1998 was relatively late in the Bubble Era but that didn’t stop Isuzu from giving us its perhaps most impressively weird model to date, the Vehicross. To get such a bizarre low-volume model approved, Isuzu decided to employ a cost-cutting production method that allowed the brand to keep overhead down. They used ceramic molds for the bodywork.
Most cars are built from panels formed using steel molds. The advantage of using steel is that the molds are resilient enough to withstand hundreds of thousands of pressings, which is necessary for large-scale production. While the steel molds are durable, they’re also expensive. Back in 1998, the dies could cost more than a million dollars apiece, and each model requires a die to be built for every pressed metal panel of bodywork.
When you add up all of the various panels that make up a car’s body, the expenditure could add up to more than $100 million dollars a pop in 1998 dollars.
Automotive News reported that that kind of money wasn’t in the cards at Isuzu when the idea for the Vehicross came around. A two-door SUV with challenging styling wasn’t likely to sell enough units to justify the upfront costs for all those steel molds, so Isuzu turned to the ceramics experts at Maedan for a process they called Ceraform.
While I was hard-pressed to find details about the specific ceramic technologies used and how the method could allow for enough cost-savings to justify putting a wild model like the Vehicross into production, I did speak to a friend who does design work for an automotive supply company that makes extensive use of ceramics for numerous applications. He told me that the advantage of ceramic molds is likely in the ability to use a liquid slurry to form the original mold rather than a single piece of steel. What comes out after using a composite liquid would be hard enough for tens of thousands of presses if not the hundreds of thousands needed for a mass-production model.
So while the ceramic molds Isuzu used weren’t quite strong enough to last for a full-scale production run, they were just what the company needed to pump out enough Vehicrosses to meet demand. Of course, if the product planners had been wrong and market demand vastly outstripped the supply coming out of the ceramic molds, steel ones could always be ordered.
That didn’t happen, but we did get the wonderfully wild Vehicross and I think that’s a great thing. Mostly because it gave me an idea.
As electric cars take up a more considerable part of the market, it seems likely that many if not most electric cars will be built on skateboard-like platforms that allow for a wide variety of body-styles to be built over similar mechanicals. With the mechanicals already dealt with, manufacturers can take a look at new niches that otherwise wouldn’t get much attention. With cheaper body-stamping techniques like these ceramic dies, manufacturers will be able to drastically cut design and production costs and challenge market expectations with more exciting and striking designs. If that means more Vehicross-style oddities on the market, I’m all for it.