The fifth-generation Chevrolet Corvette pulled off a technological feat when it was introduced in 1997 with marvelously engineered floor panels consisting of lightweight balsa wood coated with fiberglass and polyester resin.
Each floor panel was about 4 ft. (1.2 m) long, 2 ft. (0.6 m) wide and about a half inch (1 cm) thick and would contribute significantly to improved ride and handling that, until 1997, was foreign to Corvette enthusiasts.
Each floor panel was remarkably lightweight, tipping the scales at a mere 10 lbs. (4.6 kg). The design carries over to the sixth-generation '05 Corvette now in showrooms, but the new-for-'06 Z06 variant takes the handy bit of structural innovation one step further.
For the Z06, the floor panels will use the same balsa wood substrate, except it will be laminated with a polyester base reinforced with carbon fiber, rather than polyester and fiberglass. With carbon fiber, each floor panel weighs in at 7 lbs. (3.2 kg) reducing mass by a whopping 30% and boosting rigidity, which is essential in a 500-hp supercar.
The innovation comes from composites specialist Molded Fiber Glass Corp. of Ashtabula, OH, a company whose history is intertwined with that of the Corvette itself.
MFG pioneered fiberglass molding technology and worked closely with General Motors Corp. and Chevrolet in developing the Corvette's original body panels in the 1950s. The company produced the car's fiberglass body from 1953 until the early 1960s, says Glen Warner, vice president-new products/markets.
“We're proud of our long association with the Corvette,” Warner tells Ward's.
Balsa wood is used as the core because it is easily shaped and has been used successfully in the boating industry for years, Warner says. MFG purchases the wood from AlcanBaltek Corp., which ships it from Ecuador, machined to shape for the Corvette.
At its plant in Ashtabula, MFG bakes the balsa wood in ovens to drive out the moisture. The wood is then placed in a 750-ton (680-t) press, which applies the fiberglass and resin laminate for the base Corvette.
MFG will use the same press and the same process to apply the carbon fiber/polyester coating for the Z06 floor panels when production begins later this year.
The use of carbon fiber adds about a 25% price premium to the floor panels, MFG says.
The supplier expects to produce floor panels for 35,000 Corvettes annually, including 8,000 Z06 models.