Got wood? Car makers waking up to surprising results

Wood Auto Takes Industry Back to Future in Mileage Quest

Surfers rejoice. Woodie cars like the Ford in the 1960s hit Surf City may be making a comeback -- of sorts.

In a bid to resurrect wood cars, Finnish papermaker UPM- Kymmene Oyj will show a street-legal prototype at the Geneva motor show in March. The eco-friendly car is built on a frame that uses tree pulp and plywood and even runs on fuel made from bark, stumps and branches.

It’s more than just a marketing stunt. The Helsinki-based company has developed technology that makes lumber a potential option for the auto industry. UPM’s Biofore concept, which uses off-the-shelf products, is designed to meet European standards for crash and fire safety and offer all the comforts of a conventional car.

“The world of sustainable development isn’t something that’s chosen; it’ll come,” Juuso Konttinen, UPM’s vice president for new business, said in an interview in a Helsinki warehouse where the car is being kept under wraps for now.

Every major auto show features super-cool concept cars that are never actually produced. This vehicle, however, is symbolic of a large-scale, global effort to replace heavy steel components and make automobiles less of a burden on the environment. Regulators are demanding more efficient vehicles, and that makes reducing weight a priority for automakers.

Ford Truck

With the 2015 model, Ford Motor Co.’s F-150 pickup, the best-selling U.S. vehicle for 32 years, will become the first high-production vehicle with an aluminum body. It will be 700 pounds lighter, boosting fuel economy. Volkswagen AG is also using more aluminum and high-strength steel, while Bayerische Motoren Werke AG is turning to carbon fiber to reduce weight. Both approaches are energy intensive and more costly than steel.

And wood isn’t off the table: Ford will use a tree-based plastic composite for interior parts of the 2014 Lincoln MKX sport-utility vehicle. The components are created in collaboration with forest company Weyerhauser Co. and auto-parts maker Johnson Controls Inc.

To some extent, this is a back-to-the-future moment for carmarkers. The world’s first autos, including Gottlieb Daimler’s 1885 wooden two-wheeler Reitwagen, were largely made of lumber. They were horseless carriages, after all, and some of the industry’s first innovators were coachbuilders like Lohner- Werke in Vienna, which gave automaking legend Ferdinand Porsche his start.

Wood Tradition

“There was a real craft and artisanal tradition of wood use going back to the colonial period,” said John Heitmann, president of the Society of Automotive Historians and a professor at the University of Dayton in Ohio. “The auto industry is at the threshold of an entire new revolution. So why not have body panels made out of wood?”

With increasing production volumes, lumber became too difficult for manufacturers to work with because of natural variation, such as knots. Steel’s strength and reliability made it the preferred material for most automakers, while East Germany’s iconic Trabant used reinforced plastic.

In the woodie era of the 1940s and ’50s, cars like the Chrysler Town & Country and Ford Country Squire sported elegant side and door panels, but even then use of the material was mostly decorative rather than structural. Nowadays wood is generally relegated to veneer accents on dashboards of luxury cars. British sports-car maker Morgan Motor Co. is a rare exception, using ash frames in its vehicles for decades.

Still, nostalgia for wood-based cars has never died. Ford Motor Co.’s Flex wagon evokes paneling with horizontal grooves on the side, while numerous vehicles from the 1960s and 1970s were offered with simulated wood exteriors.

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