Automakers Get Creative with Camo

March 6, 2006

More TCC Spy Shots


In the auto-razzi game of cat-and-mouse, Nick Twork has been both hunter and hunted. A decade ago, as a tall and lanky teenager, he began bicycling out to the General Motors Proving Grounds, in Milford, Mich., snapping pictures of future vehicles that strayed a little too close to the perimeter wall. These days, however, Twork is literally working the other side of the fence, as a product specialist in Ford’s public relations department.


“I’ve been pretty vocal about things that can lead to a spy shot,” he says, like driving off Ford property in the prototype of a future vehicle — especially if it isn’t carefully concealed.


This is war, after all, and you better not go out without your camouflage.


Spy hunting


“Spy shots” have always been a popular diversion for automotive enthusiasts, a mainstay in publications likeAutoWeek, Britain’s Car, and Germany’s Auto Motor und Sport. With the growth of the Internet, and its myriad automotive Web sites, such as, demand for these sneak peeks has been growing exponentially.


That’s good news for the pros, including Europe’s Hans Lehmann, and the States’ Jim Dunne and Brenda Priddy, who have turned spy shots into lucrative careers. And now, with the advent of cheap digital cameras and the nearly ubiquitous camera phone, it’s almost impossible for a manufacturer to avoid exposure.


So they’ve come up with creative ways to baffle the spies and confuse the eye. In some cases, makers like General Motors will mount an old body on a new platform undergoing testing — so-called “mules.” But that’s seldom practical, so the industry is becoming ever more creative with ways to disguise prototypes.


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 is likely to be covered roof-to-wheel in material printed in zebra or moiré patterns. 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.


But there are trade-offs.


“We engineers hate this camouflage stuff,” admits Tim Herrick, the assistant chief engineer on GM’s GMT900 truck program. That includes such 2007 models as the newly-updated Chevrolet Tahoe and Cadillac Escalade, full-size sport-utility vehicles that General Motors desperately wanted to keep hidden as long as possible.


All that cladding compromises aerodynamics, especially air flowing to the engine and brakes, and it makes it impossible to work on wind noise issues. So, in a slow motion striptease, manufacturers peel pieces off as they get closer to production.


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.”


Tipping the lenses


Spy photographers are, by nature, a cagey lot, and to survive in their hotly competitive field, they’ve uncovered secret hiding places, and even developed networks of insiders who’ll provide tips where to be stationed on a particular day.


Though most spies deny it, Ford’s Twork suggests some of those calls might come from the PR department. Near launch, manufacturers may actually want to get a vehicle spotted in order, says Twork, “to build the buzz.” During a media event at the GM Proving Grounds last autumn, for example, an undisguised version of the new Cadillac Escalade rolled up in front of the group, idled for a couple moments — as reporters frantically grabbed for their cameras — then drove off.


As with any war, there’s something of an arms race underway between spies and manufacturers. As automakers get better at disguising vehicles, spy photographers struggle to find ways to capture a glimpse without cover — even turning to night vision systems.


A 47-year-old Bavarian detective and car-spy wannabe wound up facing jail time for secreting a remotely controlled camera onto the Volkswagen test track, hiding it in a bird’s nest. He nabbed a variety of significant shots before the ruse was uncovered, but in the end, he reportedly netted far more than the 15,000-euro fine selling his exclusives to German car magazines.


If all else fails, 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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