Peter Brock: The lost art of clay design models

[Editor's Note: This article originally ran in the March 2013 issue of Classic Motorsports.]

I recently started a new clay model in our shop as part of a project to redesign a classic AC Aceca coupe. I hadn’t realized that there was so much interest in the venture until the word got out among my car-guy friends and they began stopping by to take a look at this archaic art form. It’s evident by their fascination with the process that something has been lost since the days that car design was such a hands-on process.

Working as an independent automotive designer most of my life, I’ve had the rare opportunity to work with some of the finest craftsmen and engineers in the world. Starting out at age 19 at GM Styling (that’s what it was called back in 1956 when then-VP of Design Harley Earl ran the show as his own personal fiefdom), I was fortunate enough to acquire some basic skills from the best collection of designers, artisan craftsmen and design execs in the industry. All those old-timers—like wild man Bill Mitchell, who took over from Earl—are gone now, but their freely given knowledge, advice and techniques are still the practical and mental tools I carry with me and use today. 

Beginning at GM Styling was rather like starting at the top, but after that, whether working in Medardo Fantuzzi’s tiny carrozzeria in Modena, Italy, or with master metalsmiths like Emil Diedt at Troutman-Barnes in Culver City, California, or with Don Borth and Red Rose building the TR250K for Kas Kastner of Triumph, I kept on acquiring new skills that were, ironically, already becoming dated as the industry forged ahead, always focused on making things faster and more efficiently for the world of production design. 

The hands-on art of creating a singular elegant automotive shape using traditional methods somehow kept fading away as the world advanced with ever more sophisticated computer-aided devices. Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with complexity, but at the cost of losing those basic skills, one has to wonder if it’s really been worth it. 

While at GM I used the most sophisticated equipment then available, but today only a few of the old guard remember what those were. Full-sized, metal-surfaced drawing tables with milled pencil-groove grids that had to be kept at constant warmth so carefully drawn dimensions wouldn’t change with temperature were the standard. Even the paper used on those tables was required to cure for several hours before use so it could stabilize. Today, almost everything is on screens or even full-sized projections. 

This era’s fantastic electronic wizardry is the perfect solution for huge corporations with design programs intended for mass production, but it’s useless technology for would-be designers who can’t afford the cost of such equipment to create a one-off concept. Take the art of sculpting a concept in clay. 

When Earl introduced the medium to the world of automotive design at GM back in the ’20s, it was considered a pretty radical departure from the traditional three-view engineering that had been perfected by the industry’s skilled draftsmen of the early ’20s. In time, though, clay completely altered the process of automotive design—much as computers have changed the way things are done today—but the cost and technology involved wasn’t so different that it couldn’t be easily utilized by individuals with the passion to begin on their own. 

Clay models are still “sculpted” by hand in several of the world’s major automotive design studios, but now most of the work is done by computer-driven, high-speed, five-axis mills carving foam. The whole process of carefully creating a new form by hand is being lost, as new ideas are created on screen and directly transferred to the machines that do in hours what used to take days of carefully detailed handwork. 

It’s the loss of that coordinated hand-and-eye work in clay that affects so much of modern automotive design. I see those errors in metal on the road every day. The art of car design is being replaced by the necessity to compress time to meet ever more stringent deadlines. The laborious process of applying clay to an armature and then carefully sculpting that surface benefits the final form because of the constant scrutiny from every angle as the form emerges from what first began as an amorphous lump of mud. 

That critical design process can’t be duplicated on a screen, as clay doesn’t lend itself to speed. Even if it did, speed isn’t the essence of great design. It requires the luxury of time to savor the variants of form. Even sketches and beautifully hand-rendered concepts have given way to electronic presentations. Even with the ability to view such well-crafted forms in rotating virtual 3D on a screen, it’s still in two dimensions. Clay offers the classic alternative. 

I still savor my hours spent on a large drawing board or working in clay. Adjusting light on a panel’s surface by adding a few thousandths of an inch of clay can make a subtle difference that can’t really be fully appreciated on screen. 

If a project isn’t too far along, I usually offer my guests the opportunity to smear on some hot clay and then carve off some cooled material so they can experience what it’s like to work in this almost obsolete but still valid medium. There’s something very satisfying about working in clay because the process offers infinite opportunities for change and refinement. 

Every designer soon learns that a rushed detail that becomes compounded by the thousands in production is hard to live with, especially when they see it again in myriad colors on the highway where others can critique it as well. It becomes a lesson never forgotten. I rather like being a dinosaur

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msterbeau New Reader
8/16/21 4:54 p.m.

Full size and scale clay models are still used at every manufacturer that I'm aware of.  The College for Creative studies still has a clay modeling certificate program, and transportation design students are still required to make models with it.  It's not dead at all.  

10/14/22 2:52 p.m.

Don't know if the "bucks" are still used as part "checks" any more but talk about another lost method of building a car. In a slightly related note to this article, anybody else remember the Fischer Body Craftsman's Guild (hope I got the name correct) where youngsters would submit their models of futuristic cars. Theres another portion of the auto industry that has moved away from. 

7aull New Reader
10/14/22 6:59 p.m.

Great story with a few Big Holes that is a total tease for a reader:

1) if I need to understand how Clay became de jour over "Three view Engineering"

could you plse give some idea of just WHAT that was??

2) PICS! You say you are currently working in clay for (wow!) a 'new' AC Coupe!?

The design might be proprietary, but some sort of images of YOU doing some clay-work??? EPIC! plse!!...


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