NEWS: Splinter: Wooden Supercar - Got Wood?

December 22, 2008
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Yes, this is a wooden car. Forget the jokes. Anyone making more than mere decorative use of wood in an automobile has heard them all. And doesn't care. Wood is a magnificent structural material, "God's own composite," proclaimed the late Frank Costin, the brilliant technologist behind the glorious shapes of early Lotus cars, the Vanwall Formula 1 car, and-significantly-the plywood chassis of the Marcos in which a young Jim Clark won some of his first races.
Three years ago, Joe Harmon, a twenty-eight-year-old industrial design graduate student at North Carolina State University, thought it would be instructive to make a wood supercar for his master's thesis, including some of the running gear and-unlike the Marcos-all of the bodywork. "I wanted to show that wood isn't an antiquated, low-technology material," Harmon says.
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He cogitated, querying instructors, friends, and family. All agreed it was a worthy project. Artist Ben Bruzga and fellow ID students, in particular Luke Jenkins, volunteered to do a lot of the work, and Harmon's physician father agreed to subsidize reasonable costs. That included buying a house in Durham, building a workshop/garage behind it, and investing in some major tools, such as a huge laminating press. Fortunately, woodworking tool manufacturers Porter-Cable and Delta are supporting sponsors and provided much of the equipment. Harmon met Canadian fashion design student Caroline Sulatycki when both were in Lund, Sweden, for an overseas semester and persuaded her to join him in life and in the Splinter adventure. She apparently is a demon with a sanding block, contributing enormously to the complex construction project and rallying the troops while still managing her own education at UNC Greensboro.
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To achieve Harmon's goal of a fully fluid body surface, the team had to invent a wood veneer cloth to use in place of more usual glass-fiber or carbon-fiber weaves. That meant designing and developing specific looms, acquiring rolls of veneer five inches wide, slitting it into bands sixty feet long and an eighth- or a quarter-inch wide, weaving it into cloth to place in female molds, and then vacuum bagging it with epoxy resin. Those looms-wood, of course-are works of art, using wooden clothespins machined to feed veneer strips through their jaws. With too much tension, they slipped; if there wasn't enough tension, rubber bands attached to the clothespins compensated. It was wonderfully elegant, wonderfully simple. Once it was imagined.
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Imagination is the principal element in the project. Harmon pushed wood use as far as he could: every element of the steering column, apart from the metal rack-and-pinion unit, is made of various species. The transverse leaf springs are formed of osage orange wood. Even the tie rods are hickory. There is extensive use of plywood, as in the suspension control arms, but every square inch was laid and press-laminated in-house, including the impressive spiders for the composite nineteen- and twenty-inch wheels.
Those wheels represent one of the biggest unknowns. Despite a fifteen-degree conical taper meant to spread loads over more wood fibers, Harmon thinks that the massive torque of his modified Cadillac Northstar engine may rip out the centers. To get heat away from the wooden structure, he has swapped the cylinder heads left to right so the exhaust ports are inboard, with the headers coming out the top of the engine below huge vents. The transaxle is a six-speed Corvette unit, which helps push the cockpit well forward, despite the 104.8-inch wheelbase. The hull weighs about 1100 pounds, and Harmon expects the final curb weight to be approximately 2500 pounds.
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Some styling compromises had to be made to keep costs down. The windshield came from a Dodge Caravan and isn't exactly what was first sketched. The body was initially executed as a wood and Bondo male model, after which fiberglass female molds were created. The final veneer cloth was carefully laid so the surface patterns lined up aesthetically, just as a good tailor juggles his cloth for a pinstripe suit. In terms of appearance, there are some minor student-level styling lapses, but overall the ironically named Splinter is a magnificent object. A year from now, we should be able to drive one of the most fascinating American projects in many years. Harmon hopes that the Splinter will help him find a good job in design. Depending on what happens to the economy, we think he might find himself manufacturing supercars instead.
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