Carbon Fiber: The Performance World's Go-Fast Gold
Hot Rod|October 2021
What Is Carbon Fiber and Why Is It Today’s Hottest Performance Automotive Material?
Noah Thanos

Formula 1 and American muscle are two automotive genres that don’t usually meet. F1 cars are high revving, mid-engine toothpicks on wheels, while muscle cars are big V8 coupes with the aerodynamic qualities of a brick. But hey, who cares when you have torque? Despite their lack of similarities, SpeedKore Performance Group decided that Detroit could learn a thing or two from Monaco.

Since 2015, SpeedKore has been sending icons of American muscle to finishing school, outfitting their various modern muscle cars with high-performance powertrains, custom-designed frames, and, most notably, famous F1 lightweight technology in the form of carbon fiber. Their most recent creation, a 1970 Dodge Charger dubbed Hellraiser, is built entirely of the stuff. It dropped 600 pounds from its original curb weight while gaining about 600 horsepower by way of a 426 Hellephant V8 from Mopar.

We were curious about SpeedKore’s carbon-fiber process, so we dropped in at the company’s Grafton, Wisconsin, workshop to learn more about this go fast gold.

A Brief History of Carbon Fiber

Carbon fiber made its automotive debut on the 1981 McLaren MP4/1 Formula 1 car. Not long after, it trickled down into the highest tier of on-road performance with supercars like the Jaguar XJR-15 and McLaren F1. The added stiffness and reduced weight of carbon made it the perfect material for motorsports applications.

Today, carbon fiber is more widespread than ever, but it’s still primarily reserved for high-horsepower, high-dollar exotics. A few mainstream cars use carbon components as structural pieces, but the lion’s share of OEM carbon fiber is nothing more than automotive jewelry with negligible performance benefits.

The aftermarket took to the space-age material during the tuner car craze. Most aftermarket carbon fiber components are nothing more than adornments and, in many cases, they actually add weight. When purchasing aftermarket carbon, quality is measured in terms of both aesthetics and construction. The cheap stuff may look the part, but the production process and materials used to matter if the goal is actual weight savings and strength.

The Mold

No matter the quality, carbon-fiber components are made with two ingredients: carbon-fiber fabric and resin. The fabric is composed of elementally pure carbon-fiber polymer thread, but without resin, it’s little more than an incredibly strong blanket.

Most manufacturers use a mold to craft carbon-fiber components, shaping the fabric and resin during the curing process. For entry-level parts, manufacturers generally use a fiberglass mold. Although fiberglass is adequate for small parts, it lacks the rigidity needed for larger pieces. Despite the drawbacks of fiberglass molds, many manufacturers still use them for more significant carbon-fiber parts.

SpeedKore uses CNC-milled aluminum molds for small parts and carbon-fiber molds for larger components. Both materials are far more rigid than fiberglass and resist flexing and distortion during the curing process. Using carbon fiber to mold carbon fiber may seem odd, but the same stiffness and strength that make the material great for motorsports also make it great for fabrication.

Most of SpeedKore’s molds are created by using blue light to scan a positive part, creating a digital 3D model. This information is fed into a five-axis CNC machine that cuts a negative into appropriate material. The resulting molds are exceptionally accurate, meaning that components require less finishing work than parts made with lower-tolerance processes.

01 Here, a large sheet of fiber is ready to be cut. The Zünd digital cutter uses CAD technology to create a precise piece going into the mold. The carbon fiber has to be kept in cold storage to prevent the resin from curing, so there is only one chance to get it right. This technology also has the economic advantage of reducing waste by getting the most usable material out of each sheet.

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