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