Exotic Wood Supercar Coming to Food Lion AutoFair
There are many obvious termite jokes to be made about a car built from wood, but when the exotic wooden supercar named "Splinter" is displayed during the April 2-5 Food Lion AutoFair at Charlotte Motor Speedway, no one will be laughing.
Mooresville, N.C., resident Joe Harmon, an industrial design graduate of North Carolina State University in Raleigh, chose to explore the versatility of wood as a 21st century automotive material for his graduate project. He ambitiously decided to build a two-seat, mid-engine vehicle with supercar performance that would showcase the beauty and strength of tree fiber.
"I have always wanted to design and build my own car and graduate school seemed like the perfect time to do it," said Harmon. "Besides, having a whole car to show someone at a job interview beats just about anything else you could bring."
Splinter was inspired by Harmon's admiration for the World War II-era de Havilland Mosquito, a British twin-engine fighter-bomber built entirely of birch, balsa and other species of wood.
"I figured that if England could build a 415-mph airplane 70 years ago out of laminated plywood and primitive glue, then I should be able to use composite wood technologies and modern adhesives to create a rigid and reliable 200-mph automobile," said Harmon.
Because of the project's unusual nature, every part had to be designed, tested, broken, re-tested and perfected. Whole machines had to be invented. Some of his techniques were developed on the fly.
When Harmon says his team built this car from the ground up, he's not exaggerating.
"We began by designing the wheels," he said. "For each wheel, we made 10 laminated wood spokes from rotary-cut oak veneer, then connected them to a forged aluminum rim. Then we decorated the spokes with walnut and ash accents.
"Wood-spoke wheels have not been used on production cars in nearly 90 years, so we knew the idea would get a lot of attention."
To create the 21st century body, Harmon's team ran 60-foot strips of cherry veneer through a homemade slicing machine powered by a 1,000-pound hand-cranked winch attached to the trailer hitch of a pickup truck. The one-eighths-inch-wide strips were then fed into a custom-built wood loom, resulting in a strong woven mat. Harmon combined those large mats, other wood veneers, vacuum pressure and Space-Age epoxy to produce the car's superlight exterior panels in body molds he made from a full-size Splinter mockup.
The single transverse-mounted leaf spring - a major component of the car's front suspension - sent the Splinter group to Kentucky to locate logs of osage-orange wood, some of the strongest wood in the country. Its flexibility and ready availability in prairie states made it the perfect material for Native American longbows and, as Harmon discovered, long leaf springs.
"The Splinter's wood leaf spring is as strong as the fiberglass component Chevrolet puts at the rear of its Corvette," he said. "Our design has one benefit theirs doesn't - we can adjust this one by adding or shaving layers of lamination."
Harmon considered creating an experimental power plant for his project, but wisely realized his team already had enough parts to research and develop. He chose an aluminum 4.6-liter Northstar V-8 with four-valve heads and installed a pair of Roots-type superchargers and four air-to-water intercoolers. Never content to do anything the easy way, the Splinter crew reversed the flow of the cylinder heads in order to mount custom-bent exhaust pipes on top of the engine. This labor-intensive chore was undertaken to keep heat as far from the engine compartment's wood panels as possible. The pipes empty into a single muffler that doubles as the car's rear wing - yet another unusual innovation.
With its wind-cheating body, 700-horsepower V-8 and economy-car curb weight, the Splinter should be good for 200 mph. Harmon says he has put too much of his adult life into the project to risk damaging it with such a test, but not for the reasons you might think.
"People are always asking me if I'm afraid the Splinter would catch fire because it is made of wood," said Harmon. "That's not a big concern.
Just about every car on the road is carrying gallons of some combustible liquid in its tank. In an accident, a tank or line can rupture, spilling fuel on something that's hot enough to ignite, so no car is entirely fireproof.
"It just happens that our car has more material to burn than a Rolls-Royce or Prius."
The wooden two-seater made its debut at the International Woodworking Fair in Atlanta last August, where it stole the show, temporarily taking attention from the latest table saws and cabinet-making tools.
"Getting the public's reaction to the Splinter was priceless," said Harmon. "Unfortunately, it also brings out some bad jokes. People ask if I'm going to enter it in the Pinewood Derby. One guy said we ‘nailed' the design.
"My favorite comment was that it looked like something Pinocchio would use to pick up women."
Harmon and the Splinter group worked seven days a week for two years to complete the project, which earned him a "pass" for his pass/fail graduate studies. As Harmon predicted, building a wooden car from scratch was a good résumé builder - he was immediately hired by Corvid Technologies in Mooresville, an engineering company with projects ranging from car design to aerodynamic development.
The Splinter will be displayed with several other Breakthrough Designs during the April 2-5 Food Lion AutoFair, including some of legendary Ed "Big Daddy" Roth's custom creations. For more information on the Splinter, including photos and video of its construction, visit www.joeharmondesign.com.
The spring Food Lion AutoFair annually attracts more than 120,000 visitors. It features more than 50 car club displays and more than 10,000 vendor spaces that offer a huge array of automotive parts and memorabilia.
More than 2,000 collectible vehicles of all makes and models will be available for sale in the car corral that rings the 1.5-mile superspeedway.
Food Lion AutoFair hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $10 for adults, while children 12 and under are admitted free when accompanied by an adult.
Parking for the event is $5.
For more information, contact the Charlotte Motor Speedway events department at (704) 455-3205 or visit the event page online.