From the April 2023 issue of Car and Driver.
I once held a wheel that went into space. Well, I held a prototype for a wheel that went into space. My dad was an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory during the Mars Exploration Rover program, and he brought me along on a family open-house day while the Opportunity and Spirit were under construction. I remember the blue NASA meatball on the building and a sign off the main walkway pointing in one direction for "Space Flight Operations" and the other for "Cafeteria." Even today that pretty much sums up all my desires.
Dad showed me the white-walled clean rooms, where bunny-suited scientists tested cameras and solar panels, and the machine shop with its multistory five-axis mill and vending machines full of drill bits and lubricating 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. It blew my mind, this modern blacksmith's shop, turning hunks of material into spacecraft. A few years later, the rovers sent back photos from the surface of Mars. I felt like I was up there too with my wheel, and I've loved shop visits ever since. I want to see how things become things, which is why I very much enjoyed two recent factory tours in assembly plants that bookend a century's worth of manufacturing techniques.
Divergent Sees the Future in 3-D (Printing)
Let's start in the future, where our components will not be sawn out of billets or cast in waterfalls of molten steel but grown from hot sands under a laser-green sun. Divergent Technologies specializes in additive manufacturing, commonly known as 3-D printing. The company's focus is on expanding the industrial usefulness 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 a piece from engineering model all the way through installation, additive manufacturing can be made faster and more affordable.
Divergent can test its theories straight out of the printers. Its founder, Kevin Czinger, and his son, Lukas, operate their hypercar company from the same complex, an appropriately futuristic glassy black cube in Torrance, California. A red Czinger 21C sits just inside the door. Behind it, a gathering of assembly robots stands in a circle like sci-fi Satanists preparing a ritual of UV lights and high-tech epoxy. The rooms smell of glue and hot metal. It's silent, with no crackle of welders or whirring drill bits, just a low hum of electricity as banks of laser-sintering machines build chassis parts out of 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 its growing production needs with buyers' expectation of old-school craftsmanship. Tasks like spraying the lacquer on burlwood veneers and laying out the cutting pattern on the more than 14 leather hides it takes to outfit a Bentayga have been turned over to computer brains. The polishing of the lacquered wood, the checking of the hides for imperfections, and the sewing of intricate patterns is still done by hand, partially because some things humans still do better, partially because it's tradition.
For the unyielding Luddite, there's always the Mulliner Classic continuation program, which offered a dozen customers the chance to get a brand-new 1929 Bentley Blower and will soon start on a Speed Six series, all built the traditional way, with brass hammers, swearing, and Earl Grey. The '29 Blower's spoked wheels had never been in the same room as 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.
Like a sleeper agent activated late in the game, Elana Scherr didn’t know her calling at a young age. Like many girls, she planned to be a vet-astronaut-artist, and came closest to that last one by attending UCLA art school. She painted images of cars, but did not own one. Elana reluctantly got a driver’s license at age 21 and discovered that she not only loved cars and wanted to drive them, but that other people loved cars and wanted to read about them, which meant somebody had to write about them. Since receiving activation codes, Elana has written for numerous car magazines and websites, covering classics, car culture, technology, motorsports, and new-car reviews.