COVER UP

Car­mak­ers go to great lengths to keep pry­ing eyes away from their top-se­cret pro­to­types, but not al­ways suc­cess­fully, writes STEPHEN OT­T­LEY

Herald Sun - Motoring - - Special Report -

FORD’S new FG Fal­con is only weeks away from go­ing on sale, but has been on lo­cal roads for years — you just didn’t see it.

Ford has had heav­ily cam­ou­flaged and dis­guised Fal­cons un­der test­ing on roads around Melbourne, rack­ing up cru­cial real-world in­for­ma­tion.

As you read this, new Chevro­let Ca­maros are prob­a­bly tear­ing up a road some­where near you as it goes through the same process ahead of its launch next year.

Cam­ou­flaged cars are a huge tool of car com­pa­nies but, thanks to pro­fes­sional spy pho­tog­ra­phers and rev-heads with cam­era phones, it is be­com­ing harder to keep things a se­cret.

Cars reg­u­larly ap­pear in news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines months and even years ahead of time be­cause of ea­gleeyed snap­pers.

Car com­pa­nies spend years de­sign­ing and en­gi­neer­ing new mod­els.

Ford and Holden, like all car­mak­ers around the world, spend months test­ing pro­to­types at test fa­cil­i­ties, such as those at You Yangs and Lang Lang.

But there comes a time when the test mules must make their way into the wider world for test­ing on proper roads.

That’s when the cam­ou­flage team steps in. It’s their job to hide the new lines of the pro­to­types from pry­ing eyes and cam­era lenses.

Hid­ing the dis­tinc­tive new look of a new model is cru­cial to en­sur­ing the ve­hi­cle makes an im­pact when it reaches show­rooms.

The process be­gins when the cars come off the draw­ing board and be­come metal. At this stage the com­pany’s cam­ou­flage team meets with the de­sign­ers to de­cided how best to hide the car’s new fea­tures. HIS of­ten turns into a ne­go­ti­a­tion be­tween the de­sires of the mar­ket­ing and de­sign de­part­ments and the needs of the en­gi­neer­ing di­vi­sion.

Mar­ket­ing wants to keep as much hid­den as pos­si­ble, to keep the sur­prises in store for the of­fi­cial un­veil­ing. En­gi­neer­ing wants as few ex­tra pieces on the car as pos­si­ble, to make sure all the test data is as ac­cu­rate as pos­si­ble.

Adding the cam­ou­flage can changes the aero­dy­nam­ics, han­dling, acous­tics, cool­ing and com­fort of the car, so a bal­ance must be struck be­tween the two groups.

Once that com­pro­mise has been reached, the cam­ou­flage team goes to work on the cars.

The main tools used are stick­ers, car bras and padded cov­ers. The stick­ers are an in­ter­est­ing story in them­selves.

Black and white checker­board has been the usual pat­tern most com­pa­nies use — in­clud­ing Ford and Holden — but in re­cent years a lot of work has

Tbeen done to im­prove the shape of stick­ers, to make them even more ef­fec­tive.

Aside from try­ing tri­an­gles and other sim­ple shapes, com­pa­nies are us­ing fished-shaped di­a­monds and a new style called ‘‘Flim­mies’’.

Flim­mies are de­signed to cre­ate a flick­er­ing ef­fect, to trick cam­era lenses. Then comes the padded body­work cov­ers for large ar­eas such as the front and rear of the cars.

‘‘The in-house team does the checker­board work,’’ Holden spokesman John Lind­say says.

‘‘We get the bras done by an out­side com­pany. They are cus­tom­made like a suit. It’s mea­sured just like you get at a tai­lor.’’

That’s no sur­prise given the front and back of cars are usu­ally the most cru­cial de­sign el­e­ments.

But work­ing head­lights and tail­lights are a must be­cause the car has to drive on pub­lic roads, so a close-fit­ting bra is a vi­tal part of the dis­guise.

The stick­ers and pad­ding break up the lines of the cars the de­sign­ers have care­fully crafted.

In some cases the stick­ers serve the dual pur­pose of con­ceal­ing the de­sign and mis­di­rect­ing the me­dia.

For ex­am­ple, on the new Holden VE Ute the com­pany de­lib­er­ately put a line of tape down the mid­dle of the car to make sure its new one-piece side panel re­mained a se­cret.

Car­mak­ers also try to throw the me­dia off the scent by us­ing the wrong badges and num­ber­plates.

Though this may sound straight­for­ward, as sim­ple as putting on a car bra and some stick­ers, it is any­thing but when you con­sider the size of the op­er­a­tion.

For ex­am­ple, over the course of the VE Com­modore pro­gram 200 cars were used. That’s a lot of stick­ers.

One of the big­gest prob­lems for car­mak­ers is that pro­fes­sional spy pho­tog­ra­phers know where the test­ing hap­pens and can stake out im­por­tant venues.

Even though most Com­modores and Fal­cons will never see snow, that doesn’t stop both com­pa­nies un­der­tak­ing cold-whether test­ing at Mt Hotham and sur­round­ing ar­eas.

The same ap­plies to hot weather test­ing in the North­ern Ter­ri­tory. UT in some cases the cam­ou­flage serves only to make the car at­tract more at­ten­tion. That was the case with the Ca­maro. The cam­ou­flage made the car stand out on Melbourne roads, lead­ing to a flood of ama­teur pho­tos on the web.

Gen­eral Mo­tors prod­uct de­vel­op­ment chief Bob Lutz was sent a let­ter from a mem­ber of the pub­lic, ask­ing why the car was heav­ily cam­ou­flaged, given that GM has al­ready shown the car at sev­eral mo­tor shows and it had had a star­ing role in the movie

BLutz re­alised it made lit­tle sense to hide the sub­tle changes to the pro­duc­tion model and told his en­gi­neers to re­move all cam­ou­flage from test cars.

Ford started its own trend of re­leas­ing ‘‘of­fi­cial spy pho­tos’’ in the build-up to a model be­ing un­veiled.

The pho­tos showed thinly dis­guised ver­sions of the car to act as a teaser to the me­dia and pub­lic.

The com­pany first tried it with the Ter­ri­tory and again with the FG Fal­con.

Ford in­cluded the Fal­con pho­tos as part of a CD of images of its new test­ing fa­cil­ity in Gee­long only months be­fore the of­fi­cial re­veal in Melbourne.

Hyundai fol­lowed by re­leas­ing a pho­to­graph of a dis­guised i30 in the lead-up to its lo­cal launch.

De­spite all the hard work of the cam­ou­flage teams, it is get­ting harder to keep things se­cret. Cam­era phones and the in­ter­net have changed the game.

In the past, car­mak­ers could go out into the world con­fi­dent there wouldn’t be a cam­era in ev­ery other car they pass.

Nowa­days most peo­ple have a cam­era in their mo­bile phones, so the chances of a dis­guised car not pass­ing a cam­era are re­mote.

If a qual­ity im­age is grabbed by a phone or dig­i­tal cam­era, it can be pub­lished on the in­ter­net within hours.

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