Have you ever found yourself stood in a modern bicycle shop, where the spare part in your hands was made of a metal with a vague golden-red tinge to it, while the part in question seemed suspiciously light? If so, the part was probably made from titanium. With a density of only 60% of steel combined with extreme strength titanium seems so full of magic and mystique. It quickly became my favoured type of metal during my younger years.
The first time I became aware of titanium was back when Nikon launched a new special version of their fabulous F3 single-lens reflex camera. A camera which, by the way, was the first in a long row of Nikon cameras to be designed by Italian Giogetto Giugiaro – a man who we here on ViaRETRO of course are in deep gratitude to for his many excellent automotive designs. A couple of years after the Nikon F3 had been introduced in 1980, they gave us the T model; where the T meant titanium. Using this fascinating metal for the case made the camera both better sealed and also stronger. At the time, Nikon already had a reputation for quality and it was claimed that the F3 could withstand being driven over by a tank – or opening beer bottles during peacetimes. With the new F3/T, Nikon elevated their reputation to new heights.
Titanium is the ninth most common element within the earth’s crust. It also has the highest strength-to-density ratio of any metallic element. In its purest form it is a shiny white metal. It is furthermore relatively ductile and can be processed into a thin thread. Due to its unique qualities, titanium’s primary use is to be alloyed with other metals such as aluminium, copper and iron. It is lighter than steel yet stronger than aluminium and is therefore used with great success in products such as maritime propellers, automotive frames and surgical instruments. It has also become a much favoured material in the aviation- and space industry, which utilises the metal widely in the production of jet engines and for various components for satellites and spacecraft.
Titanium’s physical properties ought to make it ideal for the automotive industry, but the high cost combined with the intriguing metal has prevented the industry from embracing it. Only cost has enabled steel – and to a lesser extent aluminium – to be favoured. Where a cured metal is required for products like drive shafts for cars and trucks, steel is preferred as titanium products can’t guarantee as long a lifespan due to the metals fatigue limit.
However, titanium is no new discovery. The basic element was found as early as 1791. But for a long time, it was a challenge to extract the titanium from its principal element ores. Not until 1910 did Matthew A. Hunter succeed in isolating 99.9% pure titanium through what has since become known as the Hunter process, where titanium tetrachloride is reduced with sodium and heated to 1000 degrees Celsius. In 1946, this process was simplified and made more economical by William J. Kroll, where after titanium finally found use outside of laboratories. Industrial production of various alloyed titanium gained ground up through the fifties, and several different industries saw the many advantages found in the metals strength, low weight, elasticity, relatively high melting point, and not least its resistance to corrosion from seawater.
At the time, the newfound interest in titanium culminated with the presentation of GM’s phenomenal Firebird II, where the whole body was constructed from titanium!
The Firebird II was introduced in 1956 and was the second of four concept showcase cars researching and promoting the use of gas turbine engines for automobiles. While the first largely looked like a jetfighter with wheels, the Firebird II was a much more practical design as it could carry a family of four. Yet the design was no less striking; low and wide with two large air intakes at the front, a bubble canopy and a vertical tail fin at the back. But where the other gas turbine Firebirds of 1953, 1958 and 1964 all wore fibreglass bodies, it was the Firebird II which really stood out with its high-tech titanium body. It did however prove both challenging and costly to produce the body. Other highlights of the Firebird II was the use of disc brakes both front and rear while it was also given independent suspension on both axles. It even featured a highly futuristic vision of a guidance system where the car would be capable of following an electrical wire embedded into the highways of the future, sending signals for cars to follow thus providing both guidance and avoiding accidents.
Titanium is still utilised to this day, but not to the extent one might have thought. The financial constraints are simply too restrictive. But for me, this exquisite metal has nonetheless retained its magical glow, and it still gets an admiring and approving nod whenever I come across spare parts manufactured in titanium. The last time it was a complete exhaust system for a motorcycle…