1960s / 1970s / 1980s / 1990s / Alfa Romeo / Citroen / Fiat / French / German / Italian / Mercedes-Benz / SEAT

Test mules

For as long as the automotive press has existed journalists have been trying to get a peak at new models before their official launch. Some folks even make a career out of it, chasing camouflaged BMWs down a French back road to get that one good shot of a future model that no one has seen yet. When pictures are not available journalists sometimes illustrate what they think new models will look like with varying accuracy.

In response to that and in an effort to keep details of a new car secret until the last minute, manufacturers have camouflaged their cars in various ways that range from stickers to an entire new body. We’re taking a look at some past test cars from this cat and mouse game.

Mercedes-Benz w114/w115

This 1965 illustration was published in Germany’s Der Spiegel newspaper to give readers an idea of what the upcoming w114/w115 stroke eight models would look like. The w114/w115’s official launch didn’t come until 1968 so not many details were available when the illustration was drawn and it relies on w113 SL styling cues. The end result looks like a 1960s CLS.

Production car:

Fiat X1/9

The doors are recognizable as being the same ones on the production model and the air vent gave away that the engine was not in the front but the rest of the car was given a new body. Fiat must have done a remarkable job at fooling the press: at the time they called the car the 127 Spider, when it was actually based on the 128.

Production car:

Alfa Romeo Alfetta GT

This early test car gives away the general shape of the Alfetta but it doesn’t give away any of the mechanical bits (DeDion rear suspension, rear-mounted transaxle) that would surprise the public in 1972, the year the Alfetta was launched. The front and the wheels look like they’re from a 2000 GTV.

Production car:

Alfa Romeo Alfasud Sprint

By the mid-1970s rumors of an Alfasud coupe were materializing and a spy photographer shot these pictures on a test track about a year before the car’s 1976 launch. The picture shows a car that is close to the production model but heavily camouflaged. Still, the basic window and door lines are there.

Production car:

Fiat Ritmo/Strada

The first illustration was drawn by French magazine Auto Journal in 1977. Their design is a bit too futuristic but all things considered, it’s surprisingly close to the production model. As a side note, when this image was published the magazine’s headline read: “the new Fiat 138, an Italian Renault 14!”

The second illustration is a factory prototype. The front is mostly free of camouflage and reveals the production car’s face but the rest is kept a secret. Fiat even went as far as masking the Ritmo’s round door handles.

Production car:

Mercedes-Benz w126

The first photo was taken in Tunisia, where the w126 was undergoing hot weather tests. The design is pretty close to the production model but the front is heavily camouflaged with trim on the headlights and a bull bar. All Mercedes emblems were stripped off the car.

The second photo was taken on an unidentified test track and looks to be a prototype: the shape is slightly more angular than a production w126 and the taillights are completely different.

Production car:

Citroën BX

While at first glance this looks like a GS prototype, it was taken in 1979 and hides a BX drivetrain under the hood. Careful observers will notice the BX/C15 four-lug steel wheel, a dead giveaway of what the GS body is hiding.

Saab pulled a similar trick to test out the 99’s chassis and drivetrain: they used a widened 96 body and figured no one would notice the difference.

Production car:

SEAT Toledo

The Volkswagen badge on the hood does a very good job at camouflaging what this is. The first guess that comes to mind is an mk3 Jetta, which is close but no cigar: it’s a SEAT Toledo. The badge is not as random as it might seem since the Toledo was the first SEAT designed entirely by Volkswagen and shared its A2 platform with the mk2 Golf and Jetta.

Production car:

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