they are currently. Any crash protection lost by the relatively inelastic plastic can be compensated by stiffer (still metal) frame and crash beams.”

    Here is the problem with this statement: Plastic is a oil-based product… we should be finding alternates to this or at least use recycled plastic bottles or something.

  • avatar

    Plastic? Why not? Saturn did it and all of those plastic cladded things are still in relatively mint condition compared to their metal bodied counterparts. Cars would at least look much better when say10, 20,30, hell even 40+ years go by.(considering if you even drive the car that long)

  • avatar

    I want growth in making cars more engaging. I think balance and integration of the components is key. Metal can only be integrated so much and achieve so many results. BMW used carbon on the roof to counter the center of gravity. Things like that are what I wanna see all over the cars. In little areas, down to little details. Oh and of course safety is a big priority. I love cars but I dont want one to be the suit I’m buried in.

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