From Wood to Carbon Fibre: A History of the Car Body for Students in Auto Body Repair Courses

becoming an auto body technician
Although it may seem obvious, automobiles didn’t always have the same appearances as the models we see today. Car body design has always needed to change in order to adapt to the needs of the public, and although all car models are built differently, the origins of their design is rooted in the history of transportation.

From the use of horse-drawn carriages to the invention of the internal combustion engine, early auto body makers pioneered the way forward as they strove to create better, more innovative ways to get people where they needed to go. The progress of technology—as it still does today—brought newer, better materials that made cars more efficient, safer, and faster than their predecessors.

If you’re interested in a career in auto body repair and want to learn how exactly cars went from being horse-drawn to incorporating carbon fibre, read on to find out more.

The Prototype of Auto Body Repair: Carriage Makers and the Car Chassis

Until relatively recently in history, one of the fastest ways to get around was on a horse, or in a vehicle pulled by a horse such as a carriage, coach, or wagon. For centuries, wood was often central to vehicle construction, but as technology progressed, people began looking for faster, more efficient means of transportation.

Prototypes for the automobile as we know it today soon began to appear—the steam-powered horseless carriage, the ‘auto-buggy’, the ‘motor wagon’. Public demand for the automobile grew, and manufacturers turned to coachbuilders to craft various components of the car out of wood, from the chassis to body structures later covered in treated canvas.

Wood, however, proved to be a difficult material to use in car design because of its poor flexibility, heavy weight, and susceptibility to damage and weather. Manufacturers needed a new material, and the growing metal fabrication industry provided the answer: steel.

Steel Auto Bodies Lasted from the Model-T All the Way to Steve McQueen

As the automobile entered the 20th century, lightweight, durable, and flexible metals like steel and aluminum were quickly adopted into designs. 1908 saw the first production of the popular Model-T car, which introduced the public to an affordable vehicle that featured heat-treated steel and a lighter, stronger auto body. In 1914, the Dodge Brothers became the first automaker to design and manufacture a vehicle with an all-steel body. New ways of forging metals to improve the strength and durability of the automobile—such as drop and power-hammering, drawing, and stamping—soon followed.

Steel was so useful that it became one of the primary materials in auto body manufacturing well into the early 1970s—in fact, steel still accounts for around 60% of the weight of a modern car.

Manufacturer preferences, however, shifted towards using aluminum in the late 1970s. As a result, many car components you encounter during auto body repair courses such as hoods, trunks, and bumpers contain various levels of aluminum. Metal fabricators began carrying it over from race car design into everyday automotive manufacturing because it was more lightweight and led to faster cars capable of absorbing more crash energy.

You May See Carbon Fibre in Your Career after Auto Body Repair Courses

In order to make cars safer, cheaper, and emphasize fuel efficiency, many manufacturers turned to carbon fibre. This happened towards the later years of the 20th century—particularly after 1981, when the McLaren MP4/1 Formula One car first featured a carbon fibre chassis.


Professional auto body repair workers may work with many different materials
Professional auto body repair workers may work with many different materials

Carbon fibre is a lightweight woven material prized for its strength and rigidity. If you’re considering becoming an auto body technician, you might be interested to know that carbon fibre is used in the production of many automotive parts, including hoods, suspension, chassis, body panels, and even decorative trim. Carbon fibre, however, is expensive to create as well as expensive to use, which means you may see it more often when working on high-end luxury cars until it is able to be manufactured at a more affordable cost.

Are you interested in taking the next steps towards a career in auto body repair?

Contact your local Automotive Training Centre today for more information!

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