While the shockingly unconventional design is what has everyone talking right now about the Tesla Cybertruck, there are a few conversations that are going to take on some more importance the closer it gets to production (if it gets there at all). One is the price, because what Elon Musk told us on stage at the reveal is a decidedly ambitious price/performance matrix – and he hasn’t achieved aggressive price targets for the Model 3 yet, despite lots of hype. The other conversation we will have is about the stainless steel bodywork. And here’s where a lesson from the past is useful.
Stainless steel is a wonderful material – durable, easy to clean, attractive. And that’s part of the reason the DeLorean Motor Company and Italdesign’s Giorgetto Giugiaro selected it for the exterior panels of the DMC-12. It would make the car instantly recognizable, like nothing else on the road. That, the gullwing doors, and a certain Robert Zemeckis movie ensured eternal fame.
But as a body material, it has its limitations. Stainless steel can show scratches, but unlike a painted panel you can’t simply spray over them. You can abrade the surface to “re-grain” the steel if the scratches are light enough. Dents are even worse, and a real headache for owners. With a painted panel, you can fill a small dent, or pop it out and then use filler to smooth the panel. Paint hides the filler, and the end result of competent bodywork is seamless. But you can’t fill a bare panel, so if the dent can’t be picked out using special techniques (and requiring a tiny amount of filling and sanding), the panel has to be replaced. Here's a video on what it takes to refinish a DeLorean hood.
What that means for DeLorean owners is that what could be a minor dent in a regular car could, depending on the panel and location, get expensive quickly. And DeLorean owners are orphans, albeit with some excellent support from the successor DeLorean Motor Company of Texas, so while replacement panels are available generally it’s not like the company is still in business and can crank out more as Tesla could.
Tesla, it should be said, is already facing significant production constraints on its existing line, and furthermore is struggling with quality control on finished painted panels already requiring a fair bit of after-sales remedial work. If the stainless panels make it to production on the Cybertruck, Tesla is going to be faced with the daunting task of making sure owners have access to bodywork specialists familiar with the necessary techniques and a large amount of replacement panels. Sure, in the demonstration a guy hit the panel with a sledgehammer and it didn’t seem to dent, but who’s to say production panels will be that thick or resilient? And a low-speed parking lot accident imparts a lot more force on a body panel than a guy swinging a sledgehammer. More practically, stainless steel is very heavy, and any excess mass cuts into payload, towing, and more important, range.
The DeLorean lesson here is that potential Cybertruck buyers shouldn’t necessarily see the stainless panels as a boon. Yes, it’s a tough material in lots of applications, but as we note above it’s not easy to repair and can be expensive to replace. Nor do many independent body shops have the requisite knowledge – after all, how many DeLoreans would a typical shop repair in its lifetime? There aren’t any other stainless-bodied cars out there in significant numbers.
The stainless panels shouldn’t be a dealbreaker for anyone, but don’t believe any hype about them being easier to maintain than a painted panel.