Car designers still use clay to mockup cars. Most people find this somewhat surprising considering that stylists now have powerful computers and virtual reality at their fingertips. The car styling industry certainly does use computer tools but most still rely on the old fashioned, clay modeling technique.

It started with Harley Earl. Earl was a legendary car stylist for General Motors from the 1920s through the end of the 1950s. He is credited with developing the concept of designing cars like they were works of art, not just utilitarian products with wheels. Automotive historians tell us that Earl was one of the first car designers to use clay. He found that clay sculpted models helped GM executives get a feel for a proposed design in a way that diagrams and sketches simply couldn’t communicate.

Lloyd VandenBrink of the Ford Truck Studio in Dearborn, Michigan, explains it like this: “Clay has two characteristics that make it good for use. It’s easy to change — you just add it, or take it away. It allows you to be creative and come up with something quickly. 3D printing, on the other hand, is just that — printing.”

The first thing to know about automotive styling clay is that it isn’t the kind of clay that most of us have experience with. Standard clay is a natural product made up of fine-grained natural rock or soil material with traces of metal oxides and organic matter in it. Automobile styling clay, often referred to as plasticine clay, is a man-made product that is composed of a mixture of waxes with special fillers in it. More recently one of the major fillers used is tiny glass beads.

There are some half a dozen companies that make plasticine clay suitable for full-scale design modelling.  Because it is a critical part of the design process, a few car companies actually prefer to make their own blends – and a lot of it. According to Button Dodge of Kokomo, IN, a Dodge, Chrysler, Jeep, Ram dealer, in a typical year, a car company goes through about 100 tons of the stuff!

It is important to know that designing cars with clay isn’t a “reductive process” like sculpting is. In other words, the job of a stylist isn’t to take a huge lump of clay and remove everything that doesn’t look like an SUV. It is an additive process where stylists apply lumps of clay to lightweight aluminum frame that is made to mimic hard constraints like the overall wheelbase, powertrain, and passenger room. The design and approval process can take up to a year. When completed, a car can be scanned into a CAD program in an hour and a half.

Interested in automotive styling as a career? At Ford’s studio in Dearborn, there are about 160 designers.  Most of these folks are highly computer literate but are quite capable of scraping clay whenever needed. VandenBrink explains that the stylists come from a variety of disciplines. Some come from design schools that specialize in auto design, others come from the auto-body industry, and a lot are simply artists. According to VandenBrink, not a lot of future designers think about clay on their career path. “The important part is that they like to design things and enjoy the process,” he says.

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