Are Wood Cars Coming Back in Style?

The inside scoop of the wooden street-legal prototype shown at Geneva motor show

Finnish papermaker UPM-Kymmene Oyj (UPM) showed off a street-legal prototype at the Geneva motor show this past March. The car was applauded for its eco-friendly qualities, built with a frame made of tree pulp and plywood. Furthermore, the car runs on fuel made from bark, stumps and branches.

While Earth’s natural resources have been plummeting, car manufacturers have been scrambling to develop and distribute more electric car options with higher fuel efficiencies. The Helsinki-based company has pushed upon lumber as an option with great potential, and it even meets European standards for crash and fire safety. The car uses a 1.2 liter Volkswagen Polo engine, modified to use UPM’s BioVerno fuel.

About 50 technicians spent 30,000 hours creating the wooden car, which they named the UPM Biofore. The vehicle’s first test drive took place in the rain last August to address concerns about the wooden car’s ability to handle water. A polymer material is used in the vehicle’s outdoor panels, rocker panels, upper dash and front fascia. A thermo-wood product entitled Grada is used in the vehicle’s inner door panels, dash, console and floor.

Although the prototype may never be produced in bulk, it proves that the auto industry is making a global effort to place less stress on the environment. The vehicle shows that cars don’t necessarily have to be made of large-scale steel components, or run on gasoline or electricity. However, since efficiency has become a top priority for automakers, wood will most likely never be commonly used.

UPM also presents that there is a possibility for laminated wood to replace fiberglass. Traditional fibers and plastics typically presented in vehicle interiors could be taken over by hemp fibers, currently featured on the BMW i3. Mercedes also uses hemp fibers for the interior of its A-class hatchback. Using wood to fabricate interior uses less energy in the production process. In comparison with aluminum and many other metals, lumber is inexpensive, accessible and easily shaped.

British car manufacturer Morgan continues to use ash frames in its sports cars, showing that natural materials are still durable and worthy of use. Volkswagen has been exploring the ways in which processing cellulose and lignin can create reinforced plastics and carbon fiber. Renault has noted that 10 percent of its plastic materials used in cars will be replaced with plant-based materials.

The Geneva motor show is well-known for exhibiting cars from around the world by the greatest manufacturers. It is the only international showing of cars during the spring in Europe. In the presence of major CEOs, top manufacturers annually unveil many of their latest innovations at Geneva like the UPM Biofore.

The motor show is the first international show to present a separate exhibition for cars powered by alternative fuels and renewable energy. According to a general information document on Geneva’s website, more than 65 models (7.2 percent of all models) presented at Geneva will already qualify for the average emissions regulations for new vehicles six years from now.

Although all of the hype on wooden cars seems new and innovative, it is actually an old concept. When the automotive industry was in its youth, wood was the preferred material for vehicle construction. Consider the amount of centuries craftsmen made wooden horse-drawn carriages. The earliest motorcycles were made from wood, too.

The Ford Model T (produced from 1908 to 1927) is widely considered the first affordable automobile. The car opened long-distance travel to middle-class Americans. Rather than individually hand crafting each vehicle, Ford developed assembly-line production, changing the automobile manufacturing industry forever.

During the life of the Model T, the car was accessorized with wood linings, believed to give the vehicle a longer life. Until 1926, the Model T’s wheels were designed as wooden artillery wheels. Henry Ford himself was eco-friendly, using wooden scraps from the production line to create charcoal.

The 1911 Hupmobile, built by Edward Budd, was the first automobile to have a wooden frame reinforced by steel, giving the car better rigidity. Dodge was the first automaker to present a vehicle with an all-steel body in 1916, two decades before all-steel bodies became standard.

Perhaps the transition between wood to steel was the most revolutionary for manufacturers. Wooden panels and frames restrict body designers, as wood is only able to bend into simple curves. This led to little variation — most of the world’s earliest cars looked similar, even between different manufacturers.

As time led on, the 1950’s presented a highly-increased production volume. Since wood has natural variations, such as knots, the material became too difficult and time-consuming to work with. Manufacturers discovered that steel’s strength and reliability were more efficient, which put an end to wooden variants.

Today, cars rarely use wooden parts. Most car manufacturers are beginning to move toward bioplastics. Bioplastics derive from renewable sources, such as vegetable fats, oils, corn starch, pea starch and microbiota. Most bioplastics are designed to biodegrade in aerobic environments, leading to more eco-friendly vehicles. There are special coatings used to turn off biodegrading while a vehicle is being used. Upon a crash that can’t be repaired, applied heat and water can cause bioplastics to safely break down into compost.

Toyota’s 1/x Hybrid contains seaweed in its bioplastic exterior. In fact, Toyota has noted that it wants to replace 20 percent of its plastics with bioplastics by 2015. Mazda is beginning to incorporate non-food based bioplastics, and finds that the light-weight materials lead to increased fuel efficiency and better performance.

It may be well over a century since wooden vehicles were popular, but car makers have made it clear that natural materials are still desired. Overflowing landfills and junk yards call for a better alternative. Whether cars are made out of wood, steel or seaweed, environmentalists continue to positively push their main goal: reuse and recycle.