Ode to the Skunkworks: The Ultimate Problem Solvers

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A lot of automotive culture is romanticized. This is certainly not without good reason, as we’re only a couple generations removed from the people who invented the darn things, but our world is often more highly regarded through nostalgia than any legitimate historical exploration.

Some facets of our culture may seem better as memories than they actually were, but there’s a hidden subculture within our larger narrative that deserves all the romance, all the praise and all the adulation. These are the folks of the skunkworks, those out-of-the-way, off-the-books, brains-for-hire organizations that have been the driving force behind almost everything we love today.

The term originated–as the legend goes–from a “Li’l Abner” comic strip: In that world, Skunk Works was the moonshine distillery that operated outside the law–and outside the knowledge of anyone who didn’t need to know of its existence. The term, nowadays frequently used as a single word, came to popularity mostly thanks to Lockheed Martin. In their semi-officially named Skunk Works plant, the forms of such legendary aircraft as the SR-71 Blackbird and F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter took shape away from the company’s mainstream operations–under the direction of a group of engineers given far more autonomy than the company typically provided.

It was a model that resonated in the automotive sector: Take your best and brightest, lock them away in a room, give them all the resources they ask for, and amazing stuff will come out the other end. OEMs launched in-house programs and contracted with outside builders to develop their hardware. Ford and, later, Chrysler went to Carroll Shelby. Chevy enlisted guys like Don Yenko.

Eventually all the major manufacturers applied the model broadly to in-house programs; Ford’s SVO division is a perfect example. Today, Chrysler’s SRT brand operates largely as a separate entity, and somehow they have someone who can actually sit across a table from an executive and say, “Yeah, I think a 600-horsepower Jeep Cherokee is a great idea,” with a completely straight face.

Heck, even Walmart has their own skunkworks. Store 8, as they refer to it, is where the cutting edge of, um, Walmartiness is incubated. I dunno, maybe they’ve figured out a way to erase shoppers’ visions of old lady butt crack and that crazy guy in socks and sandals screaming about being covered in invisible spiders. If so, vive le Walmart.

Anyway, I wax poetic about works of skunks because I recently had the chance to visit one. It was pretty much like a trip to Disney combined with a trip to that awesome surplus store that gets all the really cool stuff combined with a trip to a college that would never be desperate enough to admit me.

Motivo Engineering in Irvine, California, is the candy store you dreamt of as a kid combined with the hardware store you dream of as an adult. It was founded by former employees of Rod Millen Motorsports after that company became heavily involved in outside development as well and was eventually absorbed by an even larger company. Motivo sprang up when a few of those folks set out on their own to solve problems most of us aren’t smart enough to know we have.

A lot of the stuff I saw on my tour I can’t tell you about, because it was super top secret. But I can tell you everything was awesome. Need a one-wheel, all-terrain skateboard? These are the people who’d design it for you. Need a skydiving simulator? A self-driving semi-truck? An electric multiconfiguration golf cart? A drone capable of carrying that golf cart? Motivo will design it and build your prototypes.

During my visit I saw pieces coming together for an automatic tree-planting system as well as a robotic security guard. In another area of the building off limits to visitors, I can only assume that a different, stronger robot was being constructed to do battle with the robot security guard when it eventually turns against its makers (as all robots will most certainly do). Need a robot to take down both of those robots when they decide that humans are the real enemy? Yeah, Motivo will help you with that, too.

The whole experience left me humbled, but inspired. Look, I’m a simple journalist. I’m never going to invent the next great anything, except maybe a funny fart joke or two. But I can think about these amazing people–and about the skunkworks trailblazers of the past, who valued concepts like invention, creation and problem solving simply for their own sakes–and be immensely moved.

One of the recurring themes of this column is that I want you to find the motivation to solve problems. To make things. To stretch your abilities, even if your resources are limited. Outfits like Motivo may have insane assets at their disposal–from the latest and greatest in tools and fabrication gear to teraflops of computing power and cutting-edge, on-demand manufacturing-but inspiration can come from anywhere.

Maybe the next great innovation is sitting on your kitchen table in your one-bedroom apartment. Or maybe it’s a smoking hulk of melted plastic and self-tapping screws. But dammit, it’s your smoking heap of plastic and screws. You made that. Celebrate your accomplishments, and innovate on.

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View comments on the GRM forums
Appleseed MegaDork
4/9/18 12:48 p.m.

When asked how his team could design so many successful aircraft, Kelky Johnson's reply was, "We weren't afraid to fail "

I never forgot that.

MotorsportsGordon Reader
4/9/18 1:01 p.m.

The greatest chevrolet skunkworks of all time 

Trackmouse UltraDork
4/9/18 2:32 p.m.

Fun fact: Skunk2 was initially called “Skunkworks”. Lockheed sent a cease and desist. And thus, Skunk2. 

te72 New Reader
4/10/18 12:28 a.m.

You know, I get the feeling that the skunk works people are those who truly know what people WANT. Forget focus groups, let these people do all the design and engineering, and you'd end up with a portfolio that looks a lot like, I suspect, err... Ferrari.


Now, what people can actually afford and what is practical, that may be a different story. I think we've figured out who "our" corporate friends are though!

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