McLaren's carbonfibre chassis technology could be on the cusp of making its way into mass-market city cars. That was one of the headlines from the SMMT’s Specialist Car Manufacturing summit last night, which highlighted some of the work the UK's specialist car makers are undertaking.
Woking-based McLaren first innovated with carbonfibre monocoques in the MP4/1 Formula 1 car 31 years ago. After that came the F1 road car, the Mercedes SLR McLaren and the MP4-12C supercar, all of which used carbonfibre tubs. In that time the costs have come down more than 90 per cent, according to McLaren Automotive chief Antony Sheriff.
To put the expense of carbonfibre construction into context, Sheriff explained that if the cost of building the tub of the McLaren F1 was ‘100’, the price was brought down to ‘30’ for the SLR. For the 12C, it is now ‘8’.
Labour costs and manufacturing time are big elements of this reduction, Sheriff revealed. “It used to take a week to hand-build an F1’s chassis," he said. "Now it is just three hours for a 12C and is mostly automated.”
Carbonfibre is actually a cheaper material than aluminium when broken down to raw materials, Sheriff said. He added that it was the complex supply chain, with profit margins at every level, and the fact that it was so labour-intensive that pushed the cost up.
“The next big breakthrough in bringing carbonfibre’s costs down will be from simplifying the manufacturing process,” said Sheriff.
When that breakthrough is realised, Sheriff has a big prediction for the future of the technology in mainstream models. “Every car will be made of carbonfibre; there’s no reason why not,” he said. “We’ve always done it, and you could say we don’t know how to do anything else because it’s all we’ve ever made.”
You could convincingly argue that McLaren has done the groundwork in bringing the costs of the technology down sufficiently to bring it within reach of mainstream premium brands such as BMW with its forthcoming ‘i’ sub-brand.
The next logical step is for a carbonfibre chassis to find its way into the mass market. Right on cue, Sheriff admitted “a very large manufacturer” has visited McLaren’s Woking headquarters to “see how it could use our technology for a city car”.
“Other manufacturers are now interested in what we do and come to us. They are now seeing the strength, safety and weight benefits of carbonfibre chassis, particularly when you are looking at adding weight with hybrid and EV systems,” said Sheriff.
“When you start adding this technology, the trade-off costs for having carbonfibre chassis makes much more sense.”
As John Watson drove the MP4/1 to its first victory at the 1981 British Grand Prix, inspiring the city cars of the 2020s would never have entered his thoughts. But if the breakthrough in carbonfibre manufacturing arrives as expected, that’s exactly what that very special F1 car would have done.