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How GM Hides Chevrolet Cars in Plain Sight

BANGKOK, THAILAND – If you’ve ever seen one in public you’ve probably looked twice or even three times – the first time with surprise, the second time with curiosity and the third time determined to figure out what it is. It’s a car, and probably a new car that is still being tested by the automaker, but it’s covered in camouflage, making it difficult to see body lines and other design details.

The styling of next-generation vehicles is a closely guarded industry secret, but automakers such as General Motors still need to test these vehicles on public roads before unveiling them at auto shows, such as the upcoming Thailand International Motor Expo in late November. Until then new designs stay “under wraps.”

GM camouflage experts say effective “camo” must balance styling secrecy with the need to validate vehicles in public. That’s why the task of creating camouflage is the responsibility of vehicle engineers, not designers.

“If it were up to me it would be a shoebox driving down the road,” said Lionel Perkins, GM camouflage engineer. “The design team wants us to cover more of the vehicle and the engineering team needs to have enough of the vehicle’s weight and aero exposed so that the tests in the development process are consistent with the product that will come to market.”

The engineers responsible for the eye-deceiving designs covering the car might deserve style points but their efforts are intended strictly to hide the metal beneath.
Some of the tricks of the trade:

  • Black and white patterns – The color scheme creates a shadow that hides vehicle design elements.
  • 3D – Layered camouflage throws off onlookers, but has to be applied without interrupting airflow around the car.
  • Swirls – In the old days of car camouflage, the design relied mainly on a grid pattern, but over the years engineers discovered that grids are difficult to realign if a piece is removed to make a change to the car. Swirl patterns better hide such developments.
  • Bubble wrap – Camouflage can be made from many different materials including plastics, vinyl and foam. Good, old bubble wrap is a lightweight, easily attachable three-dimensional material used to confuse prying eyes.

The camouflage package on next-generation Chevrolets starts six months in advance of early development. Every vehicle is different and tricks are constantly updated to keep spy photographers and the curious guessing.

“Each car is unique. We are like a dress maker, and the car is our model,” said Perkins. “No two models are the same. We need to make the right dress that fits the body we are dealing with.”