How Tape is Used in Car Design

Tape is a critical tool in the design process to develop any new vehicle. It provides precision and a life-size visual that cannot be replicated, despite advancements in digital technology.

While Ferrari design director Flavio Manzoni has long been an advocate for clay models, which can be touched and refined in full-scale, Lamborghini design director Felippo Perini has shunned the practice and opted for an entirely digital design process in the creation of the fabled supercars.

Like Manzoni, Ford’s designers and modelers remain committed to the clay process, relying on low-tech tape to communicate with each other. By placing tape on clay models to mark out changes in topography and add reflection to surfaces, the vehicle’s exterior design can be refined.

The design process of a vehicle is a long and artistic journey that begins with designers sketching ideas on paper. From there, the team moves to scaled-down clay models and 3D CAD drawings, eventually milling full-size clay vehicles to analyze options for the exterior design.

Kemal Curic tapes a clay model of the 2015 Ford Mustang
Kemal Curic tapes a clay model of the 2015 Ford Mustang

Clay is the ideal material for vehicle models as it allows the modelers to carve away or add to the final design, refining the surface language to make the vehicle appeal to customers.

“Great design is about proportions,” says Kemal Curic, Ford exterior design manager. “From the beginning, we need to focus on creating the right structural lines – the skeleton of the car. Then our job is to tailor the vehicle body to enhance the figure.

“This is a process of editing every single line to find the perfect balance of concave and convex angles. We achieve this on the clay model, and tape is what we use to decide which lines to move.”

For car designers, tape is its own language. Even with modern 3D digital imaging, automakers still rely on clay to sculpt and mold vehicles as the design develops. Tape brings a measure of precision to a process that results in a life-size 3D visual that cannot be duplicated on a computer screen, complementing the digital process.

“Tape gives us a defined line that is like a carpenter laying a level line on a building,” says Larry Pelowski, Ford master modeler, exterior design. “So when the designers put tape on the model, there is no question what their intent is.”

Artistry with tape is not a new phenomenon; auto designers once drew entire vehicles with the malleable adhesive.

2015 Ford Mustang clay modelling
Kemal Kuric tapes a 2015 Ford Mustang clay model

Tape offers both precision and artistry unmatched by other tools, Pelowski states. He explains how is a flexible material that can be reused over and over again until the designers find the line they want to pursue. A tape line maintains the integrity of the width of the line; this is especially important when drawing a line with an arch that might otherwise be difficult to keep a consistent size.

“Tape was the medium of choice for creating life-size drawings,” says Garen Nicoghosian, Ford exterior design manager. “They’d stretch Mylar on large boards and do a full-size tape drawing, which captured the essence of the car.

“The idea of tape drawings has evolved over time; we’ve integrated digital media now and have technology that allows us to view full-size models based on CAD data on very large display screens, adds Nicoghosian.

“In the past, tape was used because it was the first opportunity to see a full-size vehicle — it was the best way to draw accurate lines on a 1:1 scale. Today, the artistry of tape continues, but we use it primarily on clay models.”

How much tape does Ford use every year? Plenty. If one were to stretch the black tape used on clay models by the Ford design team, there’d be about 155 miles of tape a year.


Founded in 2012, Form Trends tirelessly covers the automotive design industry in all corners of the globe to bring you exclusive content about cars, design, and the people behind the products.