Dreams and Nightmares—the clay studio edition

Here’s a second installment in MCG’s Dreams and Nightmares miniseries. In this big photo essay, we look at all the fascinating things that can go right and wrong in the modeling phase of automotive design.

 

 

Years ago, a veteran clay sculptor at GM Styling gave MCG a valuable insight into the art, craft, and science of auto styling. “The automakers will spend millions moving piles of clay around just because it’s so difficult to get it right,” he said. “A pretty picture is just a pretty picture. It doesn’t mean it will be a pretty car.”

And there’s the challenge of the modeling stage: transforming a two-dimensional rendering on a thin piece of art board into an actual, three-dimensional object that dwells in the human world. In this part of the process, designers learn if their ideas will work in reality—functionally and aesthetically.

For the purposes of this story, we use the term clay (actually, the stuff is industrial plasticine) generically. A number of materials have been used over the years to produce working models: Wood and plaster were popular early in the industry (wood also serving as a die model) while later on, fiberglass and carbon fiber have proven out. And naturally, rapid prototyping and 3D printing are now entering and changing the game.

Clay models were traditionally built over wood lath armatures, while today plastic foam (which can be CNC-sculpted) often serves as the substructure. With a rudimentary frame and pair of mobile home-type axles underneath, the fullsize models are sometimes called “rollers” or “pushmobiles.” Facelifts and partial restyling jobs often are performed on existing vehicles with clay, foam, and plastic filler materials piled on to crate a working mock-up, which can then be digitized and reproduced.

 

 

Models can be any scale from 1:10 to full size, while the level of detail and realism can vary greatly as well. In the ’50s and ’60s, Motor City clay modelers became highly skilled at using DI-NOC plastic film to simulate paint, metal foil to approximate chrome, and realistic trim details  like badges and door handles to create clay models that were quite convincing—in the photography at least, if not totally in person.

In the slide show gallery below you will also find half-models, which are placed against a mirror to create the illusion of a complete vehicle. Some models might represent one proposal on one side and a completely different look on the opposite side, or two-door and four-door versions on one model. Much of the fascination in studying these models.is in seeing all the techniques and approaches at work.

Then there’s the primary question: How does she look? In this big gallery of over 50 vehicles, you will find some truly beautiful designs, along with some faces that only a mother could love. We tried to provide some genuine surprises, too. In any case, please enjoy looking them over.

 

Buick LeSabre clay model
1932 Hudson clay model proposal
1953 Willys Aero prototype Station Wagon clay model Left Front
Buick clay proposal circa 1962
1955 Checker clay proposal
Buick clay proposal circa 1963
1946 Kaiser dash mockup
1959 Pontiac styling clay proposal
George Walker with clay concept 1955
1948 General Motors clay modelers
1929 Ruxton Sedan wood prototype model
Ford Advanced Styling clay model display
1965 Pontiac clay proposal 1963
1959 Pontiac clay model July 1957
1957 Ford clay scale model
1954 Dodge C1 truck clay proposal
1940s Studebaker scale model
1958 Oldsmobile clay model prototype
1956 Packard fullsize clay proposal
1958 Corvette clay proposal January 1956
1946 Cadillac Interceptor fullsize clay proposal December 1946
1929 Lasalle model
Chrysler 300 clay proposal 1957
Mercury Turnpike Cruiser concept scale model
1944 Pontiac fullsize clay proposal
1929 Ruxton roadster fullsize mockup
1948 Pontiac fullsize clay proposal
GM Styling 1946
1970 Plymouth Valiant Styling Proposal
1955 Hudson Hornet clay proposal
1957-58 Lincoln-Mercury clay proposal
1952 Ford studio with Volcano idea car
1959 Edsel clay proposal left front
1966 AMC AMX proposal gold
1949 Mercury clay model
1958 Edsel E 196 X concept clay model with George Walker at right
1959 Cadillac clay left rear 2-1957
1966 Buick Riviera clay proposal
1950 Ford Muroc clay model
1934 Volvo PV36 wood model
Bill Mitchell with Firebird models
1961 Dodge Dart clay proposal c1958
GM Clay model
1959 Edsel clay proposal rear
1945 Willys Station Wagon proposal
1957 Ford Nucleon in studio
Pontiac clay scale model circa 1936
1958 GM Firebird III wood mockup and clay model
1960 Desoto clay proposal c1957
1949 Lincoln clay proposal
1946 Kaiser fullscale mockup
1960 Edsel clay proposal
Chevrolet Daytona Pickup clay proposal
Ford Cougar mirrored clay model
1959 Buick clay proposal
Chrysler Airflow clay model 1933
1935 Packard 120 Coupe clay model
1948 Murray pedal car clay model

Buick LeSabre clay model

1932 Hudson clay model proposal

1953 Willys Aero prototype Station Wagon clay model Left Front

Buick clay proposal circa 1962

1955 Checker clay proposal

Buick clay proposal circa 1963

1946 Kaiser dash mockup

1959 Pontiac styling clay proposal

George Walker with clay concept 1955

1948 General Motors clay modelers

1929 Ruxton Sedan wood prototype model

Ford Advanced Styling clay model display

1965 Pontiac clay proposal 1963

1959 Pontiac clay model July 1957

1957 Ford clay scale model

1954 Dodge C1 truck clay proposal

1940s Studebaker scale model

1958 Oldsmobile clay model prototype

1956 Packard fullsize clay proposal

1958 Corvette clay proposal January 1956

1946 Cadillac Interceptor fullsize clay proposal December 1946

1929 Lasalle model

Chrysler 300 clay proposal 1957

Mercury Turnpike Cruiser concept scale model

1944 Pontiac fullsize clay proposal

1929 Ruxton roadster fullsize mockup

1948 Pontiac fullsize clay proposal

GM Styling 1946

1970 Plymouth Valiant Styling Proposal

1955 Hudson Hornet clay proposal

1957-58 Lincoln-Mercury clay proposal

1952 Ford studio with Volcano idea car

1959 Edsel clay proposal left front

1966 AMC AMX proposal gold

1949 Mercury clay model

1958 Edsel E 196 X concept clay model with George Walker at right

1959 Cadillac clay left rear 2-1957

1966 Buick Riviera clay proposal

1950 Ford Muroc clay model

1934 Volvo PV36 wood model

Bill Mitchell with Firebird models

1961 Dodge Dart clay proposal c1958

GM Clay model

1959 Edsel clay proposal rear

1945 Willys Station Wagon proposal

1957 Ford Nucleon in studio

Pontiac clay scale model circa 1936

1958 GM Firebird III wood mockup and clay model

1960 Desoto clay proposal c1957

1949 Lincoln clay proposal

1946 Kaiser fullscale mockup

1960 Edsel clay proposal

Chevrolet Daytona Pickup clay proposal

Ford Cougar mirrored clay model

1959 Buick clay proposal

Chrysler Airflow clay model 1933

1935 Packard 120 Coupe clay model

1948 Murray pedal car clay model

11 thoughts on “Dreams and Nightmares—the clay studio edition

  1. Unlike the last installment, I don’t feel that we missed out on any great ones.

    The Japanese would have loved the cartoon styling of both ’59 Pontiac mockups. They conjure up Mothra in my mind’s eye. In fact, I think the GM designers were doing LSD when they went to work on potential cars for that year. Look at that double-bubble Buick! On the other hand, I prefer the 1959 Cadillac to the final design.

    The 1957 Chrysler 300 was heavily influenced by the Batmobile.

    The 1960 Edsel would have definitely made people forget about the “lemon-sucking” grille, but not for the better. And the 1959 Edsel foreshadows the 1969 Pontiac.

    • Anyone who knows the history of Chrysler Styling knows that Virgil Exner was responsible for the 1957 Chrysler 300 and was influenced by clean truly aerodynamic design and thoroughly opposed to the “Blue Sky” type phantasies posed by the Batman series from its’ earliest beginnings through the first actual Batmobile in 1965. I, too, was mostly interested in true simplicity of form following function in those days as now.

      It’s easy for people to express an opinion 50 years later. Try really learning about something new, then experimenting with future directions to try to arrive at aesthetic truth, whether one likes it or not. What we have today is getting a little better, but still lacks character of aesthetic conviction.

      The model shown as # 48 of 58 is my finished 1/12 scale Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild contest model of 1946. I won first place in the Junior Division and a $4,000 University Scholarship at age 13. The photo was taken long after and had gone through a home fire. Of course I made a clay model first and cast it in plaster to be finished. Then I did the “Saturn Gold” paint job and details. Much influence by Studebaker in those days as my father was then the Chief Designer of Studebaker, but the influence went the other way, too.

  2. Thanks for your input, Andy. One limiting factor is the size of the slide show. The prevailing view is they shouldn’t be too long since web attention span is short. This is one of the longer slide shows we’ve done here. What’s a preferred length for this audience? I invite folks to weigh in.

  3. That Muroc is so ugly, it’d blind an eagle. Fortunately, some ideas can just be turned back into lumps of clay…

  4. I just wonder if the stylists ever stopped mid-sculpt and said “Sheesh, what were the designers drinking for lunch when they drew this?”

  5. Overall, I enjoyed the clay models. It would have been interesting to know how far into the future those sculptors were working, seeing how, in most cases, the major styling cues were present, but it looked like someone said “Throw a couple of dagmars there, some little fins here, and break up those long straight lines…I don’t care how you do it.”

  6. This is why the modeling phase is so critical and so fascinating. You know all these cars looked simply fabulous in the renderings. Or at least someone thought so.

  7. I’m OK with the length of this slideshow. What I don’t want to see is for it to become an actual slide show. I want to be able to see all of the pictures at once and have the ability to scroll up and down quickly instead of interminably clicking back and forth. I also object to the additional scripting that true slideshows require. I do not patronize sites that show me one picture and expect me to hit the arrow another ten to twenty times.

    They’re cars. How could we ever have too many pictures?

  8. Back in my brief life with Chrysler International in England I can remember seeing the mock ups being pushed out alongside the boiler house wall at Whiteley so ” senior management” could pass judgement. Why my US bosses in Finance as CPA’s should represent what UK punters would want to buy was always somewhat beyond me. Mind you I always liked the way they mocked up police blue light gear on any car laying around whatever its origins – sort of Starksy and Hutch in UK miniuture

  9. Bill, where do you get this stuff? Great presentation! From Murray pedal cars to the Buick LeSabre, it’s an amazing collection of images. The Buick twin bubble top should have made the cut, that thing would knock peoples socks off today, wouldn’t it? Thanks for this, kept me inside where it’s warm for a few extra minutes!

    Brian

  10. Absolutely wonderful stuff Mac. Whenever I see these way-out 50’s stylings it reminds me of the space-age anything-is-possible mood of the times.
    As for being too long for web attention spans, I think most of us regulars would happily wade through hours of this stuff. We’re probably not your typical teenage facebook junkies.

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