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Car Design Explained: It’s a Long Way from Sketch to Production

Several stages occur in the process of designing a car before it goes on to production, and some concepts never even make it to production. Rather than focus on why some cars are never produced for consumers, we will provide you some insight on the most crucial stages of the car design process, starting with the idea and ending with the approved product.

The Idea

Image courtesy of Kirby on Flickr, hosted under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Image courtesy of Kirby on Flickr, hosted under CC BY-ND 2.0.

The process starts with a concept design, which a team brainstorms after being briefed on the development plan, goal, and target audience. The team researches consumer lifestyles and local trends to create an original concept that meets consumer needs, which is the most important part of this step. After the brainstorm, the designers have numerous in-depth meetings until they decide on a shared image for the concept. The research and discussions involved in this stage can take a few months.

Sketching, Drawing and Rendering

Image courtesy of, hosted under CC0.

Image courtesy of, hosted under CC0.

Based on the shared image for the concept, the idea begins to take form through sketches and drawings. A freehand idea sketch may be an initial step in the process of creating a series of drawings that take into account the concept and any other conditions determined during the brainstorming phase. The purpose of the sketches is to provide a sense of the goal and potential of the concept for future production. The designer or design team will use markers, pastels, pencils and other drawing tools. Many of them also use computer software, which allows them to review ideas, expressions, and images quickly.

Packaging: Checking What’s Available

opel gt concept

Image courtesy of opelblog on Flickr, hosted under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The first modifications to the car design concept are packaging considerations, which includes drivetrain layouts, engine availability and safety requirements. During this phase, idea and reality meet, and compromises are made that alter the initial concept into a viable vehicle for the target market. Although the idea is still on paper, the designer or team will re-draw the concept several times to meet engineering needs.

Modelling: Computer and Clay

Image courtesy of Werner Bayer on Flickr, hosted under CC0.

Image courtesy of Werner Bayer on Flickr, hosted under CC0.

The next step of the car design process is rendering the two-dimensional drawings into 3D computer-generated images. The renderings are used to visualize the idea as an object and to see the physical dimensions of the car in measurable terms in order for more detailed drawings to be made. Next, the drawings are turned into a scaled clay model. This is usually completed by hand, but 3D printers may be used as well. If more than one design concept is being considered at this stage, more than one clay model is made. The model provides the ultimate visual for further tweaks to the concept.

Modelling #2: Full-Size Model

Image courtesy of Maurizio Pesce on Flickr, hosted under CC BY 2.0.

Image courtesy of Maurizio Pesce on Flickr, hosted under CC BY 2.0.

Following the scaled clay model, a full-size model is made with a milling machine. Precise modelers work on this model to make it more detailed. The industry standard for full-size models is clay, but polymers and other material combinations may be cheaper and lighter. Once the model is completed, which often takes several weeks, it will look like a real concept car and be photographed for marketing purposes.

Modelling #3: Interior Sketching and Modelling

Image courtesy of <a href="" target="_blank">JOHN LLOYD on Flickr</a>, hosted under <a href="" target="_blank">CC BY 2.0</a>.

Image courtesy of JOHN LLOYD on Flickr, hosted under CC BY 2.0.

Most of the time, the original designer of the exterior for the concept car will also draw or sketch the interior. The interior sketches go through several redesigns and re-drawings so that the appearance and dimensions fit with the changes that are made to the overall car design. The sketches are rendered on a computer and go through final touches before they are made into clay models. There are usually three or four models to display the available interior options.

Detail Picking: Choosing the Materials and Colors

Image courtesy of <a href="" target="_blank">Design Milk on Flickr</a>, hosted under <a href="" target="_blank">CC BY-SA 2.0</a>.

Image courtesy of Design Milk on Flickr, hosted under CC BY-SA 2.0.

After the final decisions are made for the cabin design, the team uses new materials and technologies to bring the overall car design to life. They may filter through hundreds to thousands of accessories, fabrics, paint colors and plastics. The designers will use a model of the interior that is as close to the real thing as possible to check the accessibility, friendliness, operability, spaciousness and visibility of the cabin. All of the colors must coordinate, so they are studied repeatedly from multiple perspectives to create a space that pleases all of the senses. During this stage, additional modifications may be made to refine the driver’s controls and the design and displays of the dashboard.

Refinement of Materials

Image courtesy of Martinhelfer on, hosted under CC0 1.0.

Image courtesy of Martinhelfer on, hosted under CC0 1.0.

Despite being called “final,” many of the decisions that have been made up to this point can still be refined. The materials need to be able to last, so the design team needs to ensure that they aren’t too brittle and won’t fade too fast. This stage of the car design process will take longer when new materials are used because they will have to be tested in laboratories against various environmental stresses such as cold and hot temperatures, direct sunlight and general use before being approved. The labs use full-size models that are equipped with the materials to be used.

Modelling #4: Combining the Exterior and Interior

Image courtesy of <a href="" target="_blank">Werner Bayer on Flickr</a>, hosted under <a href="" target="_blank">CC0 1.0</a>.

Image courtesy of Werner Bayer on Flickr, hosted under CC0 1.0.

The exterior and interior designs haven’t been put together in one model until this stage, when the designers and engineers coordinate a full model of the car. Sometimes this stage of the process is called the “concept phase” for marketing purposes. The engineers use the model to consider any remaining changes that need to be made before the car goes into the production phase. These decisions play heavily into the ultimate design of the production car.

Approval Phase

Image courtesy of Ming-yen Hsu on Flickr, hosted under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Image courtesy of Ming-yen Hsu on Flickr, hosted under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Despite completing what would become a consumer vehicle, the car still needs final approval from management and sometimes the board of directors before it’s produced. A team is usually heavily involved in creating a marketing plan for the car during this stage. Even if the concept car is not approved for consumer production, it will likely be used for marketing purposes. Several concept cars could be built by hand with the planned materials and be displayed at auto events and shows. While some will be drivable, others won’t have a drivetrain.

Engineering and Production

Image courtesy of Brian Snelson on Flickr, hosted under <a href="" target="_blank">CC BY 2.0</a>.

Image courtesy of Brian Snelson on Flickr, hosted under CC BY 2.0.

Even with final approval, the engineers are still free to make more adjustments to the car design so that production costs less and is faster. These alterations usually involve which parts are used and how they are assembled. At this point, the final process for producing the car is mapped out in real terms and the factory tools needed are engineered. Information for assembly workers, spec sheets, and testing requirements are ironed out as well.

From developing an idea to gaining approval for production, it can take up to five years for a concept car to be consumer-ready. By the end, the final product may not even look like the initial idea. Do you have any favorite concept cars? Maybe our article about some of the best concepts that should have been produced includes your favorite, so check it out.

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