Illustration by mercedes.com
The Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG. Automakers jump through hoops to thwart "spy shots" of protypes.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 9/18/2009 7:21:16 AM ET 2009-09-18T11:21:16

In the auto-razzi game of cat-and-mouse, Nick Twork has been both hunter and hunted.

While still a teenager, waiting to get his driver’s license, Twork 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 the head of public relations for GM’s top-line Cadillac division.

“I’ve been pretty vocal about things that can lead to a spy shot,” he says, such as driving off company 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 shots” have always been a popular diversion for automotive enthusiasts, a mainstay of the industry’s publications, They are now often seen in more general circulation outlets also, especially with the growth of the Internet where more than 5,000 auto-oriented publications compete for attention.

That’s good news for the pros, such as Arizona-based Brenda Priddy, who have turned spy shots into lucrative careers. Priddy started out almost by accident,one local paper labeling her, “the mother with the babies in the back seat who beat out the pros.” But 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 of limited practicality, so the industry is becoming ever more creative with ways to disguise future products, using variations of the camouflage that has long been commonplace in the military.

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 its earliest stages, a prototype is likely to be covered roof-to-wheel in material printed in zebra or moiré patterns — some designs proving particularly effective when photographed. 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. Manufacturers have even been known to bolt on another maker’s badge, just to add to the confusion.

But there are trade-offs.

“We engineers hate this camouflage stuff,” complains GM engineer Tim Herrick, who has had to put up with testing heavily disguised products that the automaker 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 near-impossible to work on wind noise issues. So, in a slow motion striptease, manufacturers steadily peel pieces of camouflage off as a vehicle gets closer to production.

Companies have also brought in specialists to try to make their camouflage more effective — both to baffle viewers and to make it easier to test vehicles while under cover.

“It’s a highly engineered product,” says Herrick.

As with traditional spies, the cat-and-mouse game played out by automakers and the auto-razzi isn’t entirely cutthroat. Indeed, while manufacturers may lament the hassles the car spies pose, they also know they can play a part in the industry’s vast public relations machine.

Though both sides deny it, at least on the record, it’s not uncommon for an off-the-record call to be made, providing a tip where and when to have a camera ready. The nearer they get to launch, manufacturers may actually want to get a vehicle spotted, according to Dave Reuter, U.S. PR chief for Bentley. “It can be good publicity,” he says.

Just last month, a half-dozen Mercedes-Benz SLS supercars were mysteriously parked out front of a hotel on the Monterey, Calif., waterfront where more than 50 auto journalists and photographers had convened for a media event. Normally, such convoys are closely guarded, but no one from the German maker’s staff could be seen as the assembled horde started snapping pics and scribbling notes.

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.

“Digital technology can make it fast and easy,” says photographer Priddy.

“Some of them can get pretty close,” Herrick adds.

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 the best shots possible — sometimes crossing the soft line beyond pushy but legal.

Some years back, 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 fine selling his exclusives to German car magazines.

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