Sunday, November 7, 2010

Design News: Secret Cars Kept Under Wraps, in Public


CELEBRITIES wear disguises to dodge the paparazzi. Isn’t that Brad Pitt under the tweed flat cap and shades? Mel Gibson behind the silly mustache? Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen wearing cat whiskers?

The auto business, like Hollywood, has its own paparazzi, and the star cars wear their own disguises. So-called spy photographers like Brenda Priddy and Hans Lehmann use long telephoto lenses to capture images of the next Corvette or Porsche; the pictures are snapped up by car blogs and enthusiast magazines and carefully scrutinized by car-crazy readers.

In an effort to shield their still-secret products from prying eyes, automakers testing prototype models, often in the desert and at other remote locales, have long covered the grilles and headlamps with rubber, vinyl and tape — the perfunctory equivalent of masks and hats. Now the old materials are being replaced or supplemented with patterned wrappings applied like wallpaper. Test cars are wearing swirling paisley patterns, harlequin-style diamonds and cubist zigzags.

The vinyl wrappings are easier to apply and work almost as well as the older methods. While certain areas of a car might still be masked out or covered up, companies have found they save time and money with the new camouflage techniques.

The new patterns are often created by designers, according to Adrian van Hooydonk, design director for the BMW Group. And they are considerably less expensive than the elaborate masks that engineers once created.

That process was complex, he said: entire full-scale “bucks” of the new cars often had to be constructed, and then masking and padding had to be engineered for each one. Grilles and headlight shapes are crucial to a car’s identity, but to allow for realistic testing at high and low temperatures, engineers had to be careful not to cover the air inlets or alter the aerodynamics.

Mr. van Hooydonk said designers were pleased to take over the design of camouflage from their internal rivals, the engineers.

In the past, some test vehicles wore so many large boxy shapes that they looked like parade floats. The new patterns provide a sort of visual noise that hides the message, a buzz that disguises the tune.

Jim Dunne, a longtime spy photographer who famously bought land next to an automaker’s Arizona test track where he could set up his cameras, said he began observing the new patterns years ago. BMW used a swirling pattern, he said, which appeared on the new-generation 5 Series during testing near Munich. Opel and Saab have tried to hide their cars beneath checkerboard and harlequin patterns.

Ford once favored the look of repeated short brush strokes, as if done by a nervous calligrapher warming up. More recently, future Fords have worn patterns that recall caterpillars, microbes or a Keith Haring painting.

General Motors’ European subsidiary, Opel, has used vaguely biomorphic repetitive patterns that it calls fishies.

Other patterns attempt to visually break up the forms of the cars with bold shards that suggest World War I “dazzle ships,” painted with large jagged shapes to avoid detection by German submarines.

For instance, big pentagons have been showing up on some G.M. vehicles during testing, and the coming Buick Verano, a compact car related to the Chevrolet Cruze, was captured on camera in large triangles.

Even small manufacturers have joined the wrap party. McLaren tested its MP4-12C supercar with a pattern that looked like an oil painter’s rapid brush strokes.

One pattern is now so common that automotive photographers and publicists have given it a name, the Van Gogh look, a reference to the swirling, spiraling patterns in the artist’s “Starry Night” painting. While BMW may have developed the first camouflage that resembled those swirls, Audi and other companies have also used it.

Fooling the eye may also extend to fooling the electronic eye. Ms. Priddy, the spy photographer, said she thought automakers had assumed the swirling stars — as well as fuzzy blobs once used by Ford — would trick the autofocus settings of electronic cameras.

“It didn’t work,” she said.

Many companies, like Mercedes, still opt for all-black cover-ups, Ms. Priddy said. But her favorite disguise, encountered several years ago, took a totally different approach.

“The preproduction GMC Express vans were ‘camouflaged’ as airport shuttles and plumbing company trucks,” she recalled.