Chennai: In the car world, if the engine is the heart, then the structure of the vehicle or ‘body in white’ to the car-person, is the err… body that houses it. There have been many iterations of structural types in the past and I am going to take the ladies and gentlemen who read it down the timeline.
A small heads-up first. I do not want to get too technical (read boring) so that my editor tells me that I am not invited to his house party, in case I bring my infinite wisdom about automobiles that it makes others run for their lives. Let’s crack on, shall we?
When vehicles first came into existence, the cabins were no different from the ones pulled by horses. Soon, people realised that unlike horses, engines are physically connected with the cabin, leading them to twist and buck when the driver goes powerrrrr, quite frankly breaking the wooden cabs over time.
It was then engineers started to use steel to construct car bodies. The first option was for them to come up with a frame railing over which the cabin can be designed as a separate entity. They came in many different types such as C-shape, hat, boxed. Like the name suggests, the frames consisted of structures that resembled these shapes, housed inside two steel rails.
Then came the ladder frame that proved to be a touch sturdier than the frame rails – the result of which is seen even in cars sold today. Take the Ford Endeavour, for example.
And about that, if you wanna see if the frame really looks like a ladder, I suggest you become the tallest person on the planet or have the ability to fly. Seriously, the number of times people have asked me if the frame will look like a ladder astonishes me. I have two answers to them: One is ‘It does’ and the second, ‘Who do you think engineers are? They do not conjure up names like modern-day chefs’.
Then came the unibody, the box frame, the perimeter frame and the platform frame. Of the lot, the perimeter frame can still be seen in use today while the platform frame was resigned to the history books. But, I suspect with the entry of electric cars, platform frames can very much be revived for they keep the cabin height low, thereby keeping the centre of gravity low, all of which electric cars can benefit from.
The most recent development was the monocoque, where the vehicle structure is the integral part of the body. It has developed so much that even Range Rover models that can do extreme off-roading, something that the ladder frame is famous for, nowadays use it. So what next?
Here is the catch. All the advancements that I spoke about were developed with the internal combustion (IC) engine in mind. But with the IC engines facing their own dooms day, I think we need to start thinking about different methods to place the propulsion motors.
You see, the engine was a big lump earlier, but electric motors can be as tiny as a badger and still be able to propel a huge truck. This means, the structure of the car not only has to get lower, but lighter as well.
Use of carbon fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) is now prevalent in the car industry, but people have to pay the price for it. One day it will become part of normal cars, too. The problem with CFRP is that when hit with force, it shatters. So, there is no repairing it. You need to replace it. Car firms are working on ways to make CFRP as malleable and ductile as metal, meaning, one day all cars can be made using it.
As humans always do, I think we will find different ways to make vehicles. Who knows, we might even invent a new method in which the subframe and suspension arms are part of the car’s structure.
If you ask me, I think we need to start breaking the car’s structure once again. The electric battery pack needs to be housed safely. That means, we once again need to separate the body shell from the frame. There will be an interesting outcome with that practice, too. Remember coach building, any one?