Why The Car Industry Still Builds Life-Size Clay Models

They take months to produce, but even today, nothing beats a clay model in imagining a car.


In the era of 3-D computer modeling and Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets, you’d think the car industry might give up on clay modeling. But in fact, the age-old art of layering thousands of pounds of clay over a foam core, spending months shaping every curve by hand, and even storing the model in an air tight container to revisit the next year, is still seen a necessity in the auto industry.


A recent piece by the Associated Press explored the steadfastness of the profession, talking to Joe Dehner, head of Dodge & Ram Truck exterior design about the art form. As the reporter, Michael Wayland, explains:

Twenty-five years ago, as milling and computer-aided design programs transformed the design process, it seemed clay modelers would be all but extinct. Bean counters saw the new technologies as a way to shorten the design process and cut costs.

But carmakers found they were turning out lackluster vehicles due to a lack of hands-on interaction and being unable to effectively evaluate styling.

“There was an infatuation with the technology where there was a rush to do totally digital,” Dehner told The Detroit News. “I still think there’s a desire in the design ranks to be more technically savvy, but the one thing about this is you’re adding the human element.”

Flickr user Iain Farrell

That “human element” may sound unquantifiable, like the vague musings of a music aficionado who holds onto a scratchy collection of records rather than embracing flawless digital media formats. But just as records contain signals lost to digital compression, clay offers something contemporary modeling techniques do not. As Chris Svensson, the director of design for Ford’s North and South American operations told the Wall Street Journal last year:

‘We always came back to clay.’ The problem is, he says, digital projections can’t accurately show how light will play on a car’s surface. ‘You can’t replicate the sun.’

Still, computer technologies have reduced the amount of clay models used by the industry. Autodesk told the Journal that one European manufacturer had used digital workflows to reduce its clay builds by 70%. So while the few remaining clay modelers command salaries of $100,000 or more a year and may not be going extinct anytime soon, they remain an endangered species.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach