The invention of the Internet, then subsequent social media sites and cell phones with built-in cameras, have all but eliminated the word “mystery” from our vocabulary. When it comes to pictures of brand new cars, when was the last time you read an article without the words “LEAKED” in the headline?
So why is it so hard for automakers to keep its prized machines a secret?
The abundance of leaks is hardly a surprise. News outlets want the jump on rival publications rather than waiting for the manufacturer’s official release—one that’s met with an embargo that forces all outlets to publish at precisely the same time, therefore diluting traffic instead of letting those with the fastest fingers and operating systems take the prize. Therefore, everyone’s searching for that elusive “first” shot; one that will circulate the Interweb faster than a photo of Kim and Kanye's baby South East. Or was it North West? I forget.
Photographers, too, can pay for all their Christmas presents at once, with enough change for a Pumpkin Spice latte, if they land that prized pic of the new Mustang before anyone else. It’s big business. In a world where waiting is for losers, getting there first is everything.
But here’s the problem for auto enthusiasts: Suspense, drama, mystery. It’s these ingredients that made Lost such a hit TV show. It’s why kids in the ‘90s watched Baywatch—when will they run; who is this Hasselhoff fella; and why is he running? Without those three ingredients, auto shows have become as bland as soggy sponge cake.
Last week marked a momentous occasion for Lamborghini. After a decade in production, the Gallardo has been replaced by the Huracan—a machine as hotly anticipated as any supercar in recent years. It’s a big story, and yet we saw the pictures days before Lamborghini released them, leaked by some car magazine in Hong Kong.
With the new Mustang appearing on Car & Driver's website back in October, as well as images of its December cover shot mysteriously appearing online, cars leaking early has become common. C&D's Mustang photos arrived almost two months before Ford officially released the “first” images. And Ford would, if it could, have waited until the Detroit auto shows to reveal its creation. But today, that's all but impossible. Pictures leak, forcing automaker's to show its hand way before it ever intended.
This was never more evidenced than when Jeep’s bold/futuristic/hideous (depending on your view) 2014 Cherokee first leaked as it left the production line. It wasn’t wearing all of its bodywork, and looked even uglier than a Nissan Murano convertible. The web went ballistic, calling it the biggest cock-up in vehicular design since the Aztek. Chrysler was forced to publish glossy, professional images of the car basking on the west coast in an attempt to weather the storm.
Sometimes the magazines are to blame. They need their material ready for print months before the actual magazine goes on sale. And yet automakers need to get its new steed on said covers. So it sends them the pictures in advance under a strict embargo. The pictures then appear on Reddit.
However, sometimes the leaks come from within the automaker itself. A daring GM employee leaked photos of the seventh-generation Corvette to Jalopnik in 2011. Chevy didn't reveal the new Corvette Stingray until January 2013, making this particular leak one of the earliest, and most ridiculous, in recent memory.
So how does an automaker maintain the mystery and keep its new cars a secret?
The first necessity is to avoid the paparazzi; the paps know where the new cars are being built and they'll stake out for as long as it takes to get the shot. To combat this, automakers like Ford have camouflage coordinators on their books. Al Wilkinson is Ford's guy who was in charge of the new Mustang: “With all the camo in place, even a good photograph should not give away the design details of the new car,” Wilkinson says.
There’s a fine balance between fooling the photographers and not screwing with the dynamics, however. Ford’s main aim was to obscure the fastback profile on the new 'Stang, something they managed to achieve by placing plastic and foam beneath the vinyl wrap. All in, the camo package weighed 49 lbs., a figure the engineers could live with. Ford's video below shows the consuming process in more detail:
Evading the paparazzi is only part of the equation. The real trick to preventing leaks is to keep the car a secret from much of the company's employees. Something this sneaky is of course impossible with a new car like the Mustang or Corvette, but when you’re talking performance monikers within a brand, well, that’s potentially doable.
At last year’s New York auto show, Chevy revealed the new Camaro. As always, images had already leaked, prompting most journalists to stand by the stage either picking their noses, eating free shrimp, or a combination of the two. When a Z/28 appeared out of nowhere, everyone was caught off guard. Phones went into overdrive, the endless tweets began, and journos ran back to their desks at breakneck speeds to begin typing. Running isn’t something journalists do. That’s how surprising this was.
The few within the Chevy organization that knew of the car's existence used the code name “Steve” when referring to the Z/28. Those that weren't on a need-to-know basis, knew nothing. They probably just thought Steve was a popular guy. Maybe he was the engineering department's coffee boy?
The Z/28’s reveal marked one of the most exciting car launches we saw this year, bested only by Ferrari's LaFerrari—one of the rare cases where the most hyped car on the planet never leaked at all. Perhaps that's because the entire town of Maranello would burn the culprit and hang them from their gentleman's region for committing such a heinous crime.
It’s a rush to see new cars take us by surprise. It’s what made auto shows fun back in the day. But it’s all in vain. Ford couldn't contain the new Mustang, and it's not because it didn't try. Despite camouflage coordinators, strict embargoes and non-disclosures, you can't overcome the power of today's cell phones. The lure of that "first shot" is too much to bear.