From Cars to Space Travel, the Shop Is Where It All Begins


From the April 2023 issue of Car and Driver.

I once held a wheel that went into space. Well, I kept a prototype for a wheel that went into space. My father was an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory during the Mars Exploration Rover program, and he brought me along to a family open house while the Opportunity and Spirit were under construction. I remember the blue NASA meatball on the building and a sign from the main walkway pointing in one direction for “Space Flight Operations” and the other for “Cafeteria.” Even today it more or less satisfies 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 multi-story five-axis mill and vending machines full of drill bits and lube oil. In the automated CNC department, a machinist let me start pressing on a new part. Later he hands me the finished piece, an aluminum wheel still wet with milky cutting fluid. It blew my mind, this modern blacksmith’s shop, turning scraps of material into spaceships. A few years later, the rovers sent back pictures of the surface of Mars. I felt like I was up there with my wheel too, and I’ve loved shopping ever since. I want to see how things become things, which is why I thoroughly enjoyed two recent factory tours of assembly plants that discussed a century of manufacturing techniques.

Divergent Sees the Future in 3-D (Print)

Let’s start in the future, where our components will not be sawn from billets or cast in waterfalls of molten steel, but grown from hot sand 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 utility of 3-D printing, which today is better for prototyping and small runs than for large-scale production. Divergent hopes that additive manufacturing can be made faster and more affordable by using AI-optimized design to plan a piece from engineering model to installation.

Divergent can test its theories straight off the presses. 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 stands a gathering of assembly robots in a circle like scientific satanists preparing a ritual of UV lights and high-tech epoxy. The rooms smell of glue and hot metal. It’s quiet, with no crackle of welders or bubbling drill bits, just a low hum of electricity as banks of laser sintering machines build 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 its growing production needs with buyers’ expectations of old-school craftsmanship. Tasks such as spraying the lacquer on burlwood veneer and laying out the cut pattern on the more than 14 leather sheets required to dress up a Bentayga were handed over to computer brains. Polishing the varnished wood, checking the skins 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 the die-hard Luddite, there’s always the Mulliner Classic continuation program, which has offered a dozen customers the chance to own a brand new 1929 Bentley Blower and will soon launch a Speed ​​Six series, all the traditional way. building, with brass hammers, curse, and Earl Grey. The ’29 Blower’s spoked wheels have never been in the same room as a CNC machine, but I got the same thrill from touching them as I did from the rover wheel. When we witness creation, we can travel through space and time.

Header from Elana Scherr

Senior Editor, Features

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. Reluctantly getting a driver’s license at age 21, Elana 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 someone had to write about them. Since receiving activation codes, Elana has written for numerous car magazines and websites, covering classics, car culture, technology, motorsport and new car reviews.