Special Coverage

SAE World Congress

DETROIT – If Chris Theodore were a movie critic, he’d give two thumbs up to “Grand Prix,” a cult classic for the racing set.

The product guru whose fingerprints are on vehicles from Chrysler’s early minivans to the Ford GT supercar was watching the 1966 flick when inspiration struck.

“They zoomed in on a Lotus Formula 1 car,” Theodore tells Ward’s. “And that’s when the idea came to me.”

The car was like a torpedo with wheels. And its simplicity compelled Theodore to contemplate a commercial adaptation that evolved into Uni-Chassis.

“The engine’s rigidly mounted; transaxle’s rigidly mounted,” he says here at the 2011 Society of Autmotive Engineers World Congress. And the two are joined by a combination backbone-torque tube.

“All the stiffness is in the chassis,” Theodore adds. “The body just rests on top of it.”

The configuration promises frameless vehicles boasting torsional and bending stiffness exceeding 13,000 lb.-ft (1,763 Nm) and 3,917 lb.-ft. (5,311 Nm), respectively.

And substituting carbon fiber for the aluminum backbone-torque tube would double stiffness while reducing weight 30%, Theodore says. “Probably my next (iteration) will have carbon fiber.”

Tubular shapes also more easily accommodate carbon fiber’s properties, which can mitigate the material’s inherent cost premium.

Uni-Chassis’ scalable setup will accommodate a range of segments. “You can do a luxury sedan if you want to,” Theodore adds.

“Probably the biggest commercial application is plug-in hybrids and battery-electric vehicles,” Theodore says, noting current designs are handcuffed by “inefficient” battery packaging.

“Imagine a structural battery box right here,” he says, pointing to the torque tube of his proof-of-concept, on display among the World Congress exhibits.

Theodore says his cinematic aha moment happened about four years ago and prompted him to reveal his idea to racing legend and niche-car maker Carroll Shelby.

“I said, ‘Carroll, you’ve seen everything. Have you ever seen this?’ And he said, ‘No. Don’t show it to anybody until you patent it.’”

A patent is pending. Uni-Chassis is “basically” a handful of castings and extrusions, Theodore says.

The primary challenge ahead is engineering the design to handle road-load input and powertrain vibration. “It shouldn’t be a problem,” he says, adding he plans to have a car on the road by fall.

It will feature the 5.4L supercharged V-8 used in the Ford GT.

“You can slice it and dice it for whatever wheelbase you want,” Theodore says. “You can mix front and rear architectures.”

Then there are the potential cost-savings. “Whether it’s a low-volume car or a high-volume car, the engineering costs are the same,” he adds.

“The business case for your first vehicle is breakeven. Your second vehicle, you’re not spending that much more on engineering. So the second and third derivatives of this become profitable.”

Theodore, president of Michigan-based Theodore & Associates, says his ultimiate vision is to produce a family of supercars based on Uni-Chassis. That notion comes from his days at Ford, where he pitched – to no avail – production versions of cars such as the Shelby Cobra concept that bowed in 2004.

“That’s still bugging me,” he says, claiming Uni-Chassis demonstrates “a way to do low-volume vehicles that you’ve got a solid business case for.”

Like the Lotus, the beauty of Uni-Chassis is its simplicity, Theodore says.

“It’s really not a technological leap. It’s all mechanical. If somebody came to me with a bag of money and said, ‘Go,’ I could easily come up with a production vehicle in less than three years.”

emayne@wardsauto.com