Home » This Hidden Pontiac Concept Reveals How Concept Cars Are Made

This Hidden Pontiac Concept Reveals How Concept Cars Are Made

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One of the things that’s part of our remit here at the Autopian is to take you behind the curtain. To reveal the inner workings. Not of the Autopian of course; no one wants to see that particular set of entrails from a failed sausage-making experiment (although from time to time we do lift the lid for our valued members). No, we want to be the flashlight that illuminates the automotive industry dungeon and shows you the things you won’t learn about anywhere else.

One of the most secretive parts of the automotive industry is the design process, and that’s why I’m here as a professional car designer, all-around curmudgeon, and resident wit, to try and pierce the veil. Good job really, as outside of this madhouse I’m essentially unemployable. The design process of a car is shrouded in secrecy for good reason: the same as in any other creative endeavor, OEMs don’t want to let on what they are up to before they’ve finished. They don’t want their competitors to know their intentions and would rather not risk a potential Osborne effect by damaging sales of existing models if customers realize something newer is coming along. There is a final good reason that is particularly apposite in the hyper-connected social media age: the risk of an almighty backlash if fans and enthusiasts of the brand don’t like what they are seeing.

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What if a manufacturer wants to give customers and the press a tease of what they are up to? They might have an innovative design direction in mind, or an idea for a new model, and want to warm the audience up and gauge their reaction. The time honored method of doing this in the past was to release a concept car – a sneak preview of what is currently occupying the minds of the people who wield the marker pens. Depending on the reaction from customers and the press, they push it forward and a watered down version goes into production.

Or they might realize they’ve made a balls up so gigantic, the corpse of the chief designer is hidden inside a clay model and the concept itself is parked in a dusty corner of a forgotten warehouse never to be spoken of in polite company again. The days of huge convention halls full of splashy displays and drunken auto journalists are long gone: the death of the traditional motor show means these days most concepts exist solely as digital properties, with no physical form at all. But concept hard models are sometimes still used, internally for design approval, and externally for smaller-scale PR events. Thanks to the munificence of GM Design, we can look at a never-before-seen before concept being constructed. But GM being GM, as a great military man once said: I hope pain is something you enjoy. Because it’s a Pontiac.

The G8 That Never Was

Over the last couple of days, the excellent GM Design Instagram account has released a series of images showing the last Pontiac concept car ever created. Called the G8, it was completed at the GM Advanced Studio in California during 2008, shortly before the whole brand was taken out back and murdered. Looking through these images is not only a wistful look at what could have been, they give us a fascinating insight into how concept models are made and a tiny snapshot of the design process itself. So let me be your flashlight as we take a closer look.

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First up, the sketches. Really these are renders as opposed to just sketches as they contain a lot of detail. Sketches typically refer to the quick line drawings you would do to get your initial ideas down. Some designers do this straight into Photoshop; I was always more comfortable doing mine on paper with a ballpoint until I had something I liked. Then I’d scan that in, tweak it and then start blocking in color, shadows and highlights, and additional details. What’s interesting here is although the first is done from a dramatic high front three quarter viewpoint, the second and third are straight front and rear views. You wouldn’t normally use these views as they tend to look a bit static. Not having worked for them I can’t speak to GM’s studio standards, but these front and rear views may be to guide the clay modelers. When Harley Earl was the chief, anybody who started modelling without orthographic plan views would be in for an outsized bollocking from the big man, so this way of working may be a hangover from those days.

A Real Studio Clay This Time

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Speaking of modeling, here’s the clay model on the plate. The initial design stages of a concept car are the same as they are for a production model: sketches and renders are done, a favorite theme(s) is chosen, and an initial clay model is made. Peeking out through the rear windshield area and the taillights you can see the underlying foam buck. You can glimpse the front and rear wheel arches as well. The old-fashioned desktop PC behind the model is not for playing Doom during a coffee break – it’s for controlling the milling head (these days it’s all networked – no direct PC connection is needed). Look closely at the images on the boards at the back: the outlined image is for a completely different car, a sort of two-door hatch. Remember this is the advanced studio, no work on cars for production would have been done here, so this is an alternate proposal that didn’t make it.

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This second image shows the clay model from the opposite side. Again, the foam buck is peeking out through the headlight openings, but if you look into the front wheel arch you can clearly see the metal armature that supports the whole model. In the background, several smaller-scale clays are being worked on. If you’ve got the time and enough modelers, fourth or fifth-scale clays can be worked up by hand much quicker than a full-size one. The designers use these smaller models to help them decide which theme should proceed to full size. At the top of the picture you can see the horizontal strip lighting, which allows for checking of highlights when the model is wrapped in Di-noc.

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Onto The Hard Stuff

Obviously, then GM Vice President of Design Ed Welburn was happy, because the hard model is now being built. This is the point where the design of a production car, and the creation of a concept car begin to slightly diverge, so let’s take a minute to understand what we’re talking about. A concept car is an incredibly detailed, extremely expensive hand-built model. They may have limited lighting functionality or even the ability to be driven at low speed. It’s even possible to make them radio controlled, so they can perform all manner of magic tricks by an operator off-camera. It’s all a grand Oz-like illusion. We do use similar hard models as part of the design process of a production car, but they won’t have anything like the same level of detail or complexity at this stage. Their purpose is simply to capture the design at that point in time, for board approval.

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Most of the large parts that create the interior will have been milled out of hard foam. It’s like that green stuff florists stick fake flowers in, but much denser, which means it can take and hold an extremely high level of detail and edge fidelity. Once the pieces are milled, they are painted in primer and hand finished in the paint shop. The bright blue foam padding for the seats is much softer making the edges rougher. Detail parts like controls, instruments and minor controls will have been rapid prototyped. Look at the gap between the inner and outer parts of the rear door – there’s a small block spacing the two parts, because these things are fragile.

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This rear three-quarter shot shows the model is quite a long way towards being ready for paint and final trimming. The outer body panels are made from GRP, popped out from molds milled of the same hard foam then sprayed in primer and rubbed down by hand, much the same way as the interior parts. Although it feels a bit early for wiring in any electric items, the rear lights are lit – anything like this will simply be plugged into a battery and a switch hidden somewhere on the car. When I went to the Car Design Event back in March, the Kia PV5 Concept van that was present kept glitching its frontal display and flickering its interior and exterior lighting, so the guys looking after it simply turned the whole thing off.

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From the front three quarter it looks like the headlights are lit as well. The metal trim around the grill and lower vents will be milled from a solid block. In the background it looks like there’s a paint booth behind the model, remember this is a smaller satellite studio so it must be self-contained – you can’t send half-built concepts back to the mothership halfway across the country for painting.

The Last Gasp Of A Dying Brand

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The finished object, outside the famous rotunda at the Tech Center in Warren, Michigan. Every design studio will have an outdoor secure viewing garden where models can be scrutinized in the open air in natural light (or pissing rain). The model is sitting on a turntable, not because designers are lazy but to rotate the model so it can be observed from a number of angles with a consistent light source and background. The description on the Instagram post accompanying these images says this is a ‘fully functioning vision.’ You can glimpse the brake discs behind the typical concept big wheels. They’re not just there for verisimilitude – if this model can be driven (slowly) then you still need to stop the damn thing. It’s entirely possible that some poor Holden Commodore or production Pontiac G8 donated its Zeta organs so this concept could live. At Land Rover we did something similar with our Defender concept (never publicly shown) which was built on the shortened bones of V8 Range Rover Sport, including its complete engine and running gear.

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Compare the finished interior with earlier images. Those acres of grey primer have been painted, trimmed and detailed. At arms length and without touching anything, outlandish shapes aside it’s indistinguishable from a real car, although trying any of those switches would have the effect of precisely fuck all. Apart from the driving controls my guess would be the only things that do anything are the door handles. I really like the distressed leather used, but not being a sealed surface it wouldn’t be practical for production. Finally, a money shot of any designer’s favorite part, the humongous wheels. They are wrapped in real road tires: another small lie but as Homer would say they were all part of a single ball of lies.

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Ultimately we don’t know what the purpose of this concept was. Was it to be used internally, a last-ditch effort by managers to save the brand in the eyes of the board? Maybe shown in public to gain support for the same reason? It’s a slightly curious thing from a design point of view – typically GM-of-the-time heavy-handed, and it has a weird trunk-shaped hatch – not fully one thing or the other. The rear light graphics are straight from a Solstice, but the front is much more progressive and advanced. I don’t quite know what to make of it, but at least now you know how it was made.

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Ben Chia
Ben Chia
14 days ago

From the side profile there are some hints of Maserati there.

It does look good, especially the interior. Shame it came from an ill-fated brand.

General Motoring
General Motoring
14 days ago

The finished object, outside the famous rotunda at the Tech

It’s called the Design Dome, or just the Dome. Rotunda is more of a Ford thing.

Jason Roth
Jason Roth
14 days ago

Really enjoyed being walked through the process (including links to the esoteric products used), so thanks, Adrian.

As for the design itself, while I tend to agree that it’s a bit unresolved, I also think that there are some very appealing aspects. First, I’ve always liked the Solstice, and I like the reuse of the taillight concept here. The whole tail is an unusual shape for a sedan, and I think it works well to distinguish it from more workaday models.

I also like the overall side profile, which I think is dynamic and distinctive without being cartoonish, and I rather like the transition to the rear, including the odd trunk lid/hatchback.

As for the front, clearly the lighting graphic was translated pretty directly into recent Caddy sedans, where I’ve never loved them. That said, I like them a bit better here because of how they work with the snout. Which I find borderline ugly, but also think could work well with some tweaking of proportions. As with so many things, there’s a fine line between brilliant and stupid, and I think the basics of the nose—curving down from the hood rather than breaking sharply, moving the grille closer to the ground rather than above a bumper line—could be brilliant, even if they’re executed a little stupidly here.

Mr E
Mr E
14 days ago

True, this car was never built, but the original Fisker came close to it.

I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing.

Anthony Magagnoli
Anthony Magagnoli
14 days ago

I just saw this car on Father’s Day at the Eyes on Design car show at the Edsel Ford house, where I had one of my own cars on display. GM had a bunch of past concept cars on display, which were very cool to see!

Anthony Magagnoli
Anthony Magagnoli
14 days ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

I’d been hearing about it for several years, largely through Ralph and Doris Gilles. When they reached out to the BMW CCA looking for a specific car, I was honored to submit mine. It took a lot of effort to make it happen and drag the wife and our almost-2 yr old twins out for the day, but I’m glad we did.

Steve P
Steve P
14 days ago

A Grey/Turquoise interior would be rather refreshing today.

Alan Christensen
Alan Christensen
15 days ago

It’s a very nice looking car, but I’m trying to imagine what my 2008 self would have thought. My tastes evolve, sometimes slower than the trends. I suspect I would have felt the grill was too large and cartoonish — the way BMW grills are today. (Oh god, in 15 years will I look back admiringly at those hideous things?) Would I have thought the taillights were too high? Would I have thought the headlights looked cribbed from Cadillac? Would I have thought the doodad on the side was cool, or a silly affectation like I do now? Fun mind game.

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