It was a crew of two in the design studio that Friday morning. Everyone in our newly-relocated crew from the Detroit studio was there earlier than usual because a good “welcome to California” earthquake had gotten us out of bed and under doorframes in a matter of seconds. Putting on business casual and driving from the temporary company-paid condo housing to the studio on the other side of the freeway was a better idea than trying to go back to sleep.
[Editor’s Note: This recurring series features a designer with real OEM experience and real insider stories to tell. They wish to remain anonymous, but the stories are true, with details and names changed to keep identities of people and companies secret.]
We were there to present to our bosses a new proposal for a mid-luxury production sedan; our design was meant to go head to head with two or three others being prepared by the studio in Detroit.
Our lead clay modeler and I were running on fumes because Richard, our remote chief designer, had dropped in on Wednesday and requested the headlights and grille all drop down a half inch. This was after he had made us add one more bar to the seven stacked horizontal bars — with all this in clay, small numbers add up to big work. On Thursday night, we had managed to call it done and ready for the big show on Monday, where the chief and his bosses would be flying in from Detroit to look at our progress.
A lot was riding on our performance at this new little SoCal studio. Plenty of guys back in Detroit were clearly jealous of the select bunch picked to set up shop in the brand new building with two full size clay development plates and a fantastic travertine viewing patio backed by an oak and chaparral hillside. The jealousy was amplified by the fact that, back in Michigan, one of the most miserable winters in years was in the process of administering brutal misery. I was PSM, project styling manager, so I was the key person responsible for the design output of the project.
Our secretary was only in the office in the afternoons, so it was my turn to make the morning coffee. The studio was quiet except for the hum of the air conditioner and the odd popping as the sun baked the metal roof high above the modeling floor. When we glanced around to see if anything was out of place from the morning quake, we noticed a whole row of the big overhead fluorescent bar lights that failed to illuminate; that was new. Some books had fallen off a shelf in the design library, and one of the massive panes of glass that looked out from the styling desk area had one big diagonal crack running through it. I probably had time to call our facilities contractor to fix both over the weekend so everything would look orderly for the Monday presentation.
My focus was half on the pot of coffee and half on what else I needed to do that day. The plan was to use Super 77 spray adhesive (which basically turns anything into a sticker) to affix the vellum sketches onto white foamcore, and then to arrange those sketches on the glossy white rolling boards that I would position next to the full sized clay prototype as a way to present the story of our design.
Mike, our clay lead, had a side mirror to clean up, attach to the driver’s side of the mockup, and cover with Scotchcal film (a glossy metallic film that can be stretched over clay to give the appearance of paint).
“Oh for cripes sakes, the face fell off!” Mike howled from across the studio at the clay plate area.
I thought he was just moaning again about how poor the fascia had looked since we had made the lowering revision earlier that week, but he continued to yell — with increasing volume and vulgarity. I quickly poured half a styrofoam cup of coffee and walked around to the front of the car where Mike stood grimacing through his fingers.
The front of the car was a horror show. The face HAD dropped off. The silver paint film managed to keep things somewhat connected, but the whole front of the car was actually on the floor, with the film on the hood looking like painfully stretched skin just managing to hold onto the entire front of the car . The monstrosity was something akin to an automobile design directed by David Cronenberg — nightmarish in its organic distortion.
The true horror of course was the fast realization that this had to be fixed. Fast. And by just the two of us. Design school adrenaline and instinct kicked in, and I jumped into action. I poked my fingers through the tight film and into the fracture between the clay and foam making up the car and its fallen face, and wrenched the film off completely, rolling the face forward with a thud, collapsing it into two pieces.
“Looks like it broke away at the foam,” Mike assessed as he hopped aside to dodge the debris that I was frantically pulling off the front.
“Yeah, obviously the dowels were too short for that weight. The tremor shook it all loose.” This was a revelation. I’d never seen anything like this happen in all my years in Detroit. A full-size clay model has a wood or steel frame, foam blocks to build volume, hedgehog spine-like wooden dowels stuck into that foam, and hot clay muscled on top in layers. Once cooled, the clay is carved into shape with steel rakes, knives, and flat scraping edges.
“Get the ovens, plug ’em in and get the clay hot, we have to get to packing.” Yanking a couple weeks worth of clay off the foam blocks, I hammered it back onto half inch dowels and quickly stapled the key front sketch and one crummy polaroid of the clay that we’d taken the night before. It was our only record of how our completed design had looked pre-quake.
Packing clay is hard work. In Detroit, it is often a specific union job. In those union studios, you can’t pack if you’re a designer — that’s taking someone’s job away. If you need clay packed, you call someone up and wait. It’s not fast, but it’s done right. There is skill in clay-packing. Apart from the physical strength needed to smear it on without air bubbles, you have to have tough skin built up in your palms and fingers, as the clay is applied at 140 degrees, straight from the ovens. The rolled-newspaper-sized logs of clay are heated typically in repurposed commercial portable bread warming ovens.
Here in our studio, with just two of us onsite, we didn’t have options. We didn’t need it done right…we needed it done fast. And at the speed we were going, I guessed the whole thing might fall off again, which was fine as long as it held together for the executive show on Monday.
By sunset, we had a full slathering of clay. Two junior clay modelers had joined us for packing, and we worked in shifts. We had a centerline template from the beginning of the project that ensured bumper beam clearance and that the design met overall length requirements. Our secretary, who didn’t have a whole lot to do at our small facility, was conscripted to bring us food throughout the day, and her last task before quitting was to get us double-doubles from In-N-Out.
As I slouched in a rolling office chair at the clay plate and chewed on the burger and those In-N-Out fries whose popularity I still don’t understand to this day, I once again glanced back and forth from the unfinished clay façade to the blurry little polaroid of how it had to look.
Friday was an all nighter, and Saturday morning I was basically unconscious, completely sleeping through my alarm and waking up in a panic. At the studio, Mike was on his back at the front corner of the car, cleaning up clay on the inside of the front wheel well. It was at that point that I made the call: “We’re putting the headlights and grille back up where I sketched them.”
Mike had a brow-furrowed look of concern, but I suspected that it was only because he didn’t want to have to move everything around a third time, not because we were ignoring the boss’s request; Sunday was probably the worst day — a Groundhog Day type of feeling, putting in the same lines and character surfaces and proportioning and balancing all the same as I’d done a week earlier. Nowadays, you’d have data or a scan file of the clay. You’d pack it on and just use an automated milling machine to cut it in overnight while you slept. You’d come in the next morning fully rested to clean it up quickly and Scotchcal it to finish. But these were the days of doing things the manual way, and apart from having to revisit every inch of that front design, we had to squint our way through the labor as the facilities guy came to work on fixing the lights which meant turning the power off completely every twenty minutes.
The studio went fairly dark and the air conditioning shut off. Despite the giant wall of windows, it wasn’t very bright. That was my introduction to SoCal “June gloom,” a thick foggy marine layer blotting out the sun — Los Angeles essentially in the form of London. In the 1970s and 1980s, Detroit studios all decided at once to try to open up studios in Southern California to see the development of shiny subtle automotive form in proper light. If anyone said that wasn’t good enough reason to invest in California commercial studio space, then the fallback explanation was: “This is where car culture is. This is the place to be effectively empowered by the trends that emerge.”
Sunday was all-nighter #2 and the one that really counted. Everything got sculpted in. Everything was mirrored over to the passenger side by the junior clay modelers, and by 3 A.M. on Monday, we were all shaped up to slick the clay, get it all tidy, and stretch the Scotchcal film over it.
At 6 A.M. I was stretching ¼ inch lines of black crepe tape to indicate parting lines for the bumper. I used wider, 5/8-inch black tape to simulate hood shut lines. Headlights get a different color of Scotchcal, usually white. If you have time, you can detail with bits of silver tape to make the lights appear as if they have parabola cans behind their lenses; we didn’t have time.
The most fiddly and delicate finishing area was the grille. Each bar was originally supposed to look like black matte plastic with a thin chrome leading edge — again, you would do this with black tape and chrome film tape. This go around, I made the judgment to just skip the chrome altogether and go for a Euro all-black look. The old school Detroit execs always thought chrome exuded luxury, but the young designers fought tooth and nail to remove every bit they could because, to them, it looked dated.
It was 9 A.M. and Mike was finally getting around to finishing up the side mirror and skewering it onto three wood dowels on the door just below the A-pillar.
As he did that, a junior modeler and I scraped the steel plates clear of clay shavings, and I got to work mounting sketches and prepping the presentation boards. By 2 P.M. everything was finally ready to go. Suited executives came through the lobby doors and our secretary, Carol, led them back into the studio.
Everything in an executive presentation is a blur. You have a few minutes to explain the design, the customer, what you are trying to achieve, and what issues with the current model you are trying to improve. There will be a few comments from the executives — the highest one in charge usually taking the lead, the subordinates usually just agreeing with him. Within a half hour, they’re done. You’re done. It’s always amazing how many hours of work by so many people comes to such a quick conclusion.
On his way out the door, chief designer Richard nodded to me and said: “I don’t know what kind of West Coast shenanigans you guys got into this weekend, but clean yourself up better next time. You look like hell and everyone’s eyes are red. And by the way, thanks for moving the headlights down for me. It looks much better like that.”