How Cars Are Made: The Complex Journey From Design to Driveway

Cars are more advanced than ever. 

That means the production process behind how cars are made must be equally sophisticated. Whether you're driving an economy import or a top of the line exotic, some aspects of the process are similar. The design and testing phase, an assembly line, and shipping are common aspects. But then there are unique challenges based on particular segments of the automotive industry. We'll dig in to the process to bring you the real story of how cars are made.

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Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Israel Defense Forces

It takes a lot of planning and hard work to bring your favorite cars and trucks to your local dealer.

But a process that has been consistently refined for more than a century keeps things running smoothly. In many cases, a new model can go from design to production in just a few years. And then high tech assembly lines can produce as many as the market demands. We wanted to find out how cars are made and were fascinated with what we found. Here are some of the key points in that process.

How does a car go from concept to production?

Car designers generally have to strike a delicate balance. On one hand, they must respond to what consumers are demanding. For example, as SUVs and trucks remain popular, Ford recently decided to drop most of its passenger car models. On the other hand, they want to remain true to their own style and the auto brand. This might mean futuristic styling cues or just a new way of looking at things. On top of it all, they have to consider rules and regulations about safety, fuel emissions and a lot more. And when a designer gets it right, the hard work is only just beginning.

The process became less labor intensive with the development of computer programs. Now designs can turn into 3-D models in the blink of an eye. From there, though, teams of engineers must build actual prototype. This includes everything from clay models to an option that can go through road testing. In addition to proving it meets legal requirements, these models also help define aerodynamics and performance. Each new model must go through extensive review before even the first new part is produced. Then the difficult process of designing and producing thousands of parts begins. Auto companies can share some components, but they have to produce many new pieces from scratch. Everything from nuts and bolts to the engine and transmission, it all has to fit just right.

What are the key components of how cars are made?

Unlike what some stories claim, Henry Ford did not invent the assembly line. But like many visionaries, he turned it into something that changed the way cars were produced. Before his was implemented, early autos were generally assembled by hand. Smaller companies were using their own versions, but his hit the big time. Starting with Ford's concept, many work stations were used to divide labor among factory employees. And that idea quickly spread. The main reason was that it radically decreased the amount of time it took to create a new car. In fact, an entire Model T took just a bit more than an hour and half to build from start to finish. 

As vehicles become more complex, though, so must the assembly lines. That includes shipping tech and hardware from around the world. And then a combination of robots and humans put the puzzles together to create the machine. Those vehicles then roll off the line and onto trucks. This is a very broad look at a specialized field. While most auto companies follow this basic blueprint, it varies widely. As alternative energy and battery power becomes a bigger concern, factories must adapt. 

What happens after the final steps of how cars are made?

The result of a lot of hard work is plenty of reason for car makers to celebrate. After a new model rolls off the assembly line, drivers determine whether it is a success. So much of the cost associated with how cars are made includes getting them to you. Of course, you can probably guess that you're actually absorbing much of this cost. Not only is it built into the car's cost, but it is also right there on the sticker. You might have seen "destination charge" or something to that effect when you bought a new car. That reflects some of the billions spent annually to ship automobiles.

Even though these cars can drive, the shipping concern starts right at the end of the factory line. Of course you can't just drive them to the dealership, even if it was only across town. They must remain new and pristine while making the journey -- potentially to the other side of the world. There are dozens of auto assembly plants, many of which are in the U.S. And they all face the same issues when it comes to shipping. By truck, train or cargo ship, the process is refined for both cost efficiency and convenience. Without this step, it doesn't matter how cars are made. It is only after drivers like you get behind the wheel that the whole investment can pay off.

The story of how cars are made is one that combines history and modern tech.

It is also rich and complicated, so we were only able to scratch the surface. If you're looking for a bit more information on the subject, we've got some suggestions. And please let us know in the comments section below if you have any final thoughts or questions. Share our guide to the auto enthusiasts in your life so they'll know more about how cars are made. And take a look at the following steps for an even deeper look into the topic.

  • Check out a museum - While the web gives us unparalleled access to knowledge, we think there's something special about a museum. And none gives you a first hand look at the assembly line like the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. You can learn a lot on the museum's website. But a 20 minute hands on experience leaves kids and adults alike with a better understanding of its importance.
  • Visit a factory - Perhaps the best way to get a close up view of the process is by seeing an assembly line in action. And there are a number of auto factories that allow tours. Taking in the smell, sounds and sights will give you a much clearer idea of how cars are made.
  • Read up on it - If you really want to know how something works, ask someone who's done it. That's why some great books about car design might be a great way to gain insight.

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