The first auto body designers and builders represented what was already an old established craft.
People had been traveling in wheeled carriages for hundreds and hundreds of years. But at the dawn of the 20th century, they would be powered not by horses or some other draft animal, but by some sort of motive power. It mattered little to early body builders if vehicles were propelled by a gasoline engine, electric power or steam. Their task was to create a conveyance that would carry people---period. The body builders contended that if the carriage designs of the late 1800s were good enough for horses, they were good enough for engines. And so it was that wood was the first automotive substrate.
One of the earliest references to an automotive body comes from the story of a doctor in Youngstown, OH. In June 1895, Dr. Carlos Booth experienced a runaway situation with his wagon and team of horses. Not wanting to experience that again, he designed a motor vehicle and commissioned a local shop to build it. Among its many features was a “body designed to hide the engine and the mechanisms of the vehicle.” (This is perhaps the earliest reference to an automobile body that served primarily as an aesthetic portion of the vehicle.) He is purportedly the first doctor in American to make house calls in a motor vehicle. It’s unknown if his car ever needed body work.
A short time later, in 1897, a car named the Hugot hit the street with a wicker body. It was certainly light-weight. The bad news was it couldn’t take much of a hit.
The first U.S.- built auto to use a steel body (in the midst of a world of wooden bodies) was the 1901 Eastman Steamer. The first to have an aluminum body was the 1902 Marmon. Both the Eastman and Marmon were built with all-wood frames to which metal panels were pinned. For the most part, cars were primarily made of wood or wood and some steel. The wooden body panels of those early cars restricted body designers. Wood can only be steamed and bent into simple curves. When applied to wooden frames, the body panels of one make of car looked pretty much like those of any other make. When sheet steel and aluminum came along, this sameness in appearance started to change.
If you think using adhesives to hold car bodies together is something new in the 21st century, think again. Body engineers used casein-based glue to hold early wooden body members together on the Cadillac, Columbia, Locomobile and Peerless from 1898 to 1904. Casein is a chemical found in milk, which is highly water-resistant.
Many people point to 1979--1980 as the beginning of the age of the unibody car. However, in 1916 the Ruler Auto Company manufactured 3,000 unibody vehicles dubbed the Ruler Frameless. Body members were fashioned into tubular form to give metal the rigidity it needed to do without a frame. The engine and suspension members rested on a platform.
In October 1919, the Detroit Auto Dealers Association held the first “Closed Car Salon” auto show featuring only closed-body vehicles. Open-body vehicles were the norm of the time, but more and more were closing them. Oddly, many people did not like closed-body vehicles and considered them too ostentatious, not unlike “riding around in a display case.” The enclosed body, largely made of wood, was a cabinet-maker’s work of art. However, building it was arduous and time-consuming. The final product was not light, silent, nor especially durable. But it gave rise to the need for body technicians. The growing use of stamped metal parts would soon speed the process of coach-building.
By the 1920s, some wood and sheet metal was being replaced with a new material---Vehisote. Not unlike the use of aluminum today, Vehisote was lighter weight and more versatile for the growing size of vehicle and light truck bodies. The Agasote Millboard Company was founded in England in 1909, producing a sort of fiberboard made from recycled paper and glue formed into 4 X 8 foot sheets under extreme heat and pressure. (This sounds a lot like today’s plywood.) The process was brought to the U.S., and in 1915 various car companies began using the large sheets to create roofs on cars made of both wood and steel. The sheets were also known as “Vehisote,” part of the “Homosote” family of products. Vehisote was a favorite material for building truck bodies in the 1920s.
By the 1930s, most car companies were using the body-on-frame car-building format that would last for more than 40 years! But not everyone “got the memo.” In 1940, the Budd Company of Detroit was the first to create what is known today as a unibody construction vehicle. Nash Motors was the first automaker to contract with Budd for the new body format.
And then there was this: Time magazine of August 25, 1941 reported, “The first plastic car was shown by Henry Ford in Dearborn last week. His plastic, consisting of 70 percent cellulose, derived from hemp, sisal and wheatstraw, with a resin binder, is made of soybeans, wheat, cotton, hides, plus a few imported, now hard-to-get ingredients including cork, rubber, tung oil. The material was supposedly lighter than steel and could withstand 10 times the impact.” It sounds like the “grandfather” of high-strength steel.
In 1943, Boeing Aircraft Company designed an automobile slated for post-war production. Its design, not surprisingly, was heavily influenced by aircraft design, featuring a 75HP rear engine and an all-aluminum body. It never reached production, but its development underscores the fact that aluminum for cars bodies is not a new idea.
In the 1950s, Chevrolet introduced the fiberglass-bodied Corvette. Studebaker would build its Avanti with fiberglass in the 1960s.
Around 2006, car makers started combining aluminum bolt-on parts, like doors, hoods or trunk lids with bodies that were otherwise made of steel. It seemed like a unique idea at the time and a great way to save weight to increase fuel mileage---but it was certainly not new. In 1963, the Dodge Polara was available in a special package with weight-saving aluminum front fenders, bumper and hood with a custom hood scoop. The aluminum saved about 150 pounds, less weight for… “the 426 engine and automatic transmission to push down the drag strip or around a NASCAR track.”
Some technicians consider use of “glue” or epoxy to keep pieces of a car together as too new and heretical and something that will never work. If a part is not bolted, riveted or welded together, how will it ever hold? Yet, in 1984 Volvo announced the use of epoxy to tack-weld body parts together, thus reducing the number of conventional spot welds from 4,000 to 500.
Granted, body building, body-building material and the way automobile bodies must be repaired have seen some dramatic changes in a relatively short time, beginning with the Obama administration in January 2009 and the massive changes made to CAFÉ standards. But changes in the way vehicles are built and the way they need to be repaired have changed many times over the automobile’s history and will continue to evolve.