How to build a showstopper

By Guy Bird for CAR Magazine, Jan 2009

How a big-wheeled sketch becomes show stand reality...

The shiny sheets get pulled off Volvo’s striking new S60 concept car at the first major motor show of 2009 in Detroit. Production cars take longer to get to showrooms but the making of a concept car for an unyielding motorshow unveil deadline requires a different kind of intensity – and much less time.

Yes, most do still start with a big-wheeled sketch but the difference in the case of the Volvo S60 concept – and increasingly many other concepts too – is that the production version of the car was already finished before the concept was started. Aren’t concept cars supposed to test public reaction before deciding on their production chances? Sometimes, but in Volvo’s case – it already knew where it was going for this project.  

Design director Steve Mattin explains: “It’s certainly been happening more and more in the last ten or even five years. Ford does it quite a lot and we’ve done it on the last few cars. It’s very important for a car like the S60 that has been a long time on the market and where we’ve had rumours about whether it was going to carry on. It gives us a stopgap. When you know the competition’s coming with something, and you know you’ve still got another two or three years to wait you want to make people aware of what you’ve got coming, especially as people’s consideration about buying a car doesn’t happen overnight.”

Given that the production S60 car – due on sale early to mid-2010 – was already in the bag surely the concept design process this time was much easier? Yes and no. Mattin continues: “We still sketched around a little bit, but the proportions were there, and we knew the base themes we had to communicate. It wasn’t total exploratory work where you start from a blank sheet of paper. If you do that you can get away with more.”

Which presumes with the S60 concept Mattin and his team could get away with less, i.e. it had to be serious and give a strong indication of the production car to follow, but as Mattin adds, “should still start with a sketch that would provoke”.
The man behind that provocative sketch is 28-year old Brit Alex Chan. The young ex-Mercedes and Jaguar designer’s 2D drawing was executed back in March 2008 and quickly turned into three dimensions by his Swedish colleague Rickard Franklin working in the 3D design modelling computer programme Alias. In simple terms Franklin builds up all the surfaces of the car in 3D by interpreting Chan’s sketch into 3D via a grid made up of hundreds of moveable points – a bit like contours on a 3D map. After about two weeks of Chan going back and forth to Franklin’s desk and computer screen, offering verbal suggestions as vague as “can we pump this surface up a little bit more, or tweak that line” the design team had a digital 3D model to look at in Volvo’s Virtual Reality (VR) room – that could be spun round 360 degrees, looked from above or seen virtually driving along a virtual road with different exterior colours and lighting effects. The result – even at this early stage – is almost good enough to compete in an early edition of the Gran Turismo video game.

 “Things you touch on a daily basis shouldn't be made on a computer”

At this point Mattin gives his input and after another six weeks or so the team was ready to make its first – and only for this project – full-size clay model milled from the 3D data generated. Chan takes up the story: “Of course we already had the production model as a reference. So when we milled out the clay, we brought both of them out in our showroom side by side so we could really look around and make a judgement. It’s always nice to see a clay model, as you can forever look at the screen but sometimes you can check things just by feeling.”

As a result some significant changes were made to the rear of the concept – but although they were identified in the clay – the changes themselves were done back on the virtual model on the computer. No further clay models were made as Franklin clarifies: “For us it was mainly a time issue. We simply didn’t have the time to play around with clay.”
The next time the designers would see their concept this big it would be the real thing.

Starting a month later than the exterior team, S60 concept interior designer Lars Falk and his team began his process with a similar dilemma. He too had access to the 3D data for the next S60 production car but as the concept’s interior was intended to tell a more future-facing story than the exterior, he chose not to refer to it as much as he recounts: “I realised at an early stage it was no use to copy and paste lines from the production car, no matter how tempting, because they are totally different angles in the ‘X,Y,Z’ space. It was more useful for me to look at photographs of the interior and see if there were lines and features I could mimic – almost like making a caricature of someone.” 

A good example of that process is in the concept’s clean three-spoke steering wheel based on a production steering wheel but tweaked and streamlined to give it as Falk puts it, “a sportier touch that goes hand in hand with the car’s exterior look. Falk adds with tongue firmly in cheek, “For someone who doesn’t work with design on a daily basis – like my mother for example – she would think it was the same. But I am very proud of this steering wheel if we make it into production. It’s a small step for mankind but a huge step for Volvo steering wheels!”

Falk’s interior process is similar to his exterior colleagues but he didn’t have a clay model for early confirmation, just a milled Styrofoam model of the dashboard, seats, doors, centre stack and a truncated A-pillar – a process that helped him resolve some issues around the doors: “How the instrument panel meets the door panel and even how the A-post interacts in that area is always super challenging so it was really good to see that area as a 3D model. That led to a few changes.”

 “I realised at an early stage it was no use to copy and paste lines from the production car, no matter how tempting”

He too had to spend many weeks sitting with the digital modellers by their computer screens to make decisions on every single detail of the interior while constantly checking that those details cohered with the overall whole. But his was not a totally computer-based endeavour either as he stresses: “I’m a firm believer that things that you touch, feel and interact with on a daily basis, like the steering wheel, gear shifter and door opener, should not be made on a computer. These items were sketched in 2D and then we had someone sculpt them out of a hard modelling material. Afterwards we scanned them in a 3D scanner to get the X, Y and Z positions for all of the surfaces and then re-represented them in the computer. Otherwise it can become a Catch-22 problem where we don’t know what we have done and it becomes a never-ending story of changes. So we start with something that actually feels nice to hold on to and then measure it.”

By June the exterior build began. Made in-house at Volvo’s on-site workshops by its skilled technicians, first the bottom plate is welded together and a carbon fibre body – apparently a cheaper material for one-offs – is added to the steel chassis. Mid-August sees the crucial ‘marriage point’ of the left and right body sides, then painting and after that everything is carefully fitted inside. Keeping the whole project under budget is programme manager Hans Gruijters – significantly he’s always rushing off to meetings to solve one thing or another – so we don’t get to speak to him. 

On one of our visits to Volvo’s Gothenburg HQ, the concept build manager Ralf Arvidsson is busy overseeing his technical crew while they coax the bonnet into place. Earlier that morning they’d fitted the massive (and massively expensive) handcrafted flowing centre stack made of clear crystal from Swedish glass specialists Orrefors.

Colour and trim designer Eva Hanner-Larson reveals the four-piece design was made first “then all the parts around it had to follow. Usually everything is built up at the same time in digital”. Perched among the wires, gaffer tape and seat-less interior it’s not even glued in yet.

A bunch of the designers arrive to see how its going and the lighting specialist Malte Mossner looks anxiously on to make sure the technicians don’t knock his front lamp works of art. The German ex-VW Group designer with a passion for sailing based them on Viking ships sailing across wavy waters. Incredibly detailed and involving over 100 hours of his time – they’re symbolic of the attention and time that has been lavished throughout this concept car.

Then in late November just a few weeks later, the whole car is finished – an incredible homage to Volvo’s skills in shaping metal, carbon fibre, wool, saddle leather, wood and crystal – and ready, bar a few tweaks to be shipped off across the Atlantic for its motorshow global unveil in January. When we talk to Steve Mattin again in early December eight months after the initial sketch that set the whole project in motion the pressure’s off but the project’s far from over. When will he feel the project’s really finished? “I guess after the press conference at the Detroit show and it’s gone all smoothly. Anything can happen before then.”

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