Learn the handcrafted art of car design

Handcrafted art
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Worlds collide

It’s hard to imagine that old-world methods of handcrafting and sculpting have a place in a modern automobile. Machines have largely supplanted human labour, even for a carmaker such as Bentley which has a storied history of handcrafted bodywork.

It employs such cutting-edge methods as superforming its cars’ body panels, where the metal is heated until pliable, then forced onto a mould by air pressure. This allows the creation of razor-sharp creases and other complex forms, shapes that cannot be achieved by hand, or at least not with the sort of consistency that Bentley requires.

But while advanced technology has propelled the art of coachbuilding firmly into the future, there are some things machines can’t do. The graceful curve of the Mulsanne limousine’s D-pillars are shaped by hand, along with all spot welds and panel joint brazing.

But it’s in the interiors that the work of Bentley’s craftspeople is most visible. For this year’s Beijing Motor Show, its Mulliner coachbuilding division created a stunning dashboard inlay consisting of 30 individual pieces and 10 different types of wood veneer depicting the Roque Bentayga mountain range in the Canary Islands for the Bentayga SUV.

Even for less intricately finished Bentaygas, it still takes some 150 hours to build the SUV, which is an inordinately long time considering it takes just 15 hours or so to build a mass-market car.

The creation of a Rolls-Royce, too, also entails a great amount of manual labour. True enough, a machine could paint a millimetre-perfect coachline (a thin painted stripe that may also include a motif of the customer’s choosing on the car’s flanks) every single time, but it certainly wouldn’t have the charm of a handpainted one.

As part of Rolls-Royce’s Bespoke personalisation service, coachlines are handpainted using custom-made squirrel hair brushes by one man, Mark Court. According to him, his expertise comes into play when painting a line without any perceptible gaps along the sides of a customer’s car. This feat is even more impressive when you consider a Phantom Extended Wheelbase is some 6.1 metres long.

Despite all the considerable technology at a carmaker’s disposal, it should be clear by now that its craftsmen and their hands are an integral part of a modern luxury car. This is perfectly demonstrated by Lexus,which is why the people who work on its production lines are called takumi, a Japanese term for artisan.

Becoming one is certainly not easy – to even be considered for a position as a takumi, candidates must be able to fold an origami cat one-handed using their non-dominant hand in under 90 seconds.

The purpose of this test is to evaluate the potential takumi ’s dexterity and sense of touch, essential when a car’s body panels have to be inspected by hand for misalignments or irregular gaps. Every few hours, the takumi takes a sensory palate cleanser of sorts, by running their hands over a perfectly aligned set of panels, to remind them what they should be feeling for.

Interestingly enough, Lexus doesn’t just rely on its takumi to manufacture cars, because high technology has a role to play as well. An array of sensors and gauges is used to validate the takumi ’s work, and vice versa.

In fact, there are Lexus personnel whose job it is to optimise the symbiotic link between the organic and mechanical aspects of the Japanese carmaker’s manufacturing process. Ensuring man and machine work together seamlessly is a hugely important task, because there are many areas in which their work intersect. For example, robots paint much of the exterior of the Lexus ES, but people are still required for finer paintwork, such as in harder-to-reach areas or during the buffing process.

Even the Porsche 918 Spyder,an incredibly complex supercar which packs 887bhp from three power sources (a pair of electric motors and a racecar-derived V8 engine), is hand-assembled by 100 of the carmaker’s top production workers. The methods used in the 918 Spyder’s production may be decidedly old-school, but the tools used in its assembly are anything but. Take for instance, the cordless screwdrivers used in the car’s manufacture to tighten screws to a predetermined torque setting. Using a Bluetooth wireless data connection, each is so precise that it can locate its position in relation to the individual screw positions on the vehicle. This maximises efficiency and minimises the possibility of errors.

And it’s this, and every other approach documented above, that’s a microcosm of the modern luxury automobile – made with cuttingedge machinery, but still informed by plenty of human input.

It’s pretty clear one can’t exist without the other. The levels of quality in a luxury car of today would be unthinkable just 30 years ago, and that would not have been possible without advances in technology. Similarly, without human ingenuity, man and machine would not work so harmoniously together. Yes, modern cars may be amazing, but thanks to the extensive amounts of handcrafting involved in their creation, they’re also extremely soulful.

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Published 4th August 2016
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