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.