For months, the 50th anniversary 2015 Ford Mustang was cloaked in secrecy. But an upcoming car can’t stay in the garage forever. It has to undergo rigorous testing, and that means taking it out in traffic to monitor its handling on roads across the U.S.
To keep the redesign out of the public eye before December, Ford completely covered the car with camouflage.
“Underneath that material is a whole science and art, all-in-one,” says Mustang chief engineer Dave Pericak. “They’re creating a new exterior over the exterior.”
Al Wilkinson is the man behind the disguise: Ford’s “camouflage coordinator.”
“We try to use lightweight vinyl and different types of foam which don’t absorb water,” Wilkinson says. He says his design of the fake exterior didn’t affect the weight or aerodynamics of the car.
“The materials we use have to be flexible and also be able to hold up to all different weather climates,” he says.
The result was a nondescript, black, boxy vehicle that looks a little like the Batmobile. As soon as it hit the road, the car paparazzi were waiting.
“Heavily camouflaged, but I have photos of the Mustang,” says photographer Brenda Priddy. She caught it outside a shopping mall in Colorado. You can’t tell what the design underneath looks like, but even photos of masked cars are sought after by auto magazines and blogs.
“Everybody loves to see the next Corvette, the next Mustang, the next Ferrari. They like to see what’s going on,” Priddy says.
Each auto company has a distinct style of camouflage. BMW and Mini mount psychedelic black and yellow patterns on exteriors to distort the contours and lines.
“If it was perfectly fitting and zippered just perfectly, that was pretty much characteristic of a Toyota,” she says. “We’ve seen lots of Nissans — and in the past a couple Subarus — that look like they’re wrapped in garbage bags with black electrical tape or duct tape wrapped around it. So that’s pretty distinctive as well.”
Priddy says one of the best spots to snap spy photos is at a gas station.
“We usually wait until they get the nozzle in the gas pump, and then they’re stuck there for a few minutes,” she says. “We just kind of blend in, and we belong where they belong.”
Priddy takes her pictures out in public places, but not everyone plays by those rules. During the Mustang’s high-speed tests, one photographer snuck past security onto Ford’s private track.
“He went to the track the night before and slept in the weeds,” says engineer Pericak. “Then in the morning, he was ready to go and he had his telephoto lens. As we rolled the car off our transportation truck and we took the camouflage off, his camera started snapping photos.”
Images of the Mustang’s front-end were leaked, but that didn’t compromise the car’s much-anticipated unveiling.
“It’s a big game of cat and mouse, and at the end of the day, as long as we don’t get caught by the cat, we’re good,” Pericak says.
The car paparazzi will always have lenses pointed toward the latest redesign. But with the help of camouflage coordinators, the car industry’s newest design secrets can stay safely hidden until the next big reveal.