Carbon World

It wasn’t long ago when carbon fibre was considered an all-exotic item restricted to the use of racing cars and the like. However, as of late the mass-market car industry has learned to take full advantage of the material and its benefits.

It wasn’t till the late 80’s when we began to see such material applied to street vehicles – one of the very first examples being Ferrari’s F40. While Porsche, Jaguar and Lamborghini had been practicing perfecting the use of lightweight aluminium, Ferrari had been utilizing Formula One carbon fibre technology. The fact remains that the F40 was one of the very first examples to implement a full carbon fibre body and extensive use of carbon throughout the chassis tub. The advantage of such heavy carbon material use not only allowed great strength, but a significant weight advantage over conventional aluminums.

Meanwhile, manufacturers like “McLaren Road Cars” (builder of the infamous “F1”) went on to utilize not only a full carbon fibre body, but also a chassis built entirely of the material. Later supercars which followed further refined this idea, but it wasn’t till around 2001 when manufacturers started to not only use more carbon fibre, but use it in more ways than previously imaginable.

For instance, Porsche was the first manufacturer to apply the use of “carbon ceramic brakes” (the hype on racing cars) to a road car. The 996 generation “GT2” was the first to use this type of braking material.

Following shortly after was the Ferrari Enzo in 2003 and in order to further the advancements of the car (originally meant as the ultimate road-racer), the knowledge which Ferrari had gained from Formula One was used to create a carbon chassis which was not only lighter than their previous flagship supercar (the “F50”), but stronger as well.

Following that the same basic concept, Modenese manufacturer “Pagani Automobili” was able to find an interesting solution to the problem of how to make carbon fibre not only lighter, but much stronger. “Z-Preg”, as coined by the company, intelligently reduces mass by pre-impregnating the carbon weave in a different direction – thus saving weight. Company owner and engineer, Horacio Pagani, had dawned upon this idea while searching for solutions to reduce mass on the roadster variation of his “Zonda” supercar.

Meanwhile, Porsche’s latest generation supercar, the “Carrera GT”, yet again took the use of carbon fibre to a new level – using a total of five different suppliers. With the addition of “carbon ceramic brakes” provided by German industry supplier “SGL”, Porsche also implemented the world’s first “carbon fibre reinforced plastic” chassis tub. This completely new patented and trademarked process brings the marriage of exotic carbon fibre with the conventional use of plastic (this also includes the frame cradling the engine). With such, Porsche has managed to keep the durability and lightweight mass, while saving a few nickels in the process. But by German standards, that wasn’t enough, because the Carrera GT further broke new ground when it happened to be the first car in the world to experiment with a “carbon ceramic clutch”.

The apparent advantage is a lighter mass – which in turn results in a lower inertia and balance, but also, like ceramic brakes, a life time of longevity. How long – 40,000 miles to be exact, which is quite a triumph among supercars, considering Lamborghini Murcielago clutches have been known to wear out in just 5k miles.

Although journalists soon found out that the disadvantage of such a carbon ceramic clutch when they complained about the lack of ease when operating such the gearbox (due to the lack of a fly wheel), but that’s neither here or there.

Such applications are becoming more and more frequent in the automotive industry. Upcoming supercar manufacturer “Farboud” will be using Pagani Automobili’s “Z-Preg” carbon weave design, while in recent times British manufacturer “MG” gave their “SV” coupe the use of a full carbon fibre body. Not to mention, Porsche is now offering ceramic brakes on nearly all of their models.

Mind you, the use of carbon fibre is by no means cheap and that’s why it’s mostly preserved for “exotics”, even if those exotics are made in the hundreds or thousands. They are still very expensive and so the cost of the carbon components can be easily justified. Nonetheless, carbon fibre has truly made a big impact on the overall automotive world. It offers functionality and advantages which steel and aluminium could only dream of, which is saying a lot considering all the ways those materials have been used in cars over the years.

The question should be: “what’s next for this wonder material?” A carbon fibre alloy?

Oops, Swedish manufacturer “Koenigsegg” already has those. Can’t wait to what they’ll do with the new alloy.

Author: Bruce McCulloch

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  1. That weave is pretty cool. What I wonder is whether the price of carbon fibre goes down enough in large-scale production so as to make it inexpensive enough to include on more mainstream cars. There must be some decrease in price as you make more of it, but I guess it must not be enough or more companies would be using it on more cars.

  2. An interesting point. I’m afraid I cannot answer such a question, but it would appear that despite larger quanties of the item the price remains high.

    On a side note and something I forgot to mention in the article (but is somewhat obvious), is that Pagani Automobili serves as a carbon industry supplier for various company (including companies like Lamborghini which have been in connection with Pagani for around twenty years).

  3. One has to assume that large-scale production of carbon fibre products would have to bring the price down somewhat, but I suppose it’s a question of whether it’s a meaningful decrease. Just being curious, I’d like to know that answer as well.

  4. When will it become so common that it won’t be offered as a trim option in high-end cars? I assume it serves no functional purpose in that applications, but just looks interesting and has the usual attraction of an expensive material.

    My Mazda Protege5 has fake carbon fiber trim, but if you’ve seen the real deal you know there’s no comparison.

  5. The problem is that carbon fiber is very fussy to manufacture. The whole process is an awful lot like making reinforced concrete.

    The actual fibrous material (carbon weave) can be shipped, but then it has to be dredged in melted plastic (once cooled, this can also be shipped), squished into the desired shape, then stuck in a very hot kiln called an autoclave so it can harden.

    As I understand it the carbon weave itself is hard to work with; it’s got sharp edges and it’s hard to fold. With its soft plastic substrate it feels kinda like a doormat, but it’s still hard to maintain uniformity.

    Our government (not sure which agency; maybe the EPA?) is working on methods to reduce the cost of making cars more lightweight.

    One of the ideas being tossed around to make carbon fiber cheaper is to “spray applique” lots of scrappy carbon filaments into a mold (in place of the carbon weave), then pour the hot molten plastic in and hot-press the part to harden it.

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