FRANKFURT - Ferraris are known for the prancing horses on their hoods, but soon they may be recognized by the aluminum extrusions under their skin.
Ferrari S.p.A. engineers say they will build more supercars with an aluminum space frame similar to that of the new Ferrari 360 Modena.
The commitment represents a major engineering challenge for the low-volume automaker, which relied on Alcoa Inc. to help develop the Modena's complicated structure of aluminum castings and extruded beams.
Code-named project 131, the Modena was Ferrari's first attempt to make an entire car mainly from aluminum extrusions. It won't be the last, said Amedeo Felisa, design engineering manager for the Modena.
'The solutions we used for the 131 should be the solutions we use for the future,' he said.
Raw aluminum is one-third the weight of rolled steel. Without this weight saving, future Ferraris could grow too heavy to achieve the company's renowned performance levels. Now the automaker can add airbags, crash padding, on-board diagnostic hardware and emissions controls without paying a heavy performance penalty.
'Every time we make a new model, we have to add equipment to meet regulations,' Felisa said.
Moreover, Ferrari's marketing department has insisted that some new cars be larger than their predecessors. The company's well-heeled customer base, which is growing to include more women and long-legged NBA stars, is demanding more comfort than Italian sports cars traditionally have been known for.
An extrusion is a tube that is pulled or pushed through a shaped opening to form it with a specific cross section. The Audi A8 and the Honda Insight feature aluminum extrusions, but high cost and difficulties with mass production have hindered their use in high-volume vehicles.
One exception is the engine cradle in the 2000 Chevrolet Impala and Monte Carlo.
Ferrari has tried a variety of body construction techniques during its 52-year history, from birdcage-like space frames made from welded steel tubes, to all-fiberglass bodies dropped over steel frames.
Its recent models also have been a mix. The 456M GT/A and 550 Maranello use a welded matrix of steel tubes and steel panel stiffeners. Workers weld aluminum body panels to the steel frame using a special alloy called Feran to prevent corrosion between the dissimilar metals.
With the higher-volume 360, 'it was clear we were going to have to change our technology to reduce the weight,' Felisa said. 'Another reason is to reduce the number of pieces in the car.'
The 360 Modena's body has 428 parts - 150 fewer than its steel-structured predecessor, the F355 Berlinetta. Though larger in every external dimension, the new vehicle's curb weight is only 88 pounds more than the F355's. Many of the 360's frame parts are made in a separate work area inside Ferrari's Scaglietti body plant near Modena, Italy.
Ferrari joins the two halves of the body structure together at Scaglietti and adds the stamped aluminum outer panels supplied by Alusuisse. Then the company ships the body-in-white 10 miles to Ferrari's main plant in Maranello for painting and final assembly.
By modern standards, the process is slow and labor intensive. It takes 55 days to produce one 360 Modena. Fixing one also will be a challenge.
Ferrari flew every North American dealership technician to the factory to learn aluminum welding techniques, says Ferrari of North America president Gian Luigi Buitoni. The company also has encouraged some of its 32 U.S. and Canadian dealers to buy $150,000 frame tables to straighten crashed vehicles. Eight have been purchased so far.
Although aluminum is also more recyclable than steel, Buitoni says, 'you don't scrap a Ferrari.'