Following the Eye: Covering Up for the Auto-razzi

July 28, 2008

In the auto-razzi game of cat-and-mouse, the weapons of war are constantly escalating. Regular readers have been captivated by spy shots since the earliest days of TheCarConnection.com. But let's just say that industry planners aren't quite so pleased when we pull the covers off a product that might not hit the road for another couple years.

In the old days, manufacturers simply tried to steer clear of automotive spy photographers, like Brenda Priddy or Jim Dunne. But these days, it seems like the number of these auto-razzi is increasing exponentially. So it's no longer possible to simply steer clear, nor even put up better fencing around company-owned property, such as GM's Proving Grounds, in Milford, Michigan.

So just like any good war, manufacturers are putting a lot of emphasis on camouflage. Regular spy shot aficionados are familiar with the concept. Vehicles show up in pictures clad, to varying degrees, in tent-like fabrics. Sometimes you can still make out the details. Other times, you'd be hard-pressed to tell if you're looking at a sports car or a sport-utility vehicle.

These disguises have evolved over the years. Two decades ago, manufacturers began applying strips of black tape, hoping simply to confuse the eye. That evolved into bras and bibs meant to conceal front and rear details. Now, in their earliest stages, a prototype might be covered roof-to-wheel in material printed in zebra or moiré patterns. Even if you get a good shot off, it won't look the same in print. Hard plastic panels may be sewn together with soft nylon, not only to conceal, but also to create false and misleading shapes. Rectangular taillights may be rounded off, a sedan may suddenly seem as square as a station wagon. We've even seen one manufacturer bolt on another maker's badge, just to add another layer of confusion. Check out the Honda Hybrid spy pic, above, to see what I mean.

"We engineers hate this camouflage stuff," admits GM engineer Tim Herrick. That's because all that cladding compromises aerodynamics, especially air flowing to the engine and brakes, and it makes it difficult to impossible to work on wind noise issues. So, in a slow-motion striptease, manufacturers peel pieces off as they get closer to production. Near launch, they may actually try to get a vehicle spotted in order, says one industry source, "to build the buzz." I've personally experienced this on several occasions. I have a hard rule not to shoot future products when I'm actually on a carmaker's property unless specifically given permission. But a few years back, the shuttle bus I was taking at Ford's proving ground in Dearborn suddenly came to a halt - coincidentally, right next to the first undisguised version of the new Thunderbird I had yet seen. It was posed beautifully, and I had no doubt that it was parked there specifically for me. Click, click, post.

To minimize the negative dynamic impact for vehicle testers - while maximizing the visual effect - General Motors actually employs a team of engineers who do nothing but design camouflage for a living, Herrick notes. "It's a highly engineered product."

Yet as with any war, there's something of an arms race under way. As manufacturers get better at disguising vehicles, spy photographers struggle to find ways to capture a glimpse without cover - even turning to night vision systems. And failing that, there's always the computer. Some spies specialize in using the same software found in automotive design studios. Put a cover on a coupe and they'll digitally pull it back off. "Some of them," Herrick concedes, "can get pretty close."

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