Once the drawing is done—whether on a computer screen or piece of paper—the design process isn’t over. Whether for a concept vehicle, interior or exterior buck, or full “inside-outside” model never to be seen outside the confines of the studio, the finalized design must move from dream to reality. That’s where companies like Special Projects, Inc. (Plymouth, MI; www.specproj.com) come into play. It’s their job to take the ideas and make them reality, an important task when you consider that car makers produce concepts either as a way to judge buyer reaction to new ideas, or to prepare the public for a new vehicle long before it is produced. The company also builds the interior and exterior bucks, and inside-outside models that show a vehicle as it would look in production. According to one designer who asked not to be quoted by name: “It’s so much easier to sell a program or an idea when those viewing the property don’t have to use their imagination to fill in the blanks.”
“Concept cars are the only vehicles we build that the public sees,” says Ken Yanez, president of Special Projects, “but we also build about 10 ‘platform cars’ for use in the design studios and about five complete inside-outside vehicles each year.” And this work, which grew out of Yanez’s dissatisfaction with the screwed-together, home-built look of the concept cars of the 1980s and 1990s has led to lighting manufacturers, among others, tapping Special Projects to create prototypes of new concepts that are as close to real as possible. Though already blessed with a clay modeling studio, paint and trim shop, vacuum forming facilities, composites group, and two of the largest Haas CNC gantry mills in Michigan, the company added a full-function stereolithography department as well as a production-level hydrographic studio where different grains and effects can be added to trim pieces. Recently, Special Projects tied up with Fox Fire Glass (Pontiac, MI; www.foxfireglass.com) so that it can put automotive-grade glass in its concepts, making it the only U.S. concept car maker other than California-based MetalCrafters with this capability. Except for working powertrains (Special Projects either uses existing units or creates realistic milled-foam facsimiles wearing accurate trim for non-running vehicles), it can create everything else necessary to build a complete vehicle, and often has.
Tight deadlines or not, the team and Special Projects have begun to take on jobs outside of the auto industry. The company recently built an interior buck for a heavy-duty truck cab, and is pursuing work in the medial equipment, marine, and aerospace industries to go along with the work it already does for Tier 1 and 2 suppliers. In addition, it produces a small production run for the interiors of the Dearborn Deuce (a reproduction ’32 Ford), produced its first aftermarket product (re-engineered 1962 Corvette taillights), for hobbyists building their own ’32 Ford hot rod, stand-in trim parts when vendors aren’t ready at the start of production, and 900 sets of production-spec. wood for the Cadillacs exported to Asia. Not only do Yanez and his team want to continue to grow the business, they want to keep their craftsmen busy year-round so there are no lulls in turning ideas into reality.
Given the secretive nature of the business they are in, the folks at Special Projects weren’t willing to talk about current programs. However, to give a flavor of the work done—and the timeframes involved—some of the more memorable past projects were recounted.
“Our record for the fastest build from a clean-sheet is the Pontiac Solstice concept car,” says general manager Terry Steller of a project that had more twists and turns than your average roller coaster. Originally planned as a non-drivable rolling model with a complete interior, this project quickly expanded to a vehicle built over an existing Pontiac vehicle platform that could be driven on stage under its own power for maximum impact. A front-drive Pontiac Sunfire convertible was chosen as it was about the same size as the Solstice. Then the directive changed again. The Solstice concept—on which work was progressing throughout the deliberative process—would have rear-drive and steel body panels. “Just before the Detroit show,” says Steller, “the only parts of the Sunfire left were two squares of sheetmetal in the floorboards, and the interior clay model was still under development on New Year’s Eve.” Four days later, the completed vehicle was driven onto the stage by GM vice chairman Bob Lutz.
Fiberglass models—like Ford’s gigantic Super Chief—may look like the real vehicles, but actually are fiberglass shells mounted to a specially built chassis with the doors, hood, and tailgate cut out like pieces from a giant AMT/ERTL plastic model. These are then finished and mounted on hand-made hinges (Special Projects does its own door swing studies so they open and close correctly). This process was used to create the first two Ford Thunderbirds in under one month. “After building the first Thunderbird concept over a Lincoln LS chassis using this method,” says Yanez, “we were asked to build another in 27 days for a dealer tour.” That meant making all of the Thunderbird-specific parts, cutting down another Lincoln LS, mounting the T-Bird body, and trimming out the fiberglass interior. Unsurprisingly, Yanez thinks the folks on American Hot Rod and Overhaulin’ are wimps.