Car Wars! Steel vs. Aluminum — Not as Cut and Dry as You Think

Years ago (I'm talking 1991/1992) when I was into Cat 2/3 competitive cycling, we used to make fun of all the nut jobs riding those fat, ugly aluminum bikes made by Cannondale (they used to be much fatter and uglier than today). However, the massively oversized tubes made up for aluminum's rigidity loss, given the technology and alloys available at the time. And the ride and response was actually quite good, especially looking at value for the dollar (carbon and titanium frames were outrageous at the time and heavier than today). I suppose if you were really suicidal back then, you could even ride a Vitus with normal sized aluminum tubes that were glued together. But having been on one mountainous ride when a teammate's Vitus decided to break, that was clearly not an option for guys over 150 pounds (fortunately, the frame separation occurred going up, not down). Put this all together, and it was pretty clear why steel was the frame of choice at the time. I still occasionally ride my old Columbus SL-based frame that's now 30 years old -- and as solid as ever. But it's also 24.5 pounds, fully built out with wheels that could support a Tata Nano, they're so strong.

In other words, the steel vs. aluminum debate has been going on for years when it comes to transportation, long before aluminum became a potential metal for automobiles with any production scale. However, today, the playing field on which the two compete has clearly moved to the automotive vanguard, given the massive amount of dollars on the line. Our sister site MetalMiner, is in the midst of running a series titled Car Wars, thoroughly addressing the subject. In the first article, MetalMiner suggests that "metal product substitution appears live and well within the automotive industry. One need only visit a few websites -- for example, Alcoa's -- to see how it describes the aluminum value proposition, or this slick video from Novelis on the Jaguar XJ aluminum body or the Aluminum Association's website articulating the virtues of aluminum over other materials."

But steel is not sitting still. According to MetalMiner, "it has conducted considerable product innovation to address some of the specific benefits the aluminum industry has touted." MetalMiner outlines the basic case for both types of automobile metal in their analysis, but also suggests that we should consider additional factors, such as "aluminum shortages that have already started to appear in the European automotive industry."

Moreover, there's the legislative angle as well: "Aluminum, as a global industry, has a strategic advantage over the [largely] domestic steel industry currently supporting the auto sector. Any climate change legislation would handicap the steel industry while allowing the aluminum industry to leverage global supply options not subject to such legislation."

Part One of the steel/aluminum car wars debate on MetalMiner is a fascinating read, regardless of what industry you're in (plus the Star Wars allusions are great). We'll cover further posts in the series in the coming weeks as the debate hits smelter temperature.

Jason Busch

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