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ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

This year, Ford is marking the 50th anniversary of the Mustang. To celebrate, engineers came up with a major redesign featured this week at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. But before it revealed the new model, Ford tried to preserve the element of surprise. That's no easy task when you're up against paparazzi from car magazines and websites.

NPR's Daniel Hajek reports on one way automakers keep away prying eyes: car camouflage.

DANIEL HAJEK, BYLINE: For months, the new Mustang was cloaked in secrecy. But an upcoming car can't stay in the garage forever. It has to undergo rigorous testing, and that means taking it out in traffic to monitor its handling on roads across the U.S. So to keep the redesign out of the public eye, Mustang chief engineer Dave Pericak says it was completely covered in camouflage.

DAVE PERICAK: Underneath that material is a whole science and art, all-in-one. They're creating a new exterior over the exterior.

HAJEK: It's like hiding in plain sight.

AL WILKINSON: We try to use lightweight vinyl and different types of foam, which don't absorb water.

HAJEK: That's Al Wilkinson, the Mustang's master of disguise. He's Ford's camouflage coordinator. Wilkinson says he carefully designed the thick exterior so it wouldn't affect the weight or aerodynamics of the car.

WILKINSON: The materials we use have to be flexible and also be able to hold up to all different weather climates.

HAJEK: The result: a nondescript, black, boxy vehicle that looks a little like the Batmobile. Just as soon as it hit the road, the car paparazzi were waiting.

BRENDA PRIDDY: Heavily camouflaged, but I have photos of the Mustang.

HAJEK: That's photographer Brenda Priddy. She caught it outside a shopping mall in Colorado. You can't tell what the design looks like. But even photos of masked cars are sought after by auto magazines and blogs.

PRIDDY: Everybody loves to see the next Corvette, the next Mustang, the next Ferrari. They'd like to see what's going on.

HAJEK: Priddy says each auto company has a distinct style of camouflage. BMW and Mini mount psychedelic black and yellow patterns on exteriors to distort the contours and lines.

PRIDDY: We've seen lots of Nissans and, in the past, a couple Subarus that look like they're wrapped in garbage bags with black electrical tape or duct tape wrapped around it. So that's pretty distinctive as well.

HAJEK: She says one of the best spots to snap spy photos is at a gas station.

PRIDDY: We usually wait until they get the nozzle in the gas pump, and then they're kind of stuck there for a few minutes. Just kind of blend in, and we belong where they belong.

HAJEK: Priddy takes her pictures in public places, but not everyone plays by those rules. During the Mustang's high-speed tests, Dave Pericak says one photographer snuck past security onto Ford's private track.

PERICAK: He went to the track the night before and slept in the weeds. And then in the morning, he was ready to go, and he had his telephoto lens and everything. And he literally just woke up in the weeds. And as we rolled the car off of our transportation truck and we took the camo off, his camera started snapping photos. Even though we had hired security and closed the track down and did everything that we did, he still got his way in there.

HAJEK: Images of the Mustang's front end were leaked. But that didn't compromise the car's much-anticipated unveiling.

MARK FIELDS: Everybody has a great story about the Mustang.

HAJEK: Ford's Chief Operating Officer Mark Fields addresses a crowd in Dearborn, Michigan, in December. He stands in front of a Mustang hidden under a white sheet.

FIELDS: So with no further ado, ladies and gentleman, the all-new 2015 Mustang.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HAJEK: The sheet flies off the car, finally revealing the glossy red fully redesigned body. Pericak says the camouflage did its job.

PERICAK: It's a big game of cat and mouse. And at the end of the day, as long as we don't get caught by the cat, we're good.

HAJEK: With bulky and sometimes vibrant camouflage, it's hard to miss these future cars out on the road. The car paparazzi will always have lenses pointed towards the latest redesign. But as long as there are camouflage coordinators, the car industry's newest design secrets can stay safely hidden until the next big reveal. Daniel Hajek, NPR News.

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