Ex-FBI men sometimes duel with helicopter-borne spies in the tense security zones where car-makers set new styles. Why? A leak, they claim, could cost billions. And the big threat isn’t rival firms — it’s you

ERIC HUTTON October 11 1958


Ex-FBI men sometimes duel with helicopter-borne spies in the tense security zones where car-makers set new styles. Why? A leak, they claim, could cost billions. And the big threat isn’t rival firms — it’s you

ERIC HUTTON October 11 1958


Ex-FBI men sometimes duel with helicopter-borne spies in the tense security zones where car-makers set new styles. Why? A leak, they claim, could cost billions. And the big threat isn’t rival firms — it’s you


Three months before the 1959 cars were ready for unveiling, a pair of fourteen-year-old boys threw a scare into the multi-billion-dollar industry. It started when they offered the automobile editor of a Detroit paper, for a couple of dollars, a clear snapshot of a car he had never seen before.

It was long, low, sleekly sculptured and glassenclosed. It bore just enough family resemblance for an expert to recognize it as one of North America's most closely guarded non-military secrets—the 1959 Chevrolet.

The editor, shaken by this too-hot-to-handle scoop, tipped off General Motors. Security officers swooped down tint! grilled the boys: Who had put them up to it? How had they infiltrated the plant’s elaborate defenses? Did they realize the havoc they might have caused?

The boys answered meekly that they were on

Duncan Macpherson’s drawing shows how spies might foil the car police in

their own and meant no harm. They had been exploring for "something to photograph." A car the like of which they had never seen drove through a factory gate. One boy climbed on the other's shoulders, peered over the wall and snapped away unmolested.

Since such cars are about as hush-hush as moon rockets, CiM officials doubted their story —until it proved true. The car. one of a handful of "pre-production" models, had been taken for routine tests of its cooling system to an unguarded building and by a thousand-to-one chance the boys had spotted it. They weren't guilty of anything worse than trespass, so there wasn't much CiM could do—except persuade the boys to hand over their prints and negatives.

A few days later the boys turned up outside Ford’s test track at Dearborn, Mich. Using the

same pick-a-back technique, they busily recorded the new Ford's most cherished styling secrets until security guards (Ford uses ex-FBI men in key security jobs) nabbed them.

They underwent another searching crossexamination and again gave up their "hot" film. But soon they struck again, this time at C'hrysler’s C helsea proving grounds. Rooftop spotters who maintain constant "binocular patrol" spied the two figures creeping through a weedy field toward the tall snow fence that screens the area in which Chrysler tests its new cars. Before guards could intercept them, though, they were seen fleeing in confusion, scratching themselves frantically.

"Our secret weapon caught up with them,” explained a Chrysler official. "Our test centre is surrounded by fields infested with hungry ticks.

We hear that spies charge time-and-a-half For working against us because of this hazard.”

The case of the two boys vs. the Big Three was a small skirmish in a guerrilla war that is waged endlessly in and around Detroit's automobile plants. Hostilities spill over into Canada for weeks before the new-model deadlines.

The struggle is not. as might be supposed, principally among rival manufacturers bent on stealing each other's secrets. For one thing, by the time they find out the opposition’s plans— and they do—it's too late to make changes. (They are fighting a second cloak-and-dagger war of secrecy to conceal from each other models planned for two and three years ahead, but that's another part of the story.)

Ironically, the immediate enemy are the automobile industry’s most cherished friends—the

a mythical plant. The Keystone Cops themselves never chased slicker rascals

car-buying public, dealers who sell the cars, magazines and newspapers that advertise and publicize them.

The paradox makes some sense when it is explained. New models are irrevocably decided on, literally the dies are cast, about eight months before they are announced and revealed. But during that eight months the manufacturers have still to sell more than half their current year's production of cars.

If potential buyers knew in advance the delights of the next model they would (the car makers are convinced) postpone buying until the next model was available.

What's more, dealers who glimpsed the upcoming models prematurely might lose enthusiasm for their current offerings and cut down their orders in anticipation of what was to

come. At best, the trade goes through nervewracking contortions to clear out one year's leftovers as new-model time approaches. A ('anadian advertising agency nearly lost a major car account when a number of Toronto dealers received in the mail photos of the new model of their line weeks before the deadline. The car manufacturer suspected a leak through the agency, which was then preparing advertisements for later release.

The account was saved when copies of the same photos showed up among United States dealers. They were traced to an amateur photographer who had somehow pierced Detroit's veil of secrecy but who claimed he had no other motive than "to have a little fun." The company grimly replied that its probable loss of sales was far from funny.

Critics from President Eisenhower down blame the car manufacturers themselves for such annual jitters. The president recently suggested that annual model changes mean that ever longer. wiiler. lower and more garish cars are being "thrust down people's throats."

Senators, governors, bishops. TV comedians and just about all comers who can get a hearing have joined in the cry. Lecturing Detroit on the proposition that people really want cheaper, dowdier cars that don't become obsolete every autumn has become a major North American pastime. There are critics even within the industry. Ed Anderson, chief designer of the Rambler, a car that is bucking the ‘‘big change" trend by remaining reasonably recognizable year after year, said recently: "The big three have got into a rat race that nobody

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can see the cr.d of. If the same thing happened with men's clothes, everybody who wanted to be well dressed would have to wear loud checks one year— and broad stripes the next. We’d go on to sequins on the lapels, and the tailors would worry themselves sick over what gimmicks would sell clothes the following season and the season after that.

The big-three companies answer mildly that they need annual model changes to sell enough cars to stay in business. They admit that they are not primarily in the business of selling transportation, that a profitable volume of sales depends not on the number of people who need new cars but on the number who want them because they are new. different and give their owners prestige.

“If,” said a Ford official, “the industry decided that since it had made good cars in 1958 it would simply carry them over unchanged for 1959, just one thing would happen: we’d all go broke.”

The designers’ job is to give a car a shape that makes it say, in effect, “this is what a 1959 car should look like, and it’s an obvious improvement over the 1958 shape.” But just what makes one shape better and more desirable is something even the designers aren’t sure of. “We try to give a car what we feel is a more pleasing line," explains George Walker, Ford vice-president and director

of styling, “and then hope the public agrees with us."

Designers know only too well, however, that the public doesn’t always agree. In 1934 Chrysler designers were confident that they were ten years ahead of the pack w'hen they produced the curvaceous streamlined Airflow De Sotos and Chry slers. They Hopped.

General Motors still remembers the bulbous Buiek of 1929 that tin irreverent public dubbed "the pregnant Buick" and bought in disappointing quantities. Ford's new Edsel started slowly, at least in part because jokes about its “horsecollar" front styling swept the country.

But the "annual new' look" policy dominates the thinking of the big three to the extent that they are spending one and a quarter billion dollars this year to design and tool up for the 1959 models.

That is why they spend three million dollars a year on security measures to make sure as few people as possible see the new models prematurely—then spen.l three hundred million on advertising an I promotion to lure as many people as possible into seeing and desiring them.

Keeping the secrets of the new cars would seem to be an impossible task, since in addition to several hundred autocompany employees approximately one million people know at least part of the

answer months in advance. These are the employees of the thousands of small outside companies that make bits and pieces of the new cars. The car makers try to spread this work around so that nobody has access to more than a small segment of the giant jigsaw puzzle, and job specifications come from the auto companies with a letter solemnly warning the supplier that it's top-secret stuff. But a dogged spy can sometimes wheedle enough scraps of information from enough workmen to get a rough idea of what a car will look like. A contributor to a trade publication who showed remarkable knowledge of some features of new cars turned out to have relatives working for three different suppliers.

Weeks before announcement time a new source of potential leaks enters the picture as advertising agencies start preparing the advertising layouts, catalogues, posters and TV commercials. The Canadian agencies create their own material, but it's based on photographs, drawings and descriptions from Detroit. The agencies don’t even trust the mails. Senior employees travel to Detroit and bring the material back in person. "We don't exactly chain our brief cases to our wrists like diplomatic couriers,” said an agency official, "but that’s the general idea.”

Schizoid ad agency

Most agencies handle only one line of cars or a non-competing pair from the same company, so their problem is simply to keep out snoopers from outside. But one Toronto agency. MacLaren Advertising Co. Ltd., has an operation unique in North America.

MacLaren has two General Motors accounts. Chevrolet-Oldsmobile-Cadillac and Pontiac-Buick. For part of every year the ninety men and women who work on the two accounts become strangers to each other—no dropping in to each other's offices, no coffee together. Locks are changed on studio and production-department doors, uniformed Brinks guards are on duty, and nobody can enter cither area without a special pass. Cleaning women have a virtual holiday since all paper work—even waste paper that might convey a clue—is locked in safes every night until the new cars are no longer a secret.

Publications are the automobile industry's big headache during the new models’ critical eight months of gestation. Newspapers and magazines cover Detroit by correspondents, columnists, staff and free-lance writers nearly as thoroughly as they cover Washington. Depending on the time of year, Detroit’s chief industry either hates or loves writers, most of whom take the view that new cars are legitimate news and any advance information gleaned by enterprise is fit to print.

"Enterprise” includes anything up to the use of helicopters to peer down at the test areas where the new cars are having the “bugs" ironed out as production time nears. Recently General Motors’ top executives were viewing a new model in a small, high-walled courtyard. Suddenly a helicopter threshed overhead at tree-top height. The lens of an aerial camera glinted as the machine banked to give the photographer a clear view. Four GM guards, rehearsed for just such an emergency, hastily pulled a canvas shroud over the car. G M’s brass shook fists at the invader, which hovered a moment and flew off.

Ford’s private new-car area was so infested with helicopters for a time that company officials investigated and found that pilots of a passenger airlift service between downtown Detroit and Willow

Run airport were detouring over the Ford plant to let passengers sight-see. They protested and the route was changed.

Not far from Ford's test plant at Dearborn are apartment houses whose tenants might occasionally get a glimpse of a new Ford product. The company's security officials make it their business to know the background of people who live there.

If people moved in whom Ford considered poor security risks—such as GM or Chrysler employees—Ford would take extra precautions against peeking.

At Chrysler, rooftop guards sweeping skies and earth with telescopes spotted a slight movement atop a water tower on company property. The resourceful intruder made his getaway before company cops reached the tower, but left behind some expensive telephoto camera equipment. "The owner.” said a Chrysler official. "can have same by identifying himself—and explaining what the heck he was doing up there.”

"We can't seem to convince some publications that they actually could damage one of the country's biggest industries by

giving away its secrets.” said a GM man. "Of course, Detroit newspapers have a big stake in this automobile community and tend to be more discreet. Which explains why the editor wouldn't run the photograph the two boys brought him."

There's not much the car people can do about the dozens of "exclusive forecasts” and "artists’ conceptions” of the new models that appear every year, except to dismiss them as "not even close.” Once, though, a big company struck back at no less a tormenter than the Wall Street Journal. The Journal published an

uncomfortably accurate forecast of G M's new cars. The company withdrew its advertising from the Journal. The ban lasted a few weeks—until a realistic executive pointed out to his fellow directors that they didn’t advertise to please publishers, but to sell cars.

Actually, the motor manufacturers arc not as concerned over written descriptions as over photographs or even sketches based on descriptions of future models. "It takes a writing genius to describe a car so the average reader can visualize it," said a GM official, "but even a blurred picture can tell the story.” Two years ago the editor of a small magazine published for Canadian St. Lawrence Seaway workers got hold of a photograph of a future Ford and ran it. The lines of the car were rather indistinct, but Ford was quite unhappy about the "leak.”

Is there real harm in an early look at forthcoming models, or are the car companies just playing an elaborate meaningless game of cops and robbers? This year GM may gather some concrete answers as a result of one of the worst leaks in its history. In late August, more than six weeks prematurely, a photograph of a 1959 Chevrolet was distributed to newspapers in the United States and Canada by a major syndicate. United Press International. It appeared in Montreal’s weekly Dimanche Matin, but at GM’s earnest request a dozen other Canadian papers agreed not to use it. In the United States, though, GM was caught fiatfooted.

Several papers printed the photograph, taken by an unknown person at a Chevrolet assembly branch in Wisconsin. "We can’t do a thing except get mad,” said a GM official, "and hope the photo is bad enough not to do us too much harm.”

Those two incidents point up the fact that the crux of the secrecy operation is external appearance. "Styling is their primary sales tool," President George Romney of American Motors, makers of the Rambler, says of his big-three competitors. The latter agree, off the record. “Ten dollars spent on chrome will do more for sales than a hundred dollars spent on improved engineering, whether we like it or not,” one executive admitted recently.

For 1959 the manufacturers will still talk performance, power, brakes, steering and riding qualities, but all cars are so close to equal in these mechanical qualities that nobody in the Big Three denies that sales stand or fall on styling. The car makers don’t believe that a single mechanical advance is likely to have the spectacular effects today that it had in the "pre-styling" year 1924. That was when Walter Chrysler’s cars, in appearance much like their competitors, became for the year the second biggest sellers and changed the big two into the big

three. What sold Chrysler products that year was a mechanical innovation, hydraulic brakes on four wheels.

This year and into the foreseeable future rival manufacturers will be staking their sales volumes on such surprises as the shape of the front grille, the number of headlamps, the curve of the rear deck, the variation of fin treatments and the invasion of the roof by glass on all sides.

The car makers learned the lesson that “styling is all” the hard way. In 1954 Chrysler decided that the public was ready for a “sensible" car. The designers cut down body overhang and raised the roof line. Result, the Chrysler line’s share of the market dropped from twenty percent to less than thirteen percent. Next year they rushed the "forward look" into production and got back most of the loss.

In 1956 Ford thought that stress on safety would sell cars. They built safety straps and crash pads into the cars, based sales campaigns on safety features—and took a beating from Chevrolet, which claimed only to be “sweet, smooth and sassy.”

In 1957 added structural strength was built into Buick and Oldsmobile cars via two pillars that split the rear windows. Enough potential buyers decided the pillars gave the cars an old-fashioned look to push sales down. The pillars came off this year.

Systems for secrecy

When success or failure can hinge on a contour or a single strip of metal, it seems to the car manufacturers to be only good sense to put a lot of money and brains into the shape of their new cars, and to guard those shapes like the crown jewels.

The measures car companies take to prevent (a) outsiders entering and (b) information leaving their premises are numerous. Most closely guarded are the design centres, large buildings set apart from the rest of the plants where new cars are born behind locked doors that are out of bounds to all visitors and even to most Ford employees. There the new models start on drawing boards and arc converted into full-sized, minutely accurate clay or plastic models from which the production-line cars will be derived.

All the companies throw up approximately the same defensive system. Here's how it works at Ford. Security starts at the door of the design centre, where one of Ford’s uniformed guards approaches the visitor as he enters. He must fill out a form telling who he is. who he works for, who he wants to see and why.

If the official the visitor is calling on accepts the call, he comes out and the guards, so to speak, release the visitor

“Even if a spy sneaked into the design centre he would see nothing but blank, locked doors”

in the official’s custody. When the visitor leaves, the guards collect his registration form. At closing time the guards must account for all outsiders, lest someone hide until the doors are locked and spend the night wallowing in Ford’s deepest secrets.

Even if a visitor sneaked into the design centre and roamed the wide corridors (wide enough for wheeling fullsized car models) he would see nothing but blank doors, secured by locks whose keys, Ford officials claim, are almost impossible to duplicate. Even when the doors open the secrets beyond are invisible. There’s a large screen behind each door, guarded by a secretary and one of the ubiquitous uniformed guards.

The studios where cars are designed and modeled—Ford and GM have over six hundred artists, clay sculptors and assistants, Chrysler more than three hundred—are separated and are out of bounds even for people working on different lines within the same company. A Ford designer with his red badge can’t get into the Edsel studio (brown badge), the Mercury studio (yellow badge) or the Lincoln studio (green badge).

In the past year three Ford vice-presidents have been stopped by guards because they didn’t happen to be wearing the right badges. The guards weren’t fired—they were commended.

The idea behind the internal segregation is not that Ford designers might steal Mercury’s lines: it’s that the fewer people who know a secret, the less chance it has of leaking out.

The designers themselves are required to place every scrap of discarded paper, from doodles to rough sketches of actual cars, into big red locked trash boxes. Every day the contents are taken, under guard, to a furnace at Ford’s River Rouge plant and burned to the last shred while guards look on. When the clay models have served their purpose they are trundled to the same destination in closed vans, dumped out, and attacked by huge bulldozers until nothing remains but a puddle of mud.

The cloak-and-dagger atmosphere is heightened by posters reminiscent of wartime secrecy, exhorting employees not to talk about their work outside and hinting that Ford’s—and their own— prosperity depends on a well-buttoned lip. The companies are less afraid of deliberate treachery than of a sort of misguided loyalty.

"In one case we heard of,” said a Ford official, "one of our men got together over a couple of beers with friends who happened to work for GM and Chrysler. They didn't plan to exchange secrets, but one happened to remark, 'Wait until you see our new car.' Another said, 'Yeah? we've got something really special coming up,’ and after a couple more beers they were matching boasts and giving away more information than was safe. We're afraid that happens too often."

Another crack in the curtain of secrecy is the fact that designers are artists, therefore temperamental, and tend to change jobs. "The water cooler is too far from my drawing board” or “1 don't like the color of the studio walls” may be reason enough for switching employers. When a designer quits, a department executive tries to impress him with a sort of “scout's honor” attitude toward the company's secrets . . . then keeps his fingers crossed.

“Maybe they don’t intend to steal the ideas they've been working on.” said a GM official, “but they're likely to make a subconscious impression—especially if the ideas are good. One year we lost a batch of designers, and two years later we could recognize GM styling in three different competitive cars.”

The car manufacturers all deny having spies on their payrolls, but admit it's useful to know what others are doing, so they "keep an ear to the ground.” They say they won't buy information from employees of rivals, and point to a case in which a GM worker offered to sell blueprints to a man who made parts for Chrysler. The police were called in and arrested the man on granolarceny charges. Before trial, GM decided to drop the charges and the spy's only punishment was dismissal.

There are degrees of difficulty in keeping the secrets of the new cars. In Detroit’s design centres they are working not only on the next-up models, but already have the designs for the following two years completed and the clay models built. Since the latter need not see the light of day until it's time to start them toward production, they can be kept shrouded and locked up from prying eyes —except those engaged in designing and modeling them, of course.

Speedy wreck

But once a car reaches the threshold of production it must come out into the open. Despite wind tunnels, cold rooms and other ingenious indoor tests, new stylings must run the gauntlet of actual road conditions, new paint jobs and upholstery must encounter sun and dust.

Mechanical features can be tested un der disguise, of course. Recently a visitor to the Ford plant was allowed to drive a new Continental around the Dearborn test track. At 115 miles an hour he was easily overtaken by a battered hulk.

“What’s that?” he asked the company man beside him.

“A Lincoln engine—probably the 1965 model,” was the reply.

For some tests a new body can be shrouded, but for others it must be naked to the elements. And even behind the high, guarded walls of a test track there’s always the chance of it being seen by eyes not meant to see it.

Chrysler has the distinction of owning the only truly inaccessible new model. This car took two years to design in Detroit, and more than a year to build at the Ghia plant in Turin, Italy, where Chrysler has many of its advance models constructed. It was proudly described as “structurally unique and years ahead of current design,” and was slated after extensive tests to become one of Chrysler's prestige offerings in 1959 or I960. It was loaded into the hold of a ship bound for the United States—a ship named Andrea Doria. The Chrysler and its secrets are safe at the bottom of the Atlantic. The plans are being reworked and Chrysler hopes to have a new prototype model early next year.

By the end of October all the hopeful 1959 models will have been unveiled and the public will have decided in its own unpredictable way which are the lovelies and which the lemons. And in Detroit the artists will be back at their drawing boards, the guards back at their posts, guarding that incomparable secret, the automotive shape of I960, if