Automobiles are almost all designed digitally today. Each and every part is modeled in a 3D computer environment and all the components are fitted together to form a complete car.  This allows engineers to make sure that their parts will be the right size to fit different models and have the proper clearance to allow mechanics to repair the car.  However, there is one facet of the automotive design process that made its debut almost 100 years ago and is still used today.  That process is the sculpting and design process that is performed to make a clay model of every new car.

The first clay models

Automotive historians say that the first person to design a car utilizing clay modeling techniques was Harley Earl at General Motors. His clay modeling technique was developed in order to speed the development of new models. Previous to the development of the “a new model every year” concept, cars were designed for longevity. Look at the Model T Ford, for example. The first model built in 1908 was similar to the last model built in 1927. Henry Ford believed that automobiles should follow function and utility in their design. Harley Earl saw it differently. He believed that a new model every year would lead to more frequent car purchases and thus more profits. In order to assist with that process, he developed the clay modeling technique so new cars could be designed quickly.

Digital design techniques

Today cars are modeled digitally. Like the old days, a design might start on a cocktail napkin but it will be rapidly turned over to the digital modeling group who will make a 3D model of the vehicle. From there the car body will be placed over a digital rendering of the car’s engine, suspension and other chassis parts to make sure everything fits. At this point the automobile is almost completely designed but only exists as a 3D model which can be seen on a computer monitor.

Then the sculpting begins

While the final details of the car are being finished up, the sculpting department will get the digital files and will build a clay model that is four-tenths the size of the actual car.  Why, you might ask?  Well, at least at this point, the top brass of most of the world’s automobile manufacturers want to see the new car “in the flesh.” They want to see a clay model that they can spend time with and critique.


Another way for decision makers to see the new models being proposed would be to project the design in a virtual imaging environment such as holograms. The folks at Chuck Patterson Dodge of Chico, CA, a full Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram dealer say that most of the manufacturers are exploring this process but it hasn’t taken over the old fashioned clay modeling process. Someday it might but for today, we can expect to see clay models being used just as often as they were almost 100 years ago.


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