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Chunky, Spunky, and Cheap PUBLIC ACCESS

World Cars Get Ready to Take on the Needs of Emerging Economies.

[+] Author Notes

Alan S. Brown is a technical writer based in Dayton, N-J.

Mechanical Engineering 121(09), 50-54 (Sep 01, 1999) (5 pages) doi:10.1115/1.1999-SEP-1

Most companies are applying innovative engineering ways and making unusual compromises to meet their target. One company, for example, plans to power its cars with remanufactured Volkswagen engines. Another wants to build a taxi with only two doors. The two-door Buddy taxi is meant to handle highways, dirt roads, and no road at all. Mud on the tires is part of the advertising pitch. Designers and engineers developing world cars have rarely worked for Detroit's Big Three. Many of them trace their fascination with cars back to the days when they built hot rods in their garages. Automotive Design & Composites Ltd. of San Antonio, Texas, plans to produce an inexpensive multipurpose truck, which it calls the MPT. It has teamed with Global Industries Inc. of Carson City, Nev., which will supply parts and train future factory workers. World cars also have low part counts, usually in the range of 400 to 500.

It's Easy to Recognize automobiles built in Detroit, Tokyo, or Stuttgart. Their beguiling images flow fluidly along the rainy coastal highways of our dreams. Their lines entice. Their paint shimmers. With their flickering electronics, sensors, and motors, they seem almost sentient.

America's love affair with cars plays well in other nations. In Europe, Japan, and the go-go economies of the Far East, automobiles are more than practical people movers. They make a statement about their owners.

But there 's a catch. Cars may play well everywhere, but not everyone can afford them. Elegant, sporty, or sturdy, image comes with a hefty price tag. According to the US. Office of Automotive Affairs, the average US. car cost $18,565 in 1996. Three years later, it costs even more.

That leaves out the world's emerging economies. Once called the Third World or less-developed countries, they are nations that have not established an industrial base, much less entered the comuputer age. Agriculture still dominates. Few mechanics or spare parts exist outside urban areas. And while they may pave their main thoroughfares, most of the roads crisscrossing their cities and countryside are dirt. In rainy seasons, which may last for months, they turn to mud.

Worse still, these nations are poor. They cannot support conventional automobile factories. Nor can even successful citizens afford imports, since high tariffs often raise the price to twice what it would be in the West. The combination of poor populations, ruinous climate, and nonexistent infrastructure does not attract major automakers. They would rather sell to developing nations, such as those along the Pacific Rim, where income is growing rapidly.

Nor do the transportation needs of emerging nations generate much interest from universities, trade associations, or government funding agencies. Researchers prefer to focus on alternative vehicles that use clean fuels, such as natural gas liquids, hydrogen, or electric batteries, to reduce pollution.

Not everyone, however, is ignoring the problems of emerging economies. A handful of companies see an opportunity to create a new kind of car, a world car, engineered specifically to meet the needs of have-little cultures.

These are maverick automakers, who have turned their backs on Detroit's dream of a lean, mean, driving machine. Instead, they envision something chunky, spunky, and more than a little bit funky.

The world car engineering challenge is huge: Build a car rugged enough to stand up to the worst driving conditions imaginable. Simplify manufacture, assembly, and maintenance by whittling down the 5,000 parts that go into a conventional car to 400 or 500 components. Create a design flexible enough to transform into taxis, pickups, vans, or minibuses with only minimal modification.

Above all, keep it cheap. Most companies are applying innovative engineering and making unusual compromises to meet that target. One company, for example, plans to power its cars with remanufactured Volkswagen engines. Another wants to build a taxi with only two doors.

To meet price targets, world car makers cannot export vehicles to emerging nations. Tariffs would drive prices too high. Instead, they seek to build or license microfactories to make cars in the countries where they will be sold. Some of these microfactories could be as small as 10,000 square feet, about the size of two basketball courts, and manufacture only one car per day.

The two-door Buddy taxi is meant to handle highways, dirt roads, and no road at all. Mud on the tires is part of the advertising pitch.

Grahic Jump LocationThe two-door Buddy taxi is meant to handle highways, dirt roads, and no road at all. Mud on the tires is part of the advertising pitch.

Microfactories embody the antithesis of today's high-tech computerized automotive plants. Gone are the automated assembly lines, high-tech robotic welders, and climate-controlled paint chambers. In their place are template-based construction methods, pigmented plastics that do not require paint, and lots of low-cost manual labor.

Designers and engineers developing world cars have rarely worked for Detroit's Big Three. Many of them trace their fascination with cars back to the days when they built hot rods in their garages. Many went on to design kit cars that graced the pages of auto enthusiast magazines during the 1960s and 1970s.

Robert Q. Riley typifies the inventiveness of the designers. He was one of the first to design a really popular build-it-yourself vehicle, the Urba Car, which graced the cover of Mechanix Illustrated in 1974. Riley calls it "1930s-level automotive technology redone in the 1970s."

What Riley sold (and still sells) is a booklet describing how to build the 650- pound Urba Car using a chain-driven Kohler 16- horsepower industrial engine and a simple transmission of the type usually found on snowmobiles. The vehicle reaches 60 mph and gets 55 mpg. "We sold 10,000 plans," Riley said.

Kit cars came next and were much more elaborate. They consisted of molded exterior panels, suspension and engine parts, and interior fixtures that allowed garage mechanics to transform one car into another.

One kit, for example, metamorphoses a Datsun 240 into a Ferrari 250 GTO Le Mans race car. It was designed by Tom McBirney, whose Thunder Ranch operation developed the jet-black Ferrari Daytona 365 GTB/4 that Don Johnson drove in Miami Vice. The car was actually a McBirney kit on top of a Corvette chassis. Ferrari and McBirney later got into a legal wrangle when McBirney refi.lsed to remove the Ferrari emblem f1:om the car. Ferrari sued and the show eventually replaced the McBirney kit with a factory-made Ferrari Testarossa.

McBirney developed a number of innovative manufacturing techniques to make low-volume shells for his cars. He couldn't work with metal, since metal stamping tools were far too expensive for such low-volume products. Instead, he found inexpensive ways to create composites with lustrous finishes and the stiffness needed for his kits.

Many of these approaches were later taken up by world car producers. McBirney also collaborated with University of Texas associate professor John Eftekhar to build the island car, an inexpensive composite minibus developed for use in the Caribbean. It was a short conceptual jump from corrosion-resistant island cars to inexpensive multipurpose world cars.

McBirney was originally a partner in world car developer Composite Automobile Research Ltd. in El Cajon, Calif., the same town as McBirney's Thunder Ranch operation. He later parted ways with CAR and hooked up with a competitor, B.A.T. Industries of Burbank, Calif. CAR eventually sued B.A.T., which wanted to use McBirney's production techniques to make cars of its own. The suit has been settled.

Not every business transaction is this acrimonious, but automaking is a small industry. All the designers and engineers know one another, either personally or by reputation. Most set up shop on the California coast.

"In this industry, you're dealing with hot rodders," said Bill Matthews, CAR's director of operations. "What has happened, 20 years later, is that a lot of these people have gotten smarter. This is no longer seat-of- the-pants stuff."

The Asha body concept , on which the Buddy is built, uses stainless steel tubes bent with minimal sweeps and assembled by hand.

Grahic Jump LocationThe Asha body concept , on which the Buddy is built, uses stainless steel tubes bent with minimal sweeps and assembled by hand.

While kit cars have made it to television and magazine covers, world cars have garnered little notice so far. With several entrepreneurial companies setting up factories, that may change.

CAR expects that the first plant to make its WorldStar vehicle will open in Santander de Quilichao, Colombia, in October. It is part of a $2.6 million deal between a CAR subsidiary, World Transport Authority, and WorldStar Andino Inc., a Colombian venture set up to build as many as 24 of the small carmaking factories in ·Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama.

In June, WTA signed a $4 million deal with Industria Automotriz Mexicana SA de CV, a Tijuana-based group of government and business investors that plans to open as many as 10 microfactories in Mexico and the Caribbean over the next five years. WTA also has a licensee in the Philippines.

WTA's business model probably has more in common with multilevel marketing than with conventional auto industry ventures. The company sells master licenses to regional investors. This gives them the right to build plants to manufacture WorldStar vehicles, as well as factories capable of manufacturing WTA's modular WorldStar factory. Each single car-a-day manufacturing module runs about 12,500 square feet and costs approximately $372,000.

WTA retains a 6 percent interest in each WorldStar factory and a 20 percent interest in the facility that manufactures modular factories. It will also supply most of the car components to the manufacturing modules. The company estimates that it will receive more than $600 in royalties and parts fees for each car assembled in the plant. According to the company, each one-a-day WorldStar factory will generate $194,000 in annual income.

Automotive Design & Composites Ltd. of San Antonio, Texas, plans to produce an inexpensive multipurpose truck, which it calls the MPT. It has teamed with Global Industries Inc. of Cars on City, Nev., which will supply parts and train future factory workers.

Global will operate its plants as 50-50 joint ventures. The first opens in Monterrey, Mexico, this fall. Global claims it has contracts for additional units in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Guatemala, and plans to build 26 plants over the next three years. The plants, which cost just under $1 million, are capable of making up to 100 vehicles per month.

For several years, it appeared as if Asha Engineering would reach the world car market first with its Buddy taxi. The firm, an engineering and design concern based in Santa Barbara, Calif., is part of the McLaren Automotive Group Inc. It originally developed a simplified approach to assembly, called the Asha body concept, or ABC, while developing a "China car" concept vehicle for Chrysler Corp.

The Buddy builds on ABC. In July 1994, Asha launched a joint venture with Taisun Automotive Pte. Ltd., a Singapore- based manufacturer, to build the Buddy in China. The joint venture, Jiaxing Independence Auto Design & Development Co. Ltd., planned to produce up to 10,000 taxis at its large Jiaxing facility, as well as making kits that could be assembled at franchised factories around China. The Asian economic meltdown put those plans on hold.

Another Santa Barbara-based company, Nations Automobile Corp., also has a world car in the works. While careful not to reveal too much about his car or microfactory, NAC principal Tom Mathew says he has at least one deal lined up and more in the works.

While Mathew, a designer, is not very forthcoming about his new vehicle, he is positively expansive about the challenges facing emerging world carmakers.

Mathew developed his world car concept while working in Africa with Asian joint venture partners on other matters. "The governments we were doing joint ventures with were bemoaning the cost of autos and trucks, and the sheer lack of transportation in terms of inhibiting the development of conm1erce," he recalled.

Major automakers ignored these countries, though most of the large cities had Japanese taxis. "They were cars the Japanese couldn't sell anywhere else, and they didn't hold up well. You'd see their rusty hulks on the side of the road," Mathew said.

"We realized we could come up with a concept that would fulfill the needs of these countries," he continued. He envisioned a vehicle that could run over paved roads as well as on fields and dirt paths.

"The best country roads in Africa are covered with laterite, an iron-based reddish material that create s a hard, smooth surface. But it becomes mushy during a five-month wet season," he explained. "This creates ruts with a crown in the middle that are really difficult to take with a conventional vehicle, especially if it has low clearance."

An advertising brochure, in Chinese and English, designed to promote the Buddy taxi in the Singapore market, included this illustration.

Grahic Jump LocationAn advertising brochure, in Chinese and English, designed to promote the Buddy taxi in the Singapore market, included this illustration.

That's why most world cars sit high off the ground. Most of them have thermoplastic or composite bodies, too. Equipment to mold or thermoform resins costs much less than high-powered presses and expensive tools needed to stamp metal. In addition, manufacturers can use pigmented plastics, which have colors blended into them. This eliminates the need for expensive climate-controlled painting chambers.

Plastic has other advantages as well. It takes abuse without showing it. It resists low-impact bumps and nicks better than steel sheet, and its color does not peel or scrape off. Plastic also resists rust, the most dangerous threat facing a car in the tropics, where the majority of emerging economies are located.

Thermoplastics and composites also weigh less than met- " al. That's important, since light body weight lets designers go to smaller, less costly engines and transmissions.

Lightweight materials improve fuel economy, an important consideration in countries where fuel is costly and not always available in the countryside. Most world cars are designed to use a variety of fuels.

WTA's WorldStar is configured to use diesel fuel or liquid propane gas, said director of operations Matthews. LP is common in emerging economies, he noted. "They call it camp gas; they cook with it, and everyone has it. You wind up with a cleaner-running vehicle", though you give up some energy." He also likes diesel fuel because it's safer than gasoline to transport and store. "You can't get it to go with a blowtorch," he laughed.

Buddy also comes with a dual fuel system that uses either liquid propane or compressed natural gas. Both release far less carbon monoxide and sulfur than does gasoline, an important consideration in China, which has begun imposing emissions regulations on its heavily polluted cities.

World cars also have low part counts, usually in the range of 400 to 500. Tins makes them easier to assemble and simplifies supply chains. That's important in countries where even such commodities as sheet metal must be imported.

Automakers reduce part counts by eliminating unnecessary components, such as power windows and engine sensors.

Sometimes, reducing part counts leads to Some interesting choices. Asha's Buddy taxi, for example, seems luxurious when compared with some world cars. It comes with a center console air conditioner and a Philips auto reverse tape deck. But it only has two doors, a potential problem on a taxi that dozens of people will enter and exit all day long.

"Doors," said Asha ABC design director Ralph Gourley, "are one of the hardest and most expensive parts of a car to make in terms of fit and finish. They require locks, windows, and safety reinforcement. That makes them expensive."

Asha answered Buddy's problem with oversized doors. The front passenger seat tilts forward to allow easy access to the rear. It even folds up against the dashboard so passengers can store small packages and luggage next to the driver instead of opening the trunk.

What sets each world car apart, however, is construction philosophy. Each company seems to have found a unique way to make a rugged, low- cost, easy-to-build automobile.

WTA's WorldStar, for example, has been criticized as an oversize golf cart. "That's the beauty of it," Matthews pointed out. He wants it to be as simple as a golf cart to manufacture, to last as long as fiberglass boats made by a similar processes, and to carry at least 1,250 lbs.

Simplicity is the key. WTA's plan calls for monocoque construction using a steel chassis and a load-bearing, fiberglass- reinforced composite body. According to Matthews, it takes only 12 to 17 molds (depending on body style) to produce the entire WorldStar cab and body.

The side body panels are made in open-faced molds from glass fibers, which provide the reinforcement, and isophthalic polyester, a thermoset resin that hardens into a tough matrix.

To make a panel, Matthews first prepares a mold. He sprays on a gel coat, a pigmented polyester resin that provides the part's color and glossy finish. Then he sprays on a layer of polyester resin and chopped glass, followed by a layer of 10-oz. fiberglass cloth. The resin hardens at room temperature in about one day, eliminating the need for oven curing.

WTA uses the same approach to make the weight-bearing floorpan, but starts with a 0.5-inch balsa core. The core, which WTA wraps with an 18-oz. fiberglass boat roving, provides the extra thickness and reinforcement needed to bear the vehicle's 1,250-lb. payload. In either case, the resulting panels have glossy-colored exteriors and tough, reinforced interiors.

The body parts are all keyed so that they line up with one another. "We make the parts with key features, so that part A slips into part B," Matthews said. "Metal parts are keyed to the fiberglass. There are no tape measures. Everything is built to a go, no-go gauge. It either fits the jig or it doesn't. If it fits, it bolts right up."

The fiberglass composite panels that form the body, which Matthews calls the "tub," attach to one another through a combination of adhesives and rivets. They are then attached to a welded tubular steel chassis. " It's easy to teach Third World people how to weld ," Matthews said. "It's an audiovisual-tactile process, and within a matter of a few days, they're doing robot-like welding using metallic inert gas welders."

Three tubal steel assemblies attach to the tub. The front structure holds the wheels and engine. A roll bar defines and protects the cab. The rear section supports the wheels and reinforces against torque twisting. All three contain flat plates that bolt directly to thick, dense fiberglass plates sandwiched between the tub's inner and outer composite skins.

These cars will typically go where there are poor to no roads now, and carry anything from people to food.

WorldStar's power-plant is an air-cooled, remanufactured 1,600-cc Volkswagen single- or dual-port engine that generates 50 to 65 hp. The same engine that powered the Volkswagen bugs of the 1960s is enough to push the WorldStar to 85 mph on a California highway. That's ' about twice as fast as anyone ever travels on the undeveloped roads of emerging countries.

Committing a company to remanufactured engines sounds dicey, but Matthews isn't worried. "Volkswagen made more than 50 million bugs, and there are plenty of engines still around," he said. "We found a company that remanufactures." More important, it warranties them.

The Asha plan, on the other hand, envisions a large plant capable of churning out 30 cars per day. While that will not impress Detroit or Tokyo, it does require a different set of manufacturing processes.

Asha's Buddy begins with thin-tube stainless steel, which resists rust very well, says John Ward, Asha's managing director of commercial development. The tubes are gently bent with minimal sweeps and gentle bends on simple, inexpensive mandrel benders.

Workers then connect the tubes by sliding stamped steel sleeves over them. Once connected, workers clamp the tubes into registration on a movable template, where they are brazed or welded into place. The technology is not all that different from the way the Chinese make bicycles.

"You could assemble it in a parking lot," Ward said.

This forms a combination space frame and chassis, which workers roll to the body shop. Asha's original concept called for a fiberglass body, much like the one used on WTC's WorldStar. This works well in one-carper-day shops, Ward said. When Asha's Chinese partner envisioned a larger factory capable of 10,000 cars a year, Ward turned to other technologies.

"The problem was that if you make large, complicated parts in an open mold, that's all you can do," Ward said. "The technology doesn't scale up to higher production rates very well. You have to keep the part in the mold for 24 hours, plus let it cure outside the mold. If you're making 30 cars per day, tooling gets expensive."

Instead, Ward prefers to thermoform Senosan, a thick, tough, multilayer plastic sheet developed by Austria's Senoplast Klepsch & Co. Thermoforming uses heat and a vacuum to bend and shape flat sheets into highly sculpted parts.

"The epoxy tooling is cheap and you can make several parts at once by thermoforming a 5x 12-foot sheet," Ward explained. The process takes about five minutes, and is computer monitored for problems. A computer numerically controlled router then cuts out the thermoformed parts.

Asha uses Senosan for exterior parts. For the interior, it prefers Bayer Corp.'s Soft Touch, a urethane-coated acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene sheet with a soft, touchable surface. The parts are rustproof.

"You could drop the body and coach into the ocean for a year, wash them off, and use them in a production model," Ward said.

An open-air taxi designed by World Transport Authority carries a spare in the engine bay. When hood is replaced, vehicle looks like a small pickup truck.

Grahic Jump LocationAn open-air taxi designed by World Transport Authority carries a spare in the engine bay. When hood is replaced, vehicle looks like a small pickup truck.

Plastic parts are snapped into place in much the same way consumers assemble do-it-yourself plastic toys and other products. Parts install easily because they are designed to mate with one another.

Asha favors glue and foam tapes over metal fasteners. The 2-5 mm glue gap allows the small amount of wiggle room needed to keep every car within tolerance. It also absorbs expansion and contraction, dampens shock and noise, and reduces squeaks and rattles.

After gluing the body to the frame, Asha installs the wiring harness and bolts on mechanical subsystems. It plans to use Peugeot engines and transmissions. " It wasn't hard to find someone to sell us those parts, but not everybody wanted to warranty them," Ward said. "Peugeot did."

Other companies have their own twists on these basic schemes. Global Industries, for example, favors a pultruded composite chassis. This involves pulling glass fibers through a die to form tough, stiff profiles. The body is made of a variety of engineering plastics.

Nations Automobile Corp. uses a uniladder frame, a welded structure of rectangular and round jig-fitted steel tubes. It looks very much like a ladder, and uses only right angle joints so there's no need to cut oblique angles. The frame is extremely rigid.

NAC's Mathew said that the company's business partners may assemble or refinish their own engines. "Our concept involves not just building a car but creating a whole series of industries to support work on this vehicle, so that eventually they will manufacture the whole enchilada," he explained. "That's more than just a dream; it's a reality, but it has to be taken in steps.

"It's not particularly lucrative from our point of view, but symbiotic with our whole concept," he added. "Pretty soon, these nations will have a complete industry. We'll benefit from it, not necessarily off the car—though we're a business and we'll have an ample margin of profit—but because it will really embed our local companies in the activities of their local companies."

Mathew welcomes competition. "There's lots of room for everybody," he said. "There's a huge population that has zero access to transportation. It will take lots of these small plants to meet their needs."

The results will be revolutionary, said WTA's Matthews. "These cars will typically go where there are poor to no roads now, just trails, and carry anything from people and potable water to food and merchandise. They'll double as ambulances. They are true utility vehicles.

"Although small manufacturers like us would like to make fleet sales, the reality is we're going to make sales to entrepreneurial families," Matthews added. "They're in big business if they've got a car. They can put a generator on the back, drive to different villages, run a pump, and provide water for irrigation. They can distribute products. It changes their economies."

Change. That's what Matthews and his fellow dreamers envision. Tracing their pedigree back to hot rods, kit cars, and antediluvian manufacturing methods, their companies certainly do not embody the high-tech luster of the world's leading automakers.

But chunky, spunky, and funky, the world car aims to start changing the world.

Copyright © 1999 by ASME
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