How New Car Models End Up Unmasked

The high-stakes espionage being waged on America's roads

When Phoenix housewife Brenda Priddy goes to walk her dog, she drives farther than the local park. She grabs one of her Canon EOS 50D cameras, loads her mutt into her station wagon, and heads toward Death Valley, or the Rockies, or another site known for extreme temperatures or elevation, in search of vehicular prey. Priddy runs an international photo syndicate, Brenda Priddy & Co. Her business card reads “Automotive Spy Photography.” “People claim that we do industrial espionage,” she says, “but we do it all from public areas and without breaking any laws. Basically we spend hours and hours doing surveillance and stakeouts, hoping to catch sight of a future car.”

This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Automakers take myriad measures to protect forthcoming models. They cloak vehicles during transport. They create “mules,” cars with updated running gear hidden under the body of a current model. And they use camouflage—darkened trim, grafted prosthetics, black vinyl patches, or arresting paint patterns. “If you catch an action shot of our vehicles driving, you won’t be able to catch a clear shot of a feature line on the exterior,” says Corey Davis, who, as General Motors’ former quality audit supervisor for pre-production operations, was responsible for camouflage inspection.

The subterfuge may seem absurd, but for automakers the stakes are huge. Not only are they working to prevent their intellectual property from being appropriated by their competitors, they’re also defending their current products, especially those that remain unsold. Terry Rhadigan, director for GM’s global product development team, explains: “There’s a school of thought that says once you show the new [version of a vehicle], it could impact sales of the current one, even if it’s a few years out.”

Advance information like this is well-established, with two distinct categories of buyers. The first is the industry—automakers and their suppliers, whose internal competitive intelligence teams are charged with keeping stakeholders abreast of their rivals’ activities. The second group includes the automotive press, for whom future product information lures readers like a pheromone.

Jim Dunne, 78, a veteran Detroit editor of Popular Mechanics and Popular Science, was one of the pioneers of automotive spy photography. In an interview that drew heavily from his new book, Car Spy, he told stories straight out of John le Carré: dressing up as an engineering executive and sneaking into a Chrysler pilot plant; surreptitiously attending manufacturers’ secret consumer research clinics (often on tips from their competitors); blowing past receptionists (“I don’t bother looking at receptionists because they don’t mean anything,” he says) and into Pontiac’s engineering bunker to shoot their prototypes.

But in an era when celebrities’ nude photos are as eminently downloadable as classified documents, the idea of sneaking into a warehouse to snap a blurry spy shot seems archaic. People like Dave Sullivan work the problem from a different angle. A 31-year-old Michigan native who says his first word was “car,” Sullivan runs a subscription-only online database called Competitive Battlegrounds for research firm AutoPacific. To fill the site’s grids with detailed entries for each of the hundreds of vehicles in automakers’ pipelines, Sullivan burrows into cyberspace. “I spend most of my day online,” he says, gathering information “from blogs, from online forums, from accidental tweets, from e-mails, from phone calls, from contacts you make in the industry.” The trick is finding the signal in this noise. “You kind of have to put the pieces of the puzzle together. And sometimes I’m only given one piece of a 10-piece puzzle.”

Sullivan’s nose for the scoop is reminiscent of legendary car spy Georg Kacher. (Ever secretive, Kacher declined to be interviewed.) Eddie Alterman, the editor-in-chief of Car and Driver magazine, describes Kacher as a combination Sasquatch/Svengali: “Six-foot-seven, Austrian, and with an almost unlimited capacity for drink.” Kacher started his career as a zookeeper before going to Car magazine in the U.K., where he still works. “He told me one story,” Alterman says, “about how he was in a meeting with a product planner, and Georg kept plying him with coffee. Filling his cup, and refilling it, and refilling it. Finally the guy had to go to the bathroom. And when he went, Georg looked in his briefcase and saw the product cycle plans for, like, the next seven years.” Alterman summarized: “It’s a war. The journalists want the information that the manufacturers don’t want to leak out.”

Ray Wert, editor-in-chief of Jalopnik, Gawker’s car site, conducts this war without compunction. He’s posted bounties for spy shots, run preproduction images stolen by disgruntled employees, published information he knew to be false hoping an automaker would deliver a revealing correction, and even elicited a manufacturer’s official confirmation—and photo—of a new Mustang by bluffing that he was otherwise going to run a (nonexistent) inferior image. “Misdirection,” Wert said, “is my best ally.”

With so much at stake, why are there still leaks? Some of it is human nature: the bragging rights of knowing first. But it often comes down to trying to game the system. “Sometimes guys at the manufacturers have agendas,” Alterman explains, “pet projects that don’t have internal institutional support. … So they’ll start talking to [the press] about it like it’s the real thing. And you write it, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because people start to expect it.”

Since there’s no way for cars to be developed without people building, driving, and communicating about them, car companies and the auto press are caught in a strange symbiosis. “We try to strike this balance between maximizing coverage but also keeping the images contained until such time as we want them to be out there,” says GM’s Rhadigan. Wert concurs: “The game of future products on the part of the automakers is a very slow-moving dance. … We try to go up to the line whenever possible. As long as you don’t break it, it’s usually fine.”

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