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History of Automotive Aluminum
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Aluminum Aircraft Welding
By Kent White

First discovered in the early 1800s, produced in quantity in 1824, then reliably cast, rolled and formed by the turn of this century, aluminum was quickly put into use by automobile producers.
Bugatti Type 10 with aluminum body.

It appeared on motorcars as early as the 1908 Bugatti, whose construction included extensive aluminum sand castings and formed aluminum body panels that were butt-welded with the use of the oxy-fuel torch and hand-worked to a polished condition.

Pierce Arrow bodies were cast for several years-from 1912 until 1917 or 1918. These cast bodies were actually enormous sand castings and they showed evidence, in some cases, of very large oxy-fuel torch welds.

The casting thickness was between 1/4 and /8 in. thick, and the bodies were of good appearance, durable and structurally sound.
1934 Alfa Romeo 8C2300 with aluminum touring body. The Alfa was outfitted with an aluminum supercharged inline 8-cyl. with twin overhead cams.

Aluminum remained a choice for limited production cars until the 1960s because it was more easily formed than steel and tooling could be more cheaply and easily made. The alloys in those days were principally purer forms- 1100 and 3003- which did not lend themselves to corrosion, so the aluminum survived for decades.

The Europeans in particular were very fond of aluminum and, during the 1920s and '30s, made quite artistic bodies using the material.  
After World War II, some of the most legendary aluminum bodied cars were produced by Ferrari, Aston, Porsche and Cobra for racing during the 1950s and '60s, before the cars evolved into fiberglass and bonded structure.

B 25
The B25 was one of many WW II-era aircraft to benefit from the use of aluminum body components. Note the air intake above the engine- a formed aluminum scoop which was butt-welded with an oxy-hydrogen torch and dressed off beautifully.

Two unexpected applications, in my experience as a restorer, were the cast aluminum bumpers on the BMW 501, 502 and 503 models of the early 1950s and the cast aluminum door frame in the Mercedes 3OOSL Roadster. But certainly, the beautiful limited production custom and racing coachwork of the 1930s draws our attention to the extremely fine art-metal work that reached its pinnacle during that period-all produced, incidentally, with oxy-fuel welding technology. In fact, for the first 40 years of auto production, there was no heliarc welding, and even stick and spot welding on aluminum was very limited.

Auston Martin 1
This 1961 Aston Martin DB4 had an unfortunate encounter about three years ago at an intersection in San Francisco. It sustained front body and suspension damage. The body is all aluminum. The vehicle came to White after it had been sold by the previous owner because he could not find a shop to repair the vehicle.

Even though the heliarc was invented in southern California in 1942, during that time automobile production was eclipsed by aircraft production. Therefore, the new welding method did not come into widespread use until after WWII. So, until the end of the war, aluminum aircraft, like automobiles, were torch welded, rivet or spot welded.

The P-51 Mustang, for example, is a very popular and famous aircraft and you'll see much evidence there of gas welding, as well as on the B25, B-24 and B-17.

By 1950, however, the push for supersonic aircraft was well underway and with it came the new era of electric welding: the inert gas, or TIG, system. This new welding technology would be applied to both aircraft and automobile production, thus opening the door for MIG, plasma and other new systems of metal forming.

From this brief historical overview, we find that during the first half of this century, aluminum was used extensively in cars and airplanes, and it was repaired and re-repaired, gas welded, shrunk and stretched with very common machines and techniques throughout the world. It is only because American automobile manufacturers use very high automobile production methods that such tremendous numbers of steel cars have been produced.

Accordingly, the auto body techniques in this country have mostly been based on steel. In Europe and in other areas, it is more common to find people who can work aluminum panels equally as well as they can work steel. In fact, for many years, aluminum body work in America was limited essentially to aircraft and some race car building.

Auston Martin 2
Kent White completed the repairs on the Aston Martin using the original damaged parts and no body filler. The body panels were painstakingly straightened by hand.

Auston Martin 3
This kind of repair may not be practical in a high-volume shop, but when the vehicle is rare and the parts don't exist anywhere else, it's this or nothing at all.

Auston Martin 4
The restored vehicle.

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