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Why Our Chassis Looks The Way It Does

Any good chassis must do several things:

1. Be structurally sound in every way over the expected life of the vehicle and beyond. This means nothing will ever break under normal conditions. 2. Maintain the suspension mounting locations so that handling is safe and consistent under high cornering and bump loads. 3. Support the body panels and other passenger components so that everything feels solid and has a long, reliable life.. 4. Protect the occupants from external intrusion.

In the real world, few chassis designs will not meet the criteria of #1. Major structural failures, even in kit
cars, are rare. (Here's an exception.) Most kit designers, even if they're not engineers, will overbuild naturally. The penalties for being wrong here are too great. The trouble is, some think that having a "strong" (no structural failures) chassis is enough. It isn't. Read this article from the July 1999 Machine Design magazine!

Structural stiffness is the basis of what you feel at the seat of your pants. It defines how a car handles, body integrity, and the overall feel of the car. Chassis stiffness is what separates a great car to drive from what is merely OK.
Contrary to some pronouncements, there is no such thing as a chassis that doesn't flex, but some are much stiffer than others. The range of chassis stiffness has varied greatly over the years from about 500 lbft/degree in a Morgan to more than 20,000 lbft/deg in a modern race car. The ERA 427's chassis runs about 3500 lbft/degree. Not high by current sedan standards but about as high as you can get in a roadster whose body sits mostly on top of the chassis. Different basic chassis designs each have their own strengths and weaknesses. Every chassis is a compromise between weight, component size, complexity, vehicle intent, and ultimate cost. And even within a basic design method, strength and stiffness can vary significantly, depending on the details. There is no such thing as the ultimate method of construction for every car, because each car presents a different set of problems. Below, I have summarized the characteristics of some chassis alternatives. Remember, though, that detail execution is as important as the basic design, if not more! Some think an aluminum chassis is the path to the lightest design, but this is not necessarily true. Aluminum is more flexible than steel. In fact, the ratio of stiffness to weight is almost identical to steel, so an aluminum chassis must weigh the same as a steel one to achieve the same stiffness. Aluminum has an advantage only where there are very thin sections where buckling is possible - but that's not generally the case with tubing - only very thin sheet. And even then, aircraft use honeycomb'd aluminum to prevent buckling. In addition, an aircraft's limitation is not stiffness, but resistance to failure.

Backbone: The tunnel becomes a primary load bearing

member. This is a potentially fine design, and if we were building a new car from scratch, we would seriously consider a backbone. But , this is not a new car, it's a replica of a classic! Because it is designed around the original Ford engines (and we wanted our customers to have several different transmission choices), the bulk of a compatible structural tunnel was unacceptable, especially considering the passenger compartment was a fairly narrow one to begin with. A backbone would make it impossible to maintain the look of the original interior and engine compartment. It would also create servicing difficulties. A variation to the sheet metal backbone is one that uses small tubes to create the central structure. TVR's Griffith was built like that - with an enormous tunnel. The Shelby Daytona Coupe added a tubular backbone to the original 289 chassis. It probably added 50% to the overall stiffness of the car! See below. Then there is the issue of engine compartment esthetics. With our rectangular tube chassis, we can duplicate the roundtube X (with the 427SC) or the spring tower (with the 289FIA) at the front of the engine to maintain visual accuracy.

Space frame: A true space frame has small tubes that are
only in tension or compression - and has no bending or twisting loads in those tubes. That means that each loadbearing point must be supported in three dimensions. It is nearly impossible to build an efficient space frame around the Cobra body. The rockers are simply too shallow, and the tunnel shaped incorrectly to make a reasonably triangulated structure. Remember the 300SLR Mercedes? (shown at the right) It had rockers 12 inches tall and 10 inches wide and the chassis used hundreds of separate tubes. It was difficult to build and a nightmare to fix. The "space frame" chassis that is currently built for another replica simply uses smaller tubes, many carrying bending and torsional loads. It may look impressive, but functionally it's a bad compromise. Simply more complication without improvement.

Mercedes 300SLR Consider - the bending stiffness of a tube increases the by the square of the diameter of the (equal-wall-thickness) tube, and the torsional stiffness by the cube of the diameter, while the weight goes up linearly. The bottom line is - sometimes you're better off with a large tube.

Monocoque: An airplane (with a stressed outside skin) is

close to a true monocoque. In the automotive world, it's time to compromise again, but the street car that compromises the least is probably the 1958 Lotus Elite. The design was made possible by the use of large fiberglass panels - otherwise the tooling and construction costs would have been tremendous. In the real world, the interior panels are stressed, but many cars have an aerodynamic facade of 'glass or aluminum. The original GT40 - and our ERA GT - have a semimonocoque chassis. The heaviest (steel) main panel on our ERA GT is only .045" thick, and most panels are only .032"! Reinforcements are required at the suspension points where there are local high loads. With the rockers 10" high x 9" wide, the net result is an incredibly stiff structure. But you can't build a classic roadster like this.

1958 Lotus Elite ERA GT Chassis

"Ladder" frame: The ladder frame is a shorthand

description of a twin-rail chassis, typically made from round or rectangular tubing or channel. It can use straight or curved members, connected by two or more crossmembers. Body mounts are usually integral outriggers from the main rails, and suspension points can be well or poorly integrated into the basic design. The original Shelby 289 Cobra used 3" round tubes, a very flexible design that worked with stiff transverse-leaf springs for adequate but primative handling. The 427 was updated to 4" round tubes to allow the more modern suspension to work properly. Both chassis were very simple to build - and good enough for their time.

An Original 289 chassis

The Semi-Backbone The Shelby Daytona used a modified 289 chassis made into a tubular semi-backbone design to correct the extreme flex of the original design. You can see how it looks by visiting the site of someone ambitious enough to try to build a Daytona from scratch! Daytona Chassis The ERA chassis uses 4" x 3" x .125"W structural tubing in a complex design meant to take suspension and body loads efficiently, while maintaining the original look from outside and in the engine compartment, simutaneously allowing easy service and assembly. Roll bar, body and door mounting points are built into the basic design for maximum efficiency. There are 4 crossmembers plus an "X" member for maximum torsional stiffness. We even box in the "X" for extra strength! Yes - this chassis is somewhat heavier than most ladder designs, but it is also by far the stiffest. A compromise that no ERA owner regrets!

ERA Chassis (FIA similar)

Round vs. Rectangular frame rails: There has been a lot tossed around regarding whose chassis - and
what kind of tubing - is "strongest." Factory Five is numerically the biggest exponent of round tubes, but many others have preceded them. We chose to use rectangular tubing in our chassis for several reasons: Under pure vertical bending load, 4" x 3" rectangular tubing is about 37% stiffer than an equal wall thickness 4" round tube. This is especially important because a roadster doesn't have a roof to stiffen the passenger compartment. Not only can you feel a lack of "solidness" with a flexible chassis. Your variable door gaps will also make latching unstable - and even ocassionally cause paint chipping as the doors meet the main body! You can see below that transverse members have little effect on beam stiffness. You just add up the individual stiffnesses of the components. We also have an "X" member, acting as an additional longitudinal beam reinforcement and as two transverse members. A round tube chassis is extremely difficult to "X" brace.

A little light on Torsional Stiffness Even though an individual rectangular tube is about 2% less stiff in torsion than the equivalent round tube, we must consider the chassis design as a whole. For each transverse tie-in we create a system that becomes more like a single large tube spanning the whole width of the chassis- the ultimate in efficiency. We have integrated 7 transverse members along our main rails in such a way that the chassis has much more torsional stiffness than the tubes taken individually. We even put extra braces on our central "X" member to make it even stronger. The stiffness of an ideal unitized structure is proportional to the square of the distance of the components from the centerline. Double the distance and you have four times the overall stiffness. While practical automotive considerations eliminate an ideal connection between the rails, widely spaced tubes that are tied together well work more efficiently than the same tubes on a narrower base. The original 427 Cobras' rails were only 20 inches apart. Ours are spaced at 27 inches on center through the middle of the chassis, one of the widest spacing in the industry. And we still are one of the few in the industry that have left room for an undercar exhaust outside the rails.


The E.R.A. chassis is one of the strongest and stiffest of the industry. And the difference is easy to feel on the road! Please use your browser's <Back> to return

Avoiding bad designs

A few basic guidelines for preventing troublesome designs include:

From Machine Design Magazine, 11/20/1997


Avoid complexity wherever possible. Strive for lower rather than higher component densities and use multifunctional components that reduce the total number of components needed for any given assembly. Minimize variety, such as the

Make accurate prototypes of new designs and test them rigorously prior to approval for production. Prototypes should certainly go through harsh environmental stress screening. Maintain formal multidepartmental design review boards to assess all new designs. Restrict turnover of participants in this review process since the ability to identify potential

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number of different types of component or values. Shun attributes known to have caused problems on previous projects. And keep an active database of new problems as they occur . Know the limits of your company's production capabilities and design in margins for error. It is not always necessary to have an exact knowledge of the process capability. As a matter of fact, it is often best to underestimate the process' capabilities (i.e., assume more restrictive process tolerances than actually exist). This increases the probability the process will accommodate the design. Seek innovative ways to prevent assembly errors. Document every success; and failure as a design changes. Incorporate these experiences into formal design guidelines.

problems in the design stage can be acquired only through considerable experience. Subject all new designs to evaluations, such as failure mode and effects analysis (FMEA), by the design review board as well as the design department. FMEA need not be complex. Determine the consequences of failure for each component and invest the most resources in techniques that minimize the possibility of the most serious failures Employ formal CAD1ibraries that are constantly updated in accordance with plant capabilities rather than arbitrary industry "standards." Stay constantly aware that the costs of initial design mistakes have never been greater and are constantly increasing.

Tips: Safety & Ergonomics

The following tips and information focus on how to optimize race car safety and ergonomics. Depending on class rules, these suggestions may or may not be valid. Always check your regulations. General Safety/Ergonomics Design Principles Safety/Ergonomics Design Tips

General Safety/Ergonomics Design Principals


Safety in a race car is the art of protecting the human occupant, at whatever cost to the car. Designing the car to be damaged minimally while hindering driver safety is definitely the wrong approach. So how do we protect the driver? Well first we need to consider the basic physiological weak points of the human body.

The diagram above shows that pretty much any part of the body exposed to the chassis of the race car is at risk. Injuries occur because the body sustains impacts beyond the G (gravities) level that it can sustain. The brain is particularly succeptible to injury, because it is really just a soft tissue mass stored inside a very solid bone container, the skull. The key to avoiding injury in the brain is to avoid instantaneous decelleration of the skull. That is, when the skull strikes

something hard, it decellerates instantaneously. The brain inside unfortunately keeps on moving, causing head trauma. Neck and spinal injuries also present a serious threat to life and career. These "Connector" type elements in our body are flexible and stretchable, to a point, and can sustain tremendous G loads before breaking. However, depending on angle of impact, they can break rather easily. Other bone injuries (breakages) are not as life-threatening or career ending, but still are to be prevented. The bones in our arms, legs and spine are designed to be stressed in tension and compression along their length. In the case of impacts they are often stressed in shear or bending, and therefore snap relatively easily.
Safety In Engineering

Safety in race cars consists of optimizing the chassis and bodywork to provide maximum support for normal driving situations, and maximum protection and energy absorption in crash situations. First, the driver needs to be supported, so movement under normal driving is very limited. This means a seat with lateral head support, a head rest, and good lower and upper body lateral support. Most racing seats provide these three elements. Secondly, the car's chassis needs to hold the seat and driver in place, in all situations, driving and crashing. This is of course accomplished with a chassis mount for the seat, and a 5 or 6 point harness. Thirdly, measures must be taken to prevent intrusion into or the crushing of the driver's limbs and extremities. On formula cars, the problem of suspension wishbones breaking and piercing the driver's legs is solved by anti-intrusion panels that prevent pieces of the car from intruding into the driver's cockpit. As well, the cockpit "Safety cell" needs to be very strong. The "Safety cell" is the last piece of material between danger and the driver, and so should be well constructed, and not prone to collapsing onto the driver. Finally, the car needs to absorb the energy via structures that are crushable. As stated previously, the human body does not like to be decellerated from 80 or 100 km/h to 0 instantly. Therefore, we need to find a way that "quickly" decellerates the body. The only possibilities on a race car are the structures which surround the driver's safety cell. Designing these structures to collapse in an impact ensures that G levels are reduced because the car is literally decellerating over a small distance, instead of ZERO distance. Below is a diagram:


Ergonomics, or the study of human-machine interfacing, is important to race cars because the ultimate control of the car belongs to the driver. Poorly placed controls mean the driver must lose concentration on the race, and instead focus on the cockpit. The ergonomics of a race car cockpit consist of several elements:

The driver's line of sight - Visibility is of prime importance. The goal in design is to ensure enough of the race track in front is visible, and enough of the action to left and right is visible, through peripheral vision. Of course, the driver also needs to see behind to watch for his/her competition. The mirrors should act as an extension of the visible field. The steering wheel - The steering wheel is a tool of leverage. If a steering wheel is too far from the driver, the driver's arms will straighten, and ultimately limit the range of motion easily provided. If it doesn't stop the driver from driving properly, this situation will cause fatigue. If a steering wheel is too close, it will also limit the range of motion and perhaps cause interference with other cockpit controls or supports. The proper distance is largely a matter of comfort and clearance, and usually means the arms are bent at the elbows when driving straight, yet still comfortable when turning the wheel. The gauges - The gauges act as vital signs for the car, and as such should be as close to the driver's normal line of sight when looking forward. Forcing the driver to look down at gauges removes concentration from the race. In Formula 1 (a particularly good example), the RPM is displayed with a series of LEDs (Light emitting diodes) that light as the redline is approached. This light sits almost at the very top of the cockpit, in line with the line of sight, allowing the driver to change gears without ever needing to look down.

A technique frequently used in racing is to rotate the gauges so that all needles or indicators are pointed to the directly vertical position when operating normally. The driver does not need to conciously scan the gauges, but can instead use his/her peripheral vision to determine the state of the car.

The Pedals - The pedals, like the steering wheel are a leverage item. The driver's legs will tire if not given a position of leverage. Likewise, the driver's legs may tire anyway, due to an inappropriate leverage fulcrum in the actual pedal system. Assuming the

pedals and levels are well designed, we can focus on the driver's legs. To be most effective the driver's legs should be bent slightly when the pedals are fully engaged, and should be bent somewhat more when the pedals are not engaged. The calf portion of the leg should probably not be at less than 120 degrees angle in relation to the thigh when the pedals are disengaged. See below:

Other Controls - Positioning of controls such as the gear shift, kill switch, and adjustment knobs should be carefully considered. It does no good if shifting is hampered by the steering wheel, or if the kill switch is buried away from rescue crew access.

Safety/Ergonomics Design Tips


Use energy absorbing materials in the collapsable crash structure - In lower cost racing cars, most of the car is usually built from mild steel. Using that same mild steel in areas such as wishbones means that impacts will bend the material long before it breaks the material, meaning energy absorption takes place over a longer period. For light weight, use a stressed skin over a lightweight core material - crushable zones such as the nose cone on a formula car can be made from balsa, honeycomb or high density styrofoam covered with a stressed skin of composites. Triangulate the driver "safety cell" to prevent collapse - The safety cell can be designed in such a way that a catastrophic impact which collapses the safety cell, will make the safety cell expand away from the driver, instead of collapsing it onto the driver. In the case of a frontal impact, this would mean the sides of the cockpit would expand outward, upward and downward, instead of inward. Use a clear windscreen or bodywork to increase vision - using lexan or other nonshattering clear material can help increase visibility without compromising the function of the bodywork. In some cases, the driver can be lowered for better CG (center of gravity), and the normally opaque bodywork replaced with clear lexan, to aid in re-establishing the vision field. Keep the fuel cell and battery away from the driver and danger. Keeping dangerous items away from the driver is sometimes very difficult. In order to reduce the weight balance change over a race, designers will frequently put the fuel cell at the CG, so that no matter how empty or full it is, it does not cause a front/rear or side-to-side weight bias. However, most drivers don't like to sit next to fuel. Use secured, sealed firewalls

between the fuel cell and driver compartment, and further, use the safety cell to protect the fuel cell from outside intrusions. Don't scrimp on safety. Use only top quality certified suppliers of safety equipment. The cost is perhaps high, but consider how much you value your life. Fuel cells (Sanctioning body certified), seat belts (5 or 6 point sanctioning body certified only!), and driver safety wear (Nomex, 2 or more layers minimum! -- anything less is like wearing nothing).