Mud and wood: The simple basis of modern car design

How does a car come to be? Many of us picture a designer sketching a vehicle on a napkin in a moment of inspiration, and that’s what makes it to the showroom a little while later. In reality, cars are created by teams of designers, some of whom work specifically on tiny details, and it can take three years or more.

“Design is not a linear process,” says Adrian Van Hooydonk, senior vice-president of BMW Group Design. “We always do a design competition, meaning that I brief the design team, and the designers do lots of sketches. I look through them with my design managers, I select the most promising ones, and then together with the board of management, we select the exterior and interior designs that will lead the company into the future.”

Many designs do actually start with a pencil sketch, but the bulk of the work is done with CAD (computer-aided design), which lets designers work on a virtual three-dimensional model. Eventually, many vehicles are also rendered in clay: the team builds a wooden frame and covers it with modelling clay to create a full-size version.

It’s the final touch of realism that the computer can’t create, and gives the designers an opportunity to check the vehicle’s proportions and how it looks from all angles. If something isn’t right, excess clay can be scraped away, or more clay added to change the lines.

While a group of designers is working on the exterior, another team is crafting the interior, which also usually starts with pencil sketches and CAD programs. It’s also common to make clay models of the inside, so that designers and engineers can actually reach for door handles, hold the steering wheel, or determine the best placement for switches and controls.

“We have an ergonomic department for the best possible arrangements of switches and displays,” Van Hooydonk says.

“We have screens in the car, so we will need fewer switches, but there is more information coming in. Our task is to manage that, so that in future, complex vehicles will be easier again.”

Hand-built concept cars for the auto show circuit can use all sorts of futuristic designs and materials, but when designers create production vehicles, the teams must work closely together to ensure that the vehicle has enough interior space, will meet safety standards and can be stamped out and assembled on a production line.

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