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600 HP, with a Crisp and Clean Pine Scent

By Lizzie Buchen
Apr 29, 2008 12:01 AMNov 5, 2019 8:43 AM


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There are some things that most people think should never be made out of wood—things that produce extreme heat through a combustion process, say, or things that could collide with an oncoming semi at 190 mph while carrying human cargo. But you never know unless you try—so a group of industrial design grad students at North Carolina State are taking on the absurdly ambitious, and very cool, task of building a high-powered, high-speed automobile out of wood, held together mostly by glue. The specs are impressive—over 600 hp, top speed of 190 mph, zero to 60 in just over three seconds, 2,500 pounds, and 20 mpg—but it's all pretty hypothetical at the moment (as are, I assume, the Lambo-style doors). But the aptly named "Splinter" isn't just a bunch of two-by-fours nailed together. The students are using the project to explore the potential of wood as a building material, so pretty much every part contains wood composites, like plywood. The car also contains a fair amount of glass and metal—including the shocks and a Cadillac Northstar sourced V-8 combustion engine. The wood constraints have resulted in some impressive innovations. To keep the engine's extreme heat off the wood, the students, led by Joe Harmon, reversed the flow of the cylinder heads to run the exhaust off the top of the engine. They also integrated the muffler into a rear wing, serving to both dissipate the heat outside and create downward pressure for hugging curves. To build wheels that can take 190 mph and spin nice donuts in the high school parking lot, they stacked rotary cut oak veneers that turned out to be quite pretty—although on their website they note that "there will be some crossed fingers the first time the clutch gets dumped at 5000 rpm." As for the suspension system: Wood doesn't lend itself easily to absorbing bumps, so Harmon and his group drove out to Kentucky to get some osage orange—a heavy, strong, flexible wood—and cut it into veneer to make "a stiffer version of a longbow," which they put to use as leaf spring suspension (in combination with some metal and actual shocks). Although wood has a higher strength-to-weight ratio than aluminum or steel, is impressively versatile in composite form, and smells nice, it's too early to tell whether it will have any sort of presence in the future supercar industry—carbon fiber is stronger, lighter, and easier to mold (though significantly more expensive). But the designer's website insists that they "aren't trying to sell anything, aren't trying to save the world, and aren't advocating that everyone should drive a wooden car." Image credit: meeshy meesh/Flickr

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