DETROIT: Centre of Australian design excellence. That’s cheeky, but with three of the 2015 show’s stars designed by Australians, including the undisputed hero Ford GT, it’s hard to argue otherwise.
Our production industry may be terminal, but there’s a rich vein of local talent that will continue to shape the world’s cars for decades.
The Ford GT capped off a stellar start to the year for Australian car designers. Within moments of the reveal of the car that remained the crowd-maker for North America’s biggest industry gig, it emerged that the man behind the sleek, yet aggressive shape – with subtle retro cues and contemporary technical solutions – was Australia’s own Todd Willing.
The Tasmanian-born 41-yearold first tasted automotive design as a student on work experience at Ford’s Broadmeadows HQ with then design boss Steve Park. “I was hooked at that point,” says Willing.
Now he has Park’s job, an expanded role that oversees the Asia Pacific studios with 125 people in the Melbourne offices. Soon that number will jump to 180 as the facilities take on more global work.
“When you do things remotely, you can get a little bit of a disruption and something fresh comes out,” says Willing. The Aussie designed the bold exterior of the GT during a stint in Detroit.
He’s now back in Melbourne working on other projects that will influence and evolve Ford design.
Global design boss Moray Callum is impressed with the work that comes from Australia, something he puts down partially to the isolation.
“Detroit is the big town to come to,” says Callum. “That hunger for doing something – it seems less attainable when you’re [living so far away]. But it makes you all the better for it.
“The work out of the Melbourne
studio is excellent; that’s why we’re expanding the studio.”
General Motors design boss Ed Welburn backs up Callum’s praise of the Aussie talent and fought hard to maintain a significant presence as Holden’s local operations wind down.
“They’re very bright, they’re very creative, they’re very passionate about design, they’re very passionate about automobiles,” Welburn said. “I’m very passionate for what they do. The team is very solidly in place and no one questions it at all, no one, from [GM CEO] Mary Barra down.”
Welburn says the two GM show stars from Detroit this year – the Chevrolet Bolt and Buick Avenir, both products of Australia – reinforced that focus.
“It has made the [Australian design] reputation more public,” he says. “I was impressed how that team, which has been doing Holdens for decades, could do such a spirited, romantic Buick.”
That ability to adapt to brands and understand cars that may never be sold in Oz is something that’s helped local designers climb the Detroit design ladder.
Like so many designers, Melbourne’s Mike Simcoe started designing components and learning the trade. He now heads up the GM International Operations design teams, based in Korea, Melbourne and India.
Simcoe says the experience and maturity of the Australian design team – a centre operating since 1964 – helps foster local talent.
He was instrumental in the careers of many of Australia’s respected designers, helping build their skills when he was in charge of the Holden design centre.
One is country boy Andrew Smith, who lists designing the VU Ute as one of his highlights. Now he’s shaping two of America’s most iconic brands, Cadillac and Buick.
He says Australia’s car culture naturally breeds people interested in cars, while the compact nature of our studios is advantageous.
“[Holden] is similar but so much smaller and you can see across it,” says Smith. “You can understand how the organisation works, so you can be very effective when you come here [Detroit] because it is mind-boggling, the size of the organisation. It’s almost like you’ve gone to GM training school. You understand how things work, who you need to communicate with, who your key partners are.
“I also think the Australian temperament works well in the corporate world. We’re direct, but not too direct.”
America’s other luxury brand, Lincoln, also has an Aussie head of exterior design, Max Wolff, lured from GM five years ago.
“I’d been in touch with Mike Simcoe while I was at high school,” says Wolff. “I was very interested in automotive design and design in general. Luckily enough, I managed to meet Michael; occasionally he
let me come in and show him my bad drawings.”
Wolff says the diversity of brands sold in Oz broadens design minds. “We’re lucky we come from a strong car culture,” he says.
“When you work in Australia, the studios are pretty small; they’re fairly tight-knit teams. If you’re the right sort of personality you get exposed to a lot of things very quickly. You might be working on a production car one day, a show car another, so I think you get a lot of generalised exposure very fast. In the larger studios it’s not the same.”
Like Smith, Wolff believes the Australian work ethic works well for automotive design: “We’re a bit of a can-do, let’s just knuckle down and get things done culture.”
Australians also play a role in the materials used on many cars.
Sharon Gauci, formerly in charge of Holden colour and trim, is now GM global director of colour and trim. e s.” he cky re,” mall; . ality hings king how t. ame.”
WE’D seen the Bolt before; we just didn’t know it. Australian journalists were shown the then-unnamed Bolt as the final touches were being put on the electric show car in 2014. We were initially told it was an internal concept, one of the GM Australia design studio’s advanced projects that would never see the glare of a motor show. But it ended up being Chevrolet’s star exhibit at Detroit. “What were we supposed to tell you?” shrugged Australian design boss Richard Ferlazzo with a cheeky grin at Detroit.
DESIGNED in Detroit with Aussie Todd Willing in charge of the exterior. It harks back to the legendary 1964 original, which was reinterpreted by the 2005 GT. This 2015 version injects more aggressive styling and cutting-edge technology – intercooler pods covering each wheel and feeding hot air out through the centre of the tail-lights, for example – into the mid-engine supercar’s family tree. Australian Tom Marminc had a hand on the interior, styling the seats.