Gather ‘round, boys and girls, because it’s time for Uncle Doug to answer your pressing automotive questions in his weekly column, Letters to Doug.
For those of you who don’t know how Letters to Doug works, here’s an explanation. You send letters to Doug. Then Doug prints off the ones he doesn’t like and he burns them.
If this sounds like something you might want to participate in, you can always send in your own letter at Letters2Doug@gmail.com. And remember: if I didn’t pick your letter this week, maybe I will pick it next week. Or maybe I will pick it never.
This week comes to us from a reader in New Braunfels, Texas, named Arthur. (Just kidding. He didn’t say where he’s from, and I’ve changed his name. But doesn’t it sound like a human called Arthur would be from a place called New Braunfels?) Arthur writes:
I was reading the article about the off-road capability of the new Bentley SUV, and it had the standard camouflage that automakers use to block prying eyes from seeing new cars. It made me wonder, why do they still do this? Does anyone doubt that it’ll be a Cayenne with a Mulsanne face? Same with the Jaguar F-Pace, looks like a tall XF. With corporate faces and the race to make cars look like all others, why do manufacturers take such great lengths to hide new product?
Ah yes, the old camouflage trick. An excellent question, Arthur. But before I can answer it, I think we should closely examine precisely what camouflage is.
For those of you who don’t know, camouflage was invented in 1934 by actual camels who wanted to blend in to the desert. Prior to this, all camels were the color of a tennis ball.
Eventually, camouflage was adapted for use by humans during the Vietnam War, when previously normal men and women, now serving as soldiers, decided to scare the North Vietnamese by dressing up as deciduous vegetation. Unfortunately, many North Vietnamese used the same tactic, resulting in many fallen leaves, broken branches, lost gecko habitats, etc. This is why most historians now agree that war is a terrible thing.
In my estimation, there are precisely two reasons why automakers still use camouflage, and I am going to share them with you today. I say this as a former auto industry employee, whose entire experience with camouflaged test cars came in 2012 when I visited Stuttgart and saw a pre-production S-Class wrapped in what appeared to be large black trash bags.
REASON NUMBER ONE FOR USING CAMOUFLAGE: Test cars are often not fully finished, and automakers don’t want you to see them in their pre-production stages.
Yes, this sounds like a cop out. We’re going to throw camouflage on this car so you can’t see it, neener neener neener. But it’s a little more complicated than that. Test cars often feature exterior antennae, or weird data gathering packs mounted on the outside, or components that may or may not make production. And they rarely use the most flattering colors or wheels, preferring instead to go with the cheapest materials. After all, these cars are almost always destroyed once testing is complete.
As a result, the automaker has a vested interest in ensuring that you don’t see the car when it looks like that. Yeah, sure, they know you already know what it’s basically going to look like. But think about it like an automaker: would you rather the public first experience a car when it’s covered in antennae and wearing five layers of dirt from thousands of test miles? Or would you rather see it on your terms, when you release the first carefully mastered press photos after you’ve spent hours picking the right color, the right wheels, and the right backdrop?
REASON NUMBER TWO FOR USING CAMOUFLAGE: Pretend for a moment you’re Jaguar. You are leaking blood and some days you’re entirely unable to get out of bed, only to inexplicably wake up without a problem the next morning.
If you’re launching a new SUV, as Jaguar is, the last thing you want is for someone to see it two years early. Here’s why: because there has never been a car in history that people believed was handsome when they first saw it. This is a phenomenon I like to refer to as People are idiots.
What happens when we first see a car is, the design is foreign to us, and we’ve never seen those shapes before, so we decry it as ugly. Pay attention during the next auto show season when new cars are revealed here on Jalopnik. Everyone will say the same thing. Ugly. Don’t like it. Looks like insert other car here. Looks dumb. I prefer the outgoing model. That stupid chrome strip looks bad. Why are the fender flares so big.
Of course, what ends up happening is, we eventually see the design enough on the road that we no longer see it as ugly. I will never forget when the 2008 Honda Accord came out, and people were vicious about its styling. How can they sell that, they’ve ruined the Accord, blah blah blah. Now, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone whose opinion of the 2008 Accord goes much beyond the term “bland.”
So if you’re Jaguar, you don’t want people to see your F-Pace too early, because they won’t like it. Instead, they’ll buy a Cayenne. Which, coincidentally, is another car that was raked over the coals for its appearance when it first came out, even though there isn’t a single person alive today who even notices the Cayenne anymore when it goes by on the street.
What you want people to do, instead, is see camouflaged photos of the F-Pace so they get all these assumptions in their mind about what it might look like. Then they invest six months in waiting for it to come out. Then a year. By the time the production car is revealed, they’ve spent 18 months waiting for the thing. They’re not going to stop now. They’re going to head down to their local Jaguar dealer, sign the papers, and return four days later on a flatbed.
And this, ladies and gentlemen, is the reason behind automotive camouflage. Well, this, and the fact that all automotive test cars, before they are camouflaged, are the color of a tennis ball.
@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn’t work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.