From the April 2023 issue Car and Driver.
I once held a bicycle that went into space. Well, I was holding a prototype bike that went into space. My father was an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory during the Mars Exploration Rover program and brought me along to a family open house while Opportunity and Spirit were under construction. I remember the blue NASA meatball on the building and a sign from the main aisle pointing one way to Space Flight Operations and the other to Cafeteria. Even today, that pretty much sums up all my desires.
Dad showed me the clean, white-walled rooms where scientists in bunny suits tested cameras and solar panels, and the machine shop with its multi-story, five-axis mill and vending machines full of drill bits and lube oil. In the automated, CNC section, a machinist let me press start on a new part. Later he handed me the finished piece, an aluminum wheel still wet with milky cutting fluid. This modern blacksmith shop turning scraps of material into spaceships blew my mind. A few years later, rovers sent back pictures of the surface of Mars. I felt like I was there too with my bike and I’ve loved visiting the shops ever since. I want to see how things become things, which is why I thoroughly enjoyed two recent factory tours of assembly plants that are perfecting manufacturing techniques cherished for a century.
Divergent sees the future in 3-D (print)
Let’s start in the future, where our components will not be cut from blanks or cast in waterfalls of molten steel, but grown from hot sand under a laser green sun. Divergent Technologies specializes in additive manufacturing, known as 3-D printing. The company’s focus is on expanding the industrial utility of 3-D printing, which today is better for prototyping and small runs than for large-scale production. Divergent hopes that by using AI-optimized design to plan part of the engineering model to installation, additive manufacturing can become faster and more affordable.
Divergent can test its theories straight from the printing presses. Its founder, Kevin Zinger, and his son, Lucas, operate their hypercar company from the same complex, a suitably futuristic glass black cube in Torrance, California. A red Czinger 21C stands just inside the door. Behind him, a collection of assembly robots stand in a circle like sci-fi satanists, preparing a ritual with UV lights and high-tech epoxy. The rooms smell of glue and hot metal. It’s silent, no whirring welding machines or spinning drills, just the low hum of electricity as groups of laser sintering machines build the chassis parts from dust, one glowing layer at a time.
Bentley keeps it old school
Across the Atlantic, in a brick building on Pyms Lane in Crewe, England, Bentley Motors balances growing production needs with buyers’ expectations of old-school craftsmanship. Tasks such as spraying varnish on wood veneers and tracing the cutting pattern on the more than 14 leather hides needed to outfit the Bentayga have been outsourced to computer brains. Polishing lacquered wood, checking hides for imperfections, and sewing intricate patterns are still done by hand, partly because some things people still do better, partly because it’s tradition.
For die-hard Luddites, there’s always the Mulliner Classic follow-on program, which offered a dozen customers the chance to own a brand new 1929 Bentley Blower, and will soon begin with a series of Speed Sixes, all built the traditional way, with brass hammers, swearing and Earl Grey. The ’29 fan spoke wheels were never in the same room with a CNC machine, but I got the same thrill touching them as I did from the rover wheel. When we witness creation, we can travel through space and time.
Senior Editor, Features
Like a sleeper agent activated late in the game, Elana Sher didn’t know her calling at an early age. Like many girls, she plans to be a vet-astronaut-artist and comes closest to the latter by attending art school at UCLA. She painted images of cars, but did not own one. Elana reluctantly gets her driver’s license at 21 and discovers that not only does she love cars and want to drive them, but that other people love cars and want to read about them, which means someone has to write about them. Since receiving the activation codes, Elana has written for numerous automotive magazines and websites covering classics, car culture, technology, motorsports and new car reviews.