This Field in Miami is Where All Your Cars Are Weather Tested
Your next car is lying in a farm field south of Miami. No one is revving the motor hard to test overheating, and no bikini model is taking photos with it for the debut catalog. Your future car is just sitting out in the sun waiting to fail. This is because someone asked the right question over 85 years ago. In 1928, the automobile was still so new to mainstream that Ford had only recently reintroduced colors back into its lineup. On the other side of Detroit, General Motors had been offering a variety as wide as a rainbow for much longer, and that created one of the first customer service problems in the industry. According to GM, that year there were, “more field reports of premature paint failures emanating from the South Florida area than anywhere else in the country, and research wanted to know why.” The company responded by laying out color test panels on the roof of a paint supply depot in the Miami area. The operation grew so fast that within a year they moved to their own field that was far enough west to get away from any air contaminates from metro Miami. RELATED: The GM Aerotrain Was a Project Gone Off the Rails
As the testing spread they found that South Florida has a unique cocktail of sun, air, and humidity (ultraviolet radiation, oxygen, and water) that’s one of the most corrosive in the world. So just like that aunt who liked to go out and get a suntan every morning, materials weathered up to three times faster here than other parts of the country.
The results were so valuable that testing was expanded to include many other materials such as the convertible top vinyl, truck bed wood, and all that iconic ‘50s chrome. Unfortunately outside progress was catching up, too. By the mid-1950s, the testing area that was once described as “an old sandy sweet potato patch” was now a neighbor to the growing Miami International Airport.
This was an opportunity for GM. They were now up to 25,000 trials annually and needed space for more.
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On February 24, 1958, General Motors broke ground on a remote ten-acre site nearly 30 miles south of the airport. Despite its secludedness, the facility was so important to the company that the ceremonial first dirt was spade by Charles Kettering—the famed automotive inventor who is not only credited with the paints they were using at the time, but also everything from the electric starter to, unfortunately, leaded gasoline. It would be one of his last official duties for GM before Kettering passed away later that year.
The site featured purpose-built racks that could be angled for direct sun exposure and pivoted to follow it all day long. This was the prime era of metallic naugahyde interiors, bright pastel paints, and exterior chrome that could almost be measured in tonnage. So for the few people who happened upon GM’s test center by accident, the sight of all these components tightly assembled and pointing toward the sky probably looked like an outer space communication device. Little did they know that they were probably sitting on this exotic technology the whole time.
The location chosen was a good one. Entire suburban cities have popped up in the Miami population explosions of the last six decades, but the test field is still surrounded by farmland. The site’s original concrete office building even survived Hurricane Andrew in 1992, which devastated the immediate area but only shifted the roof of the bunker-like structure.
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The facility is older than the Kennedy Space Center, Fidel Castro’s regime, and Walt Disney’s interest in Orlando. Still, the only major change is the name on the outside. General Motors no longer owns the facility. It was sold about four decades ago to a company known today as Atlas Material Testing Solutions.
Under Atlas, the field has been modified and updated, but the original GM spirit can be felt. Most of the racks have been replaced, because after over 60 years of weathering materials to failure, even their holders began to washout. These new test tables are still very mobile in case of extreme weather and can be angled for the right exposure just like the first racks on this field. In fact, one GM-installed table is still present with testing material strapped to it. This is less of an ongoing experiment and more of a tribute to ingenuity.
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Atlas is not affiliated with General Motors, but it was still an irresistible opportunity to take a new Impala down to visit the site. After all, GM established both in 1958.
This is also a bit of a homecoming for the car, because while General Motors is no longer the landlord, it is a tenant. Just as it was with the first Impala, components for this new sedan were tested here. In fact, with a clientele that includes nearly every car producing nation, a quick peek through the Atlas field is like looking at the ultimate automotive puzzle. There are full dashboards, headlight assemblies, paint swatches, and body panels spread across the entire site. The right scavenger hunters could almost assemble an international lineup of vehicles if they were allowed to pull from these racks.
There are even entire cars parked at a remote section of the field. These are blocked from any public view because many aren’t supposed to exist yet. This is how Atlas discovers how well your future wheels endure in your driveway years before you even visit the dealer. In fact, if they fail to hold up to Florida’s wet/hot/humid climate, we may never see them at all.
The idea of paint and other components failing in this test field is not as negative as it may seem. In the same spirit that no one lives forever, given a long enough timeline, every component will eventually fail. It is about understanding a lifespan in this extreme environment that gives us better confidence in knowing today’s Metallic Plum will not become tomorrow’s purple haze.
So yes, watching paint dry is boring, but watching it survive is essential.