Ferrari champions aluminum over carbon fiber body panels

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A Ferrari Enzo.

Ferrari uses aluminum for body panels, a maverick move that it believes is safer than carbon fiber. (Photo Credit: CC BY/Anthony Joh/Flickr)

When other automakers zig, Ferrari zags. Most believe that carbon fiber is the best material for making car components lighter, but the Italian supercar maker is standing behind its use of aluminum. Ferrari insists aluminum is superior for most cars, a stance that goes against the grain in the automotive industry.

Enzo preferred aluminum

Dating back to the 1940s, Enzo Ferrari used lightweight aluminum bodywork to wrap the steel-framed Ferrari sports car. Some experimentation with materials occurred in the 1980s, as stainless steel, Kevlar and carbon fiber began to be used alongside the traditional aluminum.

Carbon fiber was used most extensively in the 1995 F50 and 2002 Enzo super cars, primarily in the chassis. These road cars, which were in very limited production, used a pre-impregnated (prepreg) carbon fiber soaked in plastic resin. The process of assembling the carbon fiber into a chassis is both time- and labor-intensive, according to Ferrari engineer Patrizio Moruzzi. That’s fine if an automaker only wants to make one car per day, he said to Popular Mechanics.

Make more, lighter

Aluminum, on the other hand, is better suited for the level of production Ferrari requires, in excess of 30 cars each day. Aluminum is used in several forms by the automaker, said Moruzzi.

“It’s a multi-material technology,” Moruzzi said.

As an example, the Ferrari 458 Italia uses aluminum for castings, extrusions and sheet metal, along with other alloys. Using computer-aided design, Ferrari has been able to decrease the thickness of the sheet metal significantly, without sacrificing structural integrity. By using aluminum reinforced by ceramic fibers, Moruzzi predicts that Ferrari eliminates 20 percent of total vehicle weight.

Bend, don’t shatter

Beyond the low weight of Ferrari’s high-tech aluminum blends, Ferrari believes there is an advantage to using aluminum, rather than carbon fiber, for body panels. In the event of an accident, aluminum bends, while carbon fiber composites shatter. While it is more difficult to repair aluminum than regular steel – and lighter, stronger grades of steel are being introduced regularly – Ferrari believes that if a customer can afford a Ferrari, that person can afford the additional cost of repairing aluminum body damage.

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