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Old 01-06-2015, 01:15 PM   #1
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Inside the hush-hush competitive world of concept cars

In 2002, Cadillac wanted to reinvent its image with a visually stunning concept car sporting a huge engine at the 2003 Detroit auto show.
Leading up to the event, Ford heard rumors about what would turn out to be the 1,000-hp Cadillac Sixteen. Ford figured that its rival was going big with the concept's engine, but it didn't know how far Cadillac would go.
Ford, ready to debut its 427 concept sedan at the same show, thought Cadillac would use a V-12 engine. So in a pre-emptive response, Ford decided to have concept car manufacturer Special Projects Inc., which was building the 427, drop a V-10 into the car at the last minute.
But little did Ford know that through all of its second-guessing around Caddy's project, the Sixteen and 427 were neighbors in the Special Projects compound.
Special Projects, a master of secrecy like any company that wants to survive in the business, had built both vehicles.
The Sixteen "was in the room right next to theirs, but nobody knew. Nobody had a clue because of security here," recalled Terry Steller, general manager of Special Projects, as machines working on another secret job hummed in the background at the suburban Detroit compound.
Protecting the secrets of industry rivals while simultaneously working with them to outshine one another can be a peculiar position. But for concept car wizards such as Special Projects, American Specialty Cars and Aria Group, it's business as usual.
Many consumers probably know little about the companies, which is how concept craftsmen prefer to operate -- under the radar, in the shadows.
"All those great guys who stood behind The Miracles, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross, they helped make the Motown sound. We do that for the global auto industry," said Brian Baker, vice president of design for American Specialty Cars in suburban Detroit, which has built concepts such as the Chrysler 300C-based ASC Helios convertible unveiled at the 2005 Detroit auto show. "We're happy to be the studio players."
In 1965, Heinz Prechter founded American Sunroof Co., which introduced sunroofs to American consumers. The company later became ASC Inc., and today it's American Specialty Cars.
The Sixteen was a huge effort all around, with the concept's steering wheel alone requiring 400 hours to create.

The Sixteen

The Sixteen, which took seven months to produce instead of the typical four to six months, was built in conjunction with aluminum supplier Alcoa. It was loaded with the latest aluminum parts, including the chassis and floorpans.
General Motors built a test Suburban SUV to house the Sixteen's massive 16-cylinder engine until Special Projects was ready to insert it.
The Sixteen was a huge effort all around -- Steller said the concept's steering wheel alone required 400 hours to create. A crew of GM designers also set up shop at the Special Projects site during the build.
"It had 28,000 man-hours on it. That was at that time when they were reinventing Cadillac," said Ken Yanez, president of Special Projects. Concept cars are "the fastest way [for automakers] to change the image of something, to project their image of the future for that brand."
Yanez started Special Projects in 1983, and the company has built a concept resume that includes the Pontiac Solstice and Chevy Volt, along with Ford's GT40 and Freestyle crossover.
In addition to building concepts, Special Projects stores and maintains Ford's show cars. The warehouse is a real-world design timeline with show cars such as the Atlas concept pickup that previewed the aluminum-bodied 2015 F-150; the retro Thunderbird concept that's a near-clone of the ill-fated convertible that hit stores as a 2002 model; the aluminum-bodied Ford Shelby GR-1 from the 2005 Detroit auto show; and the former American Sunroof Co.'s Vision concept that debuted in 1985, the first prototype Special Projects ever built.
Yanez said some of the concepts end up getting sold as art.

The Kia GT4 Stinger that debuted at the 2014 Detroit auto show is among the concept vehicles in Aria Groupís portfolio.

Concept to reality

Concept vehicles are no longer science projects with little chance of reaching production. Instead of futuristic showcases, such as GM's 1956 Firebird II with its titanium body and bubble top, many of today's concepts are aimed at becoming production vehicles, such as Acura's TLX prototype that debuted at the 2014 Detroit auto show and was in stores a few months later.
Chrysler initiated the era of production-minded concepts in the 1990s when it flaunted designs such as the Viper and Intrepid that it could put on the streets, American Specialty Cars' Baker said.
He said it's rare for a car to hit the market today without being influenced by a concept vehicle.
"Concept cars allow you to gauge public reaction. If the public absolutely loves your concept car, it's dangerous to put that right into production. It means it doesn't challenge them at all," said Baker, a former GM designer. "A really good design, the first time you see it, should make you feel excited, but slightly uncomfortable."
Concept vehicle makers typically build everything visible on the vehicles except the tires, glass and engines. The list includes the wheels, bodies, headlights, grilles, windshield wipers, seating and door handles.
Baker said today's auto design leaders have no problem making decisions based on digital 3-D models. The digital revolution that began in the mid-1980s, he said, has made concept vehicles more complex while trimming the creative process by as much as three months.
"Now, a guy can sit at a tablet, sketch real time, look at it projected full size on the wall in front of them, and management can come in and say, 'Yeah, maybe raise that rear fender,'" Baker said.
The creative cycle of concept cars is a series of peaks and valleys that depends heavily on the economy, says Aria Group CEO Clive Hawkins.
Aria, an Irvine, Calif., company co-founded by Hawkins in 1995, is behind show cars such as the racy Kia GT4 Stinger that debuted last year at the Detroit auto show, the big-bodied Ford Interceptor sedan and the Tesla Model S.
During the late 1990s, Hawkins said the auto industry -- along with the economy -- was booming as it underwent a "revolution" in car design. It was a hot time for the concept market.
Then in the mid-2000s, the economy was chugging along once more. Customers wanted new products, Hawkins said, and automakers were anxious to deliver fresh ideas.
Then the recession hit, siphoning creative juices from the industry.
"During the crisis, customers got very conservative in the products they were buying, not really wanting to get extravagant and think about different ideas," Hawkins said. "Now, I think it's coming back again. It's driven more by the consumer at the end of the day and consumer interest in buying something new and different."

Problem solvers

American Specialty Cars, like other concept vehicle makers, can build prototypes -- but unlike the other companies, American Specialty Cars also can manufacture low-volume production vehicles.
For instance, the former ASC modified the engine and tweaked the body of the Buick Grand National to manufacture the low-volume 1987 Buick GNX.
Later, while Baker was still at GM, he sent the low-volume SSR sports truck project to ASC. GM partnered with ASC's design team, Baker said, and ASC sent a group of employees to a GM assembly plant in Lansing, Mich., to install ASC's retractable hardtops on SSRs as the trucks came off the line.
Today, American Specialty Cars manufactures 5,000 automatic handicap access ramps each year that it designed for the AM General MV-1 van at American Specialty Cars' Lexington, Ky., plant.
ASC's diversified skills have helped it weather tough times that included a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing in 2007.
"When the tech world hit in the early 2000s, a lot of people thought you could do everything on a computer. A lot of companies didn't survive because of that," said Joseph Bione, American Specialty Cars' CEO. "You still need the artisans to shape the clay and mold the clay. You can't do everything in a virtual world. The industry is coming back looking for that skill set, and there aren't a lot of us left."

Aria Group built the Bumblebee Chevrolet Camaro in the 2014 movie Transformers: Age of Extinction.

Hollywood connections

Aria has dabbled in Hollywood since around 2001 -- building movie promotional items and vehicle mockups such as the Bumblebee Chevrolet Camaro in the 2014 movie Transformers: Age of Extinction, along with an array of futuristic vehicles for 2009's G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, 2012's The Avengers and other films.
Hawkins said designers from automakers often work side by side with Aria's designers and engineers at the 70,000-square-foot operation during assembly.
The builds typically take four to six months, but when the design and research efforts of the automaker are taken into account, the entire project can take a year. Hawkins said concepts usually require 4,000 unique parts. Special Projects' Yanez said the average price for a concept vehicle build is around $2.5 million.
Hawkins compared developing a concept vehicle to putting together a "huge jigsaw puzzle," except Aria must build the thousands of pieces itself. Some concepts, however, are built for internal design review by automakers and are never seen in public.
Aria's first public concept was the Hyundai OLV shown at the 2003 Detroit auto show.
"Nearly every one of them is so challenging to make. We're always trying to make more complicated things -- headlights and glass that's a different shape and hard to make, body panels that are really difficult. Everything is super challenging," Hawkins said. "That's the whole point of designing things that will be in the future -- to push the envelope a little bit. I don't think we've ever built a simple car."
While most of the concepts can be driven at low speeds, Hawkins said the company has built some that can handle the racetrack. The Aria team packed the Ford Shelby GR-1 concept with a V-10 engine and let legendary designer Carroll Shelby take it for a spin.

Shrouded in secrecy

Concept car makers don't play favorites, something former GM design chief Wayne Cherry learned during a visit to the Special Projects compound.
Cherry, who couldn't find a parking spot out front, tried to get into the building through a classified entrance. He was wearing a modest winter coat, Steller recalled, and appeared to be a passer-by off the street. So he was denied entrance.
"Even if they knew who he was, they wouldn't let him through that door," Steller said.
All it takes is one leaked secret to sink a concept car company, so such vigilance is essential.
When it's time for Aria to transport a vehicle, Hawkins said, it's covered and moved in the middle of the night. Meanwhile, American Specialty Cars' Baker said if a staffer is assigned to a specific client, the employee's pass will work only in certain doors at the company.
Even the skies aren't always safe. Baker said he has heard of helicopter pilots who monitor traffic in Los Angeles being offered hefty bounties to capture photos of concept vehicles from the air. He said this sometimes resulted in fabrication studio teams making a mad dash to cover projects when choppers are heard.
Baker said of the concept car trade, "There is something fun in not being able to tell your family everything you do."
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Old 08-13-2015, 12:34 AM   #2
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Re: Inside the hush-hush competitive world of concept cars

These cars really dominated from the decades.
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