Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Now that’s what I call a real woody

For those of us who came of age in a kinder, gentler time, the word “woody” has no vulgar or off-color connotations (I guess as long as you leave Woody Allen out of the mix).

To us, “woody” can only mean Woody Woodpecker (“Ho-ho-ho-ho-ho, ho-ho-ho-ho-ho. That’s the Woody Woodpecker song.”) Or - as we got a bit older and the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean convinced us that you really weren’t a normal, Gidget-y, red-blooded WoodyAmerican teenager unless you lived in California -  a wood-paneled station wagon, when driven by a surfer dude. Just off the top of my head, I can come up with four popular early-sixties songs the mentioned woodies in them:

  • Surf City (“I’ve got a ‘34 wagon and we call it a woody – Surf City, here we come – You know it’s not very cherry, it’s an oldie but a goodie – Surf City, here we come.”)
  • Surfer Joe (“Down in Doheny, where the surfers all go, there’s a big bleach-blondie name of Surfer Joe. He’s got a green surfboard, and a woody to match, and when he's riding the waves, man, is he hard to catch.”)
  • New York’s a Lonely Town, When You’re the Only Surfer Boy Around (“My woody’s outside, covered with snow – nowhere to go…”)
  • Surfin’ Safari (“We’re loading up our woody with our boards inside”)

While the woodies of song and surfin’ had wooden panels, plenty of early car models were built with wooden frames, and sometimes even the cab/passenger section. Over time, steel won out, and wood was, for the most part, relegated to those Country Squire wooden panels, and the dashboards of de lux cars.

Sure, the Pinewood Derby continues to use wood, but you can’t actually sit in, let alone drive, a Pinewood Derby car anywhere.

But wooden cars are making a comeback.

At an upcoming car show,

Finnish papermaker UPM-Kymmene will showcase an eco-friendly wooden car whose frame is built from tree pulp and plywood; the vehicle also runs on fuel made from papermaking byproducts. (Source: Business Week.)

A papermaker, eh? Does this mean that if I get a 3D printer I can print a car on demand? Farewell Zipcar, adios Uber…

The Helsinki-based timber company sees wood as a viable option to replace heavy steel components in cars. “Everyone is striving for lightness now,” says John Heitmann, a professor of history at the University of Dayton and president of the Society of Automotive Historians. “The only real constraint is forming body panels that are rigid enough to meet safety requirements.”

Which, having passed European crash tests, UPM’sunder wraps car does.

I wanted to check out just what a new age woody would look like, but I guess they’re keeping it under wraps until the big show. Reportedly, it looks like a “normal” car, not a sloppily carved up wood-block Pinewood Derby entrant.

Wooden construction in cars is eco-friendly, aimed at reducing a car’s weight and thus its fuel consumption.  It also uses less energy to manufacture.

“The more expensive energy becomes, the more likely this type of trend will continue,” says Joe Harmon, the designer of the wood-based Splinter, a concept car made in 2008 to demonstrate wood’s potential. “Wood uses very little energy in manufacturing, especially when compared with aluminum, steel, and carbon fiber.”

Other car companies are turning to aluminum and carbon-fiber to keep the weight down, and Renault is planning to use hemp to replace some plastics. (Hemp replacing plastics. Am I the only one channeling The Graduate here?)

UPM, by the by, is diversifying into wooden car components, and other wood-based products, because of the decline in demand for newsprint, which was its mainstay product for well over a hundred years.

It’s not clear that UPM will be able to convince car manufacturers to drop steel in favor of wood pulp.

Carmakers have equipped factories with costly stamping machines, and their engineers and designers are experts in metal engineering and production. The extra investment in equipment and know-how to introduce plant-based materials might be more than they’re willing to take on right now.

But the day will no doubt come when we see a new generation of woodies hit the road.

Surf’s up!

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