Reinventing the wheels

16/11/2012 17:07

Reinventing the wheels

  Recent article, others in following paragraphs.

Flying with cars.


Road travel has shrunk for the first time on record in the UK , despite our mushrooming population. The growing proportion who are carless includes most of our young people. Even those of us wedded to cars have started rationalising journeys.

This turn around is not limited to the insolvent West: Chinese ministers made a speech in September calling on car manufacturers to abandon quantity and move to quality and efficiency.

So is the private car on death row? Not if Pembrokeshire inventors had something to do with it. You may have met a few strange vehicles on the quiet lanes of the county and wondered ‘who or what on earth is that’. Several are driven by engineer Friend Wood. His tear-drop shaped wooden car has been featured in international car enthusiast magazines. This was one of the most efficient cars it is possible to create, made out of simple low carbon wood. He now drives one which uses no fuel at all, being powered by his legs, and travels thousands of miles a year. “I would be quite lost without a velomobile” confesses Friend. Whether as an encased recumbent (velomobile car) or open trike, the recumbent is a serious rival to fuel transport.

“I first became aware of velomobiles around 1986” he recalls. “That same year, when Copenhagen was City of Culture , I rode my Kingcycle recumbent across Denmark to meet the Leitra’s manufacturer, Carl Georg Rasmussen. Carl had applied his aircraft engineering skills to produce a lightweight, responsive human powered vehicle. Riding a borrowed Leitra into Copenhagen was a revelation. I was tempted to order one, but with my experience of designing and building the Tryane Mk2 wooden car, I felt I should build my own. As the years passed I slowly formulated a velomobile design in my head. When I saw the Quest on the internet, there it was! The honest simplicity of aircraft engineering”. It wasn’t saving the earth that drove the first designers but winning the race, creating a design so light, so aerodynamic, its fuel use was pared to the minimum. Crash safety could be achieved by something more clever than thickness: springiness. But Friend brought his Pembrokeshire rural perspective. He was a carpenter by trade, and awake to bigger issues. “I started wondering whether a wooden monocoque could match the Quest’s GRP shell for weight and stiffness. It would have the bonus of low embodied energy: wood absorbs carbon during growth and the processing is not overly energy intensive. And the sense of achievement in using knowledge and skills is priceless.”

He continued learning from the global experts and using local species as materials:

“I wanted to use easily available materials, simple tools and processes. I decided on a multichine hull with a foam block nose. The construction method is similar to that of the wooden aircraft and plywood structures developed by Frank Costin.”  “1.5 mm birch was used for some curved areas and as reinforcement. Where possible, 12 mm square Douglas fir or spruce fillets were used to join adjacent parts. All of the body profiles were based on the geometric construction of the ‘Streamline’ shape as shown in S.F.Hoerner’s book, Fluid Dynamic Drag. The multichine form was used to approximate the compound curves of the aerodynamic ideal”

It weighs 29 kg, about 10 bags of sugar. From first drawings to test ride took 300 hours – under 2 months.


The reward of perfecting design for Friend, is not just functionality but joy, the joy of speed common to all car enthusiasts.

He rides his wood velomobile pedal powered car to European race gatherings. “It was exciting, once more, to be flying through the dunes in a pair of wooden ‘aircraft’.. We rode from the Hook along the North Sea route, a joy of swoops and bends through dunes and woodland. Bearing right we worked our way over to Amsterdam to the Cyclevision venue. It was wonderful to share the campsite with so many riders of recumbents and velomobiles... not to be the odd one out for once! Eva Navratilova raced the WoodVM as we had arranged in advance – her first velomobile experience...  Jon and I thoroughly enjoyed our few days of touring by velomobile, really appreciating the aerodynamic advantage when headwinds blew.” International magazines like Velovision love stories of the Welsh wooden creation.

Friend had worries about Pembrokeshire hills, but they turned out unfounded. The recumbent position for cycling is most effective in conserving human energy and reducing air resistance. The only risk is that such a low lying vehicle could be overlooked by juggernauts and sight-seeing drivers! The recumbents you see on our roads have high flags and are so eye-catching their drivers report they get a wider berth and much more respect from cars than do cyclists. Friend has driven over 9,000 miles in just two and half years, demonstrating a realistic and cost effective car alternative. He has had one accident on a roundabout. It was predictable and therefore avoidable.

So here we have personal transport built in two months from local materials and costing nothing to run, apart from good food to keep leg muscles fit. The private car could live forever if we learned from our pioneers, but who is learning?

Cardigan secondary school for one.

Charles Wright teaches pre-GCSE children to build eco cars. Electric and petrol but with the same super light and aerodynamic principles, Friend is a visiting teacher. They are the only school in Wales taking their creations to UK races and winning awards. This year their petrol car achieved 469 mpg. Groups of about 12 children with an interest in engineering or design and technology have to translate the theory of the classroom into the real world. They design, assess, discuss, improve their cars. They raise  sponsorship, source  materials, and plan strategy and coordination for the all-important races.


Wood and recycled bits and bobs are the components of choice, so the Tiefi Tiger team racing cars pass their qualifying eco test with flying colours. Using wood means that everyone can have a hand in construction, using the ordinary woodworking classroom, regulatory issues minimised.


Races are the annual high. Chas takes his intrepid teams of 13 and 14 year-olds to compete at the UK Youth marathon, and Greenpower races.  The atmosphere is exhilarating and nerve-shredding. They went to their first Greenpower race this year. They camped in sunshine among a throng of invented DIY cars. Foul weather arrived as they started the race positioned 35 out of 60. Their car’s Welsh weather proof design proved its worth. By the end of 15 laps, with ‘pit stops’ for changes of battery and drivers, they were 10th, 15 minutes before the end of the 4 hour race they were in second place and flying! Then the batteries started to fail. The team had a fast strategy meeting, but two laps later the motor controller went. ‘However, the teams excellent work resulted in an 8th place, the highest ever for a novice team in their first Greenpower race. The team also received the SIEMENS Innovation Award for the use wood in the construction of their car.’ Reports Chas.


In the UK youth marathon in Mallory Park they used a petrol car that different Teifi tiger teams had built, redesigned and rebuilt using new and old components. They did well, achieving 469 miles per gallon, the winning school achieved over 1,000! But they were in the first half, finishing ahead of more experienced university teams. Their racing efforts mean they are the only Welsh team to enter the national youth race this month, the ‘endurace’ –to see who goes furthest, rather than just fastest. To prepare for it they see plenty of scope to improve team communications and car design, streamlining human as well as technical performance.


The car creation and race trips cost £1200 a year – a large sum for a school. Get in touch to spread to other schools, or to join the sponsors who include: Swallow boats who build wooden sailing ships, ME Pierce, engineering and metal foundry, and Poppit Camper, a new business retrofiting camper vans. The owner’s son was on the first car making course three years ago. Since then he has won science awards for his inventions.


What do the kids get out of it?

  • Use skills learned in the classroom in a ‘real world’ context
  • Have to manage a budget
  • Design and give presentations to prospective sponsors
  • Develop interpersonal and teamwork skills
  • Experience and learn about advanced scientific and engineering concepts


And potentially an indefinite future for the private car.


Ysgol Aberteifi children produced a car doing 469 mpg, why cant webuy low mpg cars?

Fifteen years ago the Rocky Mountain research Institute in Colorado , led by Amory Lovins, produced family cars doing 100mpg. As everything was 4 times as light, using aircraft technology, petrol capacity was a quarter the size achieving further weight saving. But the design was of no interest to the car industry. The story died there. For now it is amateur enthusiasts who are carrying forward the flame of future friendly cars.




Friend Wood in his wooden airodynamic car which is renowned in velomobile and diy car publications in Europe