From Wood to Steel: Evolution of the Car Body

The automobile would never have been possible without the invention of both the internal combustion and the metal chassis that holds the essential components of a motor-driven vehicle together. Both were developed more or less from scratch by early inventors and experimenters.

Early auto body makers, on the other hand, had centuries of experience and knowledge to draw from in the long-honored tradition of carriage making. Long before the first gas-powered engines were built, horse-drawn coaches carried passengers not only around their local communities but across the country. So it makes sense that the first automobiles were made with wooden bodies. It was a proven approach that had worked beautifully for centuries.

Cars built prior to 1900 were limited in design by the peculiarities of most species of wood, which can only be bent into simple shapes by applying steam and pressure. Thus, most autos were simple, boxy shapes, not unlike the stage coaches and farm wagons they were destined to replace.

Morgan Plus 4
Morgan Plus 4

This began to change early in the 20th century, with the development of metal fabrication technologies that allowed steel and aluminum to be made in sheets that could be molded into virtually any shape imaginable. In 1916, Dodge was the first automaker to offer a vehicle with an all-steel body.

These advances were followed by drop- and power-hammering in the century’s first decade, and then by drawing and stamping, which came along by the mid-30s. All of these new ways of forging metal made auto bodies stronger and more durable than ever, in turn making all-steel car bodies the standard by the end of the 1930s. The use of wood in auto construction gradually diminished, with American automakers phasing out their classic “woodie” wagons in the 1950s. Today, the only manufacturer that uses wood for other than internal decoration is Morgan Motors of Great Britain. It uses ash, a particularly strong type of hardwood, for the body substructure (not the chassis) of its Aero Eight.

Photo Credit: Flickr/CGoulao, Carwalls

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