Meet The Progenitor Of The Carbon Fiber Chassis

Photo credit: McLaren
Photo credit: McLaren

In 1981, McLaren won the British Grand Prix with the world’s first carbon fiber monocoque race car, the MP4/1. Today, all high-end road cars use the same technology, and we can thank John Barnard (and Salt Lake City) for that.

When John Bernard got back from the United States after working on the first IndyCar utilizing ground effect technology, he knew McLaren had time to cook up something entirely different for the 1981 season. The challenge was to come up with a smaller monocoque that provided the same torsional rigidity than the complex aluminum structure they used before, freeing up more space for a wide flat underbody.

Based on what he saw at British Aerospace, Barnard wanted to make the new car out of carbon fiber, to which Ron Dennis – being Ron Dennis – said something like “yeah, great, if you think you can do that.” The only problem was that McLaren had no autoclave for the job at the time, and the British companies capable of helping them out had zero interest in such a crazy project.

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Photo credit: McLaren
Photo credit: McLaren

Luckily, Barnard knew some more imaginative chaps in Salt Lake City, working at a company called Hercules Industries, which made nuclear missile rocket engines before getting into the carbon fiber game.

After checking in their 1/3 fiberglass scale model, all the tooling and drawings on a plane, the British-American dream team ended up with a carbon tub made of five pieces instead of a hundred pieces like before.

The first prototype was just as heavy as the aluminum cars, but after taking out enough layers without weakening the monocoque, their 1981 race car turned out to be 30% lighter than the previous one. And just 16 months after Ron Dennis gave this ambitious idea the green light, the MP4/1 won the British Grand Prix at Silverstone.

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While the victory itself could not convince everybody, after John Watson put his car into the barrier at 150mph at Monza during practice only to climb out of it unharmed, even the civil aviation experts started to take notes at Woking.

A decade later, the McLaren F1 hit the streets at a very fast pace using the same technology, and McLaren hasn’t built a racing car or road car without a carbon chassis ever since.

The F1s might be $13 million cars today, but McLaren will also give you a carbon monocoque in the name of the 540C at $165,000, based on their upgraded MonoCell II chassis.

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With its lowered sills and generous legroom, it’s a much more comfortable setup than the MP4/1's was.

Photo credit: McLaren
Photo credit: McLaren
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European writer of Jalopnik, based in Budapest.

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DISCUSSION

Fun Fact! The same company (which later became ATK which later became Orbital ATK) also did the failure analysis of the Takata airbag inflators after Takata couldn't figure it out themselves. They know energetic materials and were able to determine that the mixture Takata used lacked sufficient desiccant material which is what allowed moisture to affect the explosive properties. Despite their being a solid rocket propulsion company (and now a launch vehicle integrator as well), they're friends of the cars. Now if only their propulsion systems could make their way into something I can drive, even if it is only on the salt flats.