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Musings on the Motoring World

Classic cars are adopting future manufacturing tech

Of all the debuts that were to get its time in the spotlight at the aborted 2020 Geneva Motor Show, the Czinger 21C promised to be one of the most interesting newcomers to the ultra-exclusive club of exotic performance cars. The reveal of the 21C’s tandem seating, 1:1 power-to-weight ratio, sub-2sec 0-100km/h claim, and 2.88-litre twin-turbo V8 with an 11,000rpm rev limit certainly got plenty hot under their collars. 

More than just a collection of numbers to excite excitable performance enthusiasts, the 21C intrigues at a more cerebral level. According to Czinger, parts of the 21C’s structure is built using the wonders of 3D printing, which enables engineers to design and produce parts that utilise complex and organic shapes that were previously unachievable through conventional production means. This meant that Czinger’s engineers were able to pare the weight of the car down to an anemic 1233kg. 

3D printing, like carbon-fibre, is one of the most eagerly anticipated technologies that futurists have been gargling on about. Many have hailed it as the tech that will revolutionise the automotive world.

With both technologies applied in various other fields, particularly in aircraft manufacturing, it would only be a matter of time for the technology to trickle down to us plebs. The 21C is as good of a proof that the dream of a 3D printed car is close at hand, just as carbon-fibre cars are becoming more mainstream. 

While we are on the subject of carbon-fibre cars becoming mainstream, it is rather not encouraging to look at the numbers. Sure, nowadays there are more cars in the market that utilise carbon-fibre in its structure than ever before.

BMW was one of the first to demonstrate the viability of using carbon-fibre to produce a daily runabout like the i3. Alfa Romeo also put its chips for its North American market revival on the “realistically-affordable” carbon-fibre bodied 4C sports car.

Despite costs for producing cars with full carbon-fibre chassis and bodies have come down dramatically in the last few decades, from 35 times the price of steel to just ten, it is still 10 times more expensive to manufacture than conventional steel. Not to mention, producing a component out of carbon-fibre is still more time consuming and labour-intensive. Unlike the rapid rate from which conventional metal components are stamped out from a stamping die, human hands are still needed to painstakingly lay the carbon-fibre sheets in the production of every panel.

Adding to that, recent advancements in metallurgy has made it possible for new grades of high-strength steels to even supplant aluminium in both costs and weight. Not to mention, engineers have taken great strides in chassis design. Toyota’s engineers claim that the Supra’s metal chassis is structurally stiffer than the Lexus LFA’s carbon-fibre chassis produced a decade before. This begs the question, is there any cost-benefit to having a carbon-fibre chassis or body? 

We don’t need to look far for an answer than the fates of BMW’s i3 and i8, and the 4C. Touted as pioneers in “affordable” carbon-fibre manufacturing, these cars were far from paragons of success. Regardless of whether it was the i3 and i8‘s avant-garde looks, or Alfa Romeo’s sordid reputation for rust, that had contributed to its less than stellar sales, the fact that nobody but pundits seem to be fawning over the exotic materials used in its construction is pretty damning. 

For now, it is too early to tell if Czinger’s revolutionary methods of engineering and production would draw conversations and customers. Kevin Czinger, the founder of Czinger Vehicles, is hopeful that the radical 3D printing production techniques used for the 21C would change the way we produce cars.

Developed by Divergent 3D, a company Czinger himself founded in 2011, the production techniques are said to be able to produce 3D printed parts that are better, cheaper, and more environmentally friendly than parts that are produced on the traditional production line. The 21C is ultimately a proof-in-concept of the technologies Czinger wants to introduce to the world, and even PSA Group’s head honcho, Carlos Tavares, seems optimistic. 

Does that mean we will see a “realistically-affordable” 3D printed car in the near future? That will be the million-dollar question in the years to come. Considering that the best example we have to go on for now is a limited-edition USD1.7million supercar, prospects aren’t looking too favourable.

Adding to that, one has to wonder what the chances of a newcomer like Czinger has in changing the ways of the automotive world when even an icon like Gordon Murray wasn’t even able to convince others to adopt his revolutionary production techniques.  

What is certain is that these developments won’t be for naught. Even if mainstream manufacturers aren’t able to make a business case out of carbon-fibre and 3D printing on a wider scale, there is one place where the technology seems to be gaining traction, and that is the world of restomods

Already restomod specialists like Gunthewerks and Alfaholics, along with low-volume boutique manufacturers like Ruf, have produced faithful recreations of classic cars out of carbon-fibre. Just as it is in the aircraft business, high-paying clientele and low-volume requirements make the manufacturing process an ideal fit. 

Likewise, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch of the imagination for classic car specialists to recreate especially rare parts through the wonders of 3D printing. Nissan is already using unconventional low-volume production techniques to reproduce parts for the R32 Skyline GT-R, and there are enthusiasts who are enlisting the help of 3D printing hobbyists to produce out-of-production replacement parts for old jalopies. 

Even as the costs for carbon-fibre and 3D printing manufacturing technologies come down, it is still unlikely that it would be able to close the cost gap and economies of scale the automotive industry is demanding nowadays.

Things aren’t all that better in the realm of high-end exotics where double-ton electric cars are proving that weight is just a number and outgunning its double-ton-capable supercar rivals on the strip. Not to mention hefty hybrid performance cars have proven its worth over its lighter and more traditional contemporaries. Even Porsche is fitting magnesium bits to its lightweight 911 GT3 RS rather than carbon-fibre.

Ironically, the “hands-on” process of producing carbon-fibre is almost a modern-day rendition of the traditional skills and methods of the coachbuilding industry.

Furthermore, 3D printing allows today’s engineers to easily produce more intricate and thoroughly designed parts for classic cars than what was afforded back in its day. The possibilities these new technologies bring to the classic car world is endless. Where volumes are low, price expectations are higher, and flexibility being an asset, the possibilities are far greater to make a difference. 

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