Carbon fiber can trace its automotive origins back to 1981, when McLaren constructed a car with a carbon composite monocoque to win races in the Formula One World Championship. In 1992, the same British manufacturer rolled out the McLaren F1 road car – the first of its kind to operate a carbon structural framework. The innovate, lightweight composite was recognized to be lighter and more robust than conventional aluminum, which although recyclable was more likely to bend upon impact and put the safety of the driver at risk.

The pioneering F1 had set the scene for a carbon fiber revolution in the high-performance car industry; Mercedes followed six years later with the CLK-GTR, followed by efforts from Pagani with the Zonda and Ferrari with the Enzo. Synonymous with unparalleled capability, carbon fiber became a sought-after commodity for those wanting to replicate the performance of racing cars in their own models on the road. In a short space of time the supercar market got faster, lighter, and safer at a quicker rate than ever before. 25 years on from the McLaren F1, carbon fiber still retains the relevance and promise of its younger days. The brains at McLaren are continuing to drive the forefront of its development, most recently in December last year when they introduced the super-limited 675LT ‘MSO Carbon Series’, featuring 40 percent more carbon fiber than the conventional 675TL with just 25 models rolling out of the factory.

Carbon fiber is cool

As could be expected, with exclusivity to the high-end market came recognition of carbon fiber as a designer symbol. It was never thought of as desirable when McLaren rolled out that first Formula One chassis: rather, it was met with skepticism by the established teams. But its on-track success quickly changed that perception, and now the OEMS are embracing carbon in all aspects. Carbon fiber is no longer merely considered a functional organ element; it’s become a fashion accessory. Like an exoskeleton, visual carbon fiber now envelops the external body in toughness and pedigree. OEMs want to show customers that they use this high-profile material. In other words: carbon fiber is cool.

Although its reputation stems from the performance car industry, carbon fiber is also finding its place in the everyday automotive market. In 2013, the BMW i3 became the first city car to feature a majority carbon fiber reinforced structure. Last year it sold 25,500 units worldwide, making it the sixth-most popular plug-in according to Hybrid Cars.

The upswing in demand for carbon fiber in the mainstream is countered by two fundamental drawbacks that are the production line. The first problem is cost. Currently, there is a hefty cost penalty to pay for a material that is lighter and stronger than the industry norm. Producing carbon fiber is an extremely labor intensive, artisanal activity, and despite their size even the largest OEMs don’t boast the in-house workforce or resources to carry out this labor-intensive task.

The second issue is that carbon fiber cannot be coated conventionally. Its woven framework reads more like a fabric than a homogeneous component, and if treated using the familiar method of priming and painting, rough patches and blotches can appear on the surface where the carbon conducts irregular amounts of electrical charge. This makes it difficult to work into the body-in-white phase of manufacture, which in turn is perfectly suited to existing metals. Getting a smooth finish is critical if it is to become a regular fixture on everyday car panels, and at present the OEMs of the world have not developed their own effective solution to enable it to replace proven processes to coat metal and plastic-coated parts.

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