F ormer GM designer and motoring nut Leo Pruneau is well-known in local car circles for his forthright opinions and infectious enthusiasm.
The St Louis USA native and naturalised Australian started work with GMH as a stylist in 1969, soon after the first HQ sedan body was finalised for production. It was he who created the look of the first SS.
“It was one of those projects we had to do in those days, when the sales guys would come in and say we want to make maybe about 500 of these, based on the Belmont, with a 4-speed transmission and the 253 V8, what can you do to set it apart?
“That’s always a challenge because you’ve never got any money to spend on the bloody project. I never did sketches – always did a full size car because I thought that was the only way to sell it. If you went full size it was easier to sell (to other departments in the company) and you knew what you were going to get.
“The prototype, the styling model, was silver with orange stripes. We got the product policy guys (which included production) to come in and have a look. In any event they got all concerned about the hood stripes. They were not only on the hood, but the front fender and nose can – so across three panels – and I really wanted the stripes to line up with the headlights.
“We finally got it approved – but they couldn’t afford to mask and paint it.
About that same time the 3M company had arrived in Australia. We called them up and they sent a rep around and we showed him the styling model. We wanted to know if they could do it in vinyl. They said yeah, they’d jump on that.
“So we gave them the drawings from engineering. The very first set of stripes came through and we built it down in Dandenong – I put the first stripes on myself – I took a razor and cut them out myself. In those days everything was done by hand, I can tell you! No automation.
“I got here in 1969 and the HQ sedan body and the Monaro were already finished. I always felt the guys had the rear deck a little too low, same as the LJ and LC Toranas – not enough ‘push’ in the back. That was why I put the black panel on the back, to lift the eye and ‘harden’ it up.”
While it was sales which drove the first SS, it was Leo who took up the cause for the Commodore. The sales director was an American and had only been here a fairly short time and I put the SS together just as a private venture.
There was no product program for it or anything. So I put it together and got him to come over one night after work. It was on a turntable with all the lights on and looked the best it could. He (John Rock) said ‘wow that looks pretty good’.
Anything you show the sales department, if they like it, they want it right away.
“Anyway one of the things I had on the car were these Irmscher wheels – I had a set out here from Germany. I said, ‘look, John, if we’re going to do this properly, I want those wheels’. I never wanted to put aftermarket wheels on a Holden product.
There’s nothing wrong with aftermarket wheels but I didn’t think it was dignified enough for the factory.
“So I said we’ve gotta get these damned wheels. The car sat in styling for four or five weeks and I bumped into John one day. ‘Have you told Chuck Chapman (Holden Managing Director) about this SS car?’ I asked. More time went by, I bumped into him again, and reminded him we had to show Chapman. He said, ‘I know because there are 750 sets of wheels sitting on the dock.’ They were expensive wheels and the car hadn’t been approved!
“We always had the biggest problem with wheels. We could design anything and couldn’t get it past engineering. But if we chose something from the Opel range, there was no problem as it was already approved for production. Irmscher were approved by Opel and already approved for production in Germany.”
So does he have a favourite among the line-up?
“The Holden VK Commodore V8 was actually brilliant I thought – the best of what was offered anywhere at the time.
“I remember we sent one to Germany – Opel had a luxury car called the Senator, they only had a boat anchor six in the damned thing. We took the V8 over there and they nearly shit themselves!”
So how about the current car? Pruneau argues the looks are a little too conservative, given its status: “You don’t get buried in your work clothes.” Amen to that…