Can Australia still design cars?

Todd Willing led the Melbourne-based design team for the Ford GT supercar (pictured)

Against all the odds, Australian car design is flourishing at Ford, GM and Toyota – even as those same companies prepare to stop manufacturing cars in Australia.

By Toby Hagon

There was a general prediction of doom in 2013 when first Ford, then Holden declared they would stop making cars in Australia.

In early 2014, Toyota announced it was doing the same. Estimates of job losses from the closures ranged from 40,000 up well into six figures, and a study by the Allen Consulting Group projected a A$7.3 billion drop in Australia’s GDP as a result of the manufacturing shutdown.

But that’s far from the whole story. Amid the gloom of an industry’s demise have come signals that Australia will continue to play a significant role in the development of future car models.

Three of the star cars at the 2015 Detroit Motor Show in January had their designs shaped with an Australian accent. Ford’s GT supercar, Buick’s luxurious Avenir and the Chevrolet Bolt electric car had much of their concept work completed in Australia.

Forbes magazine wrote that the Ford GT “was completely unexpected and created the most buzz of any vehicle at the Detroit auto show.” It applauded the Buick Avenir – “no one could have expected such a sultry looking car from Buick of all companies” – and welcomed a much sportier looking Chevrolet Bolt. 

US media plastered the sleek, thundering GT Ford on front pages and raved about its modern lines, with Car & Driver magazine praising its “stunning, future-think design”.

“There’s a push to be that little bit more creative, that little bit more special.” Marcus Hotblack, TATA (formerly at Ford)

Ford’s Melbourne-based Australian design boss, Todd Willing, led the GT’s design team.

“We’re responsible for our region, the products that are dedicated for Asia-Pacific, for China and ASEAN.Some of those products do go into other markets as well, but it’s really a regionally focused studio,” explains Willing of his team at Broadmeadows.

And the Avenir and Bolt were each products of Holden’s Melbourne design teams. The Avenir’s sweeping exterior was inspired by Riviera boats of the early 1970s and penned by lead exterior Australian designer Warrack Leach. Each multimillion dollar concept car was constructed by skilled craftspeople in Australia before being air freighted to the US. 

While Holden’s parent company, General Motors (GM), is ending Australian manufacturing, it is committed long-term to its Australian studio.

Even Toyota has a design presence in Australia, albeit smaller than the 100-plus person studios of Holden and Ford. Headed by Nicolas Hogios, the Toyota facility focuses on accessories and model variants, such as sports derivatives. 

“We’re basically still in our infancy, that’s the most exciting thing,” says Hogios, who hopes to expand the 23-strong team as the Asia-Pacific market grows in importance.

“I feel the future is very bright.”

The Australian design edge

GT Ford concept car designed in MelbourneDesign looms ever larger in the global car industry. Manufacturers regularly highlight a vehicle’s aesthetics as among the key reasons for purchase, emphasising the unique look of a particular brand or model. That’s partly because manufacturers are reducing the number of platforms, or architectures, they produce, and sharing engines and other underbody components.

At the same time, they’re increasing the number of unique bodies they produce. That means design is not only more important, but there’s more design to do.

For many aspiring designers, car design is the top of the tree – well-resourced, glamorous and seen everywhere. And Australia, which has schooled a stream of great car designers over the years, is seen as a wellspring of design talent.

One such talent is the former Ford designer Marcus Hotblack, who drove the design of the Ford Territory’s clever interior and now heads up interior design at Indian automotive giant Tata. 

“It always amazes me how many good designers have come out of Australia,” he says.

“The car business, in terms of volume, is relatively small [in Australia]. But in terms of the skill base and the respect that it’s garnered around the world – for its engineers, clay modellers and designers – it’s enormous.”

Hotblack says that while US designers are forced to specialise early, the smaller nature of the Australian industry has created flexible designers with a broad understanding of car design and an ability to work without massive resources. “There’s a desire to be creative and, because Australia is separated from the rest of the world, there’s a push to be that little bit more creative, that little bit more special.”

“The team punch above their weight for the output.” Mike Simcoe, GM

The talent base means many Australians get international postings. Former Holden design boss Andrew Smith now heads design for American premium brands Cadillac and Buick, with fellow Australian Sharon Gauci looking after colour and trim. Another former Holden colleague, Max Wolff, holds a senior design role at rival Lincoln. And an earlier Holden design boss, Mike Simcoe, is now vice-president of GM’s international design group.

The decline of proximity

Only a few years ago, Holden was adamant that the highly skilled design roles would only survive in Australia with a manufacturing facility nearby, no matter how good the local designers. There’s now been a remarkable turnaround in approach.

GM design chief Ed Welburn says he’s passionate about the Holden design team. “That team is very solidly in place … No one questions it [internally] at all – no one, from [GM chief executive] Mary Barra down.” Ford design boss Moray Callum also lauds the quality of his Melbourne team.

How did this happen? Why is Australian global car design on the rise even as Ford, GM and Toyota order up mothballs and padlocks for their factories?

Brian Johnson at Barclays is one of the world’s most respected analysts of car companies. He says technology has changed the game for remote design studios, removing the need for physical proximity. “Big D” vehicle design – the overall shape and appearance of the car, rather than the make-up of individual components – in particular “can almost occur anywhere”, he says.

Sophisticated design programs and secure broadband links can allow designers anywhere to create a new concept and discuss it with teams across the globe.

It’s a pattern that Johnson has seen in other industries, from consumer electronics (think of Apple’s “designed in California” boast) to cartoon production. The Simpsons’ creative team dream up the cartoon in the US, Johnson notes, but “the actual layout of the frame-by-frame products is done in Korea”.

Hotblack agrees on technology’s big role in this.

“Maybe in the past you needed to go down and speak to the guy on pressing to understand what the problem was,” he says. “With computers and the technology which we have today, you can work independently.”

Simcoe offers up an additional factor. The diversity of the Australian market gives Australian designers a special appreciation of global tastes and trends, he says. More than 60 brands are fighting in the Australian market, he points out, “so all the designers get exposed to a lot of different products”.

And manufacturers are now keen to have multiple design centres in different corners of the world, for the simple reason that they generate more potential strong designs. Today’s carmakers often run design competitions between their separate studios. That’s how so many Australian designs ended up in the spotlights at this year’s Detroit Motor Show.
Finally, Simcoe says being so far away from headquarters creates challenges, but it also fosters a competitive spirit. 

“We’ve got a group of people who love doing what they’re doing and can get concerned that we’re a long way away [from HQ],” he says. “That keeps the temperature high and keeps them doing well.”

Cautious optimism

Buick Avenir's external design concept came from GM's Melbourne studioAfter so many tough years, and with the global car industry still plagued by over-production and under-profitability, few experts will bank on Australian car design flourishing forever.

Barclays’ Johnson is particularly cautious. He argues that designs that appeal to regional markets will need designers who understand regional cultures. Carmakers continue to struggle internally with that issue, he says.

“How do you be global and local at the same time? Design is kind of at the epicentre of that.”

But recent design achievements have created an air of optimism.

“I don’t think there’s much risk of design moving overseas from Australia in the next 10 years,” says Ian Churchill, a senior auto analyst at global consultancy IHS Automotive. “The cost of having a design team is a lot less than having a production facility in Australia. There’s a lot of incentive to move production to save cost … there’s not as much incentive [with design].”

Technology has changed the game for remote design studios, removing the need for physical proximity.

Simcoe puts it even more simply. “We are alive because the work that gets done is highly valued,” he says. “The team punch above their weight for the output.”

The numbers

140 The size of Holden’s Australian-based design team 
180 End-of-year headcount target for Ford’s Australian-based design team
23 The size of Toyota’s local design team, which focuses on model variants and accessories
1964
The year Holden opened its Port Melbourne design studio
2017 The year vehicle manufacturing is planned to end in Australia

Australian car design

Hits

Holden Monaro 2001
Based on the elegant VT Commodore, the born-again Monaro was an instant head-turner and shone the spotlight on a brand riding high.

Ford Territory 2004
A family-friendly SUV design with a remarkably practical interior, the Territory became a sales winner. It was also the only dedicated SUV to be designed and engineered from scratch in Australia.

Holden VE Commodore 2006
The most Australian of Commodores was also one of the most stylish, with a solid stance and roomy interior. A longer Caprice variant lived up to luxury expectations and was sold as a Buick in China and a Chevrolet in the Middle East.

Misses

Ford AU Falcon 1998
In contrast to the acclaimed VT Commodore, the gangly proportions and lacklustre driving experience of 1998’s all-new Falcon permanently crippled the big Ford’s sales.

Ford Capri 1989
Ford’s attempt at a convertible sports car was sold in the US as a Mercury but suffered from leaking soft-top roofs and was overshadowed by the superior Mazda MX-5 [Miata in the US].

Leyland P76 1973
The wedge-shaped design was ahead of its time and the boot could famously fit a 44-gallon drum – but the big sedan quickly became best known for breakdowns.

This article is from the July issue of INTHEBLACK


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