DETROIT’S MOST IN­FLU­EN­TIAL AUSSIE

GM’s global de­sign boss is Aus­tralian Mike Sim­coe. The man who re­vived the Monaro now has 100 cars to style

Herald Sun - Motoring - - FRONT PAGE - JOSHUA DOWL­ING

Many of us dream to be able see into the fu­ture — but a se­lect few lit­er­ally shape what it looks like.

Car de­sign­ers have one of the most nerve-rack­ing jobs in the au­to­mo­tive world — fig­ur­ing out what cus­tomers will want in three to five years, the time it takes an idea to go from a clean sheet to a show­room.

And that’s just to get one model right. Get it wrong and it’s a $US1 bil­lion mis­take — the av­er­age cost to de­sign, de­velop and en­gi­neer a new car. Now imag­ine you were re­spon­si­ble for more than 100 ve­hi­cles — sedans, hatches, SUVs and pick-ups — for eight global brands. That’s Michael Sim­coe’s job.

The for­mer Holden de­signer is the head of Gen­eral Mo­tors’ global de­sign. Based in Detroit, he’s cur­rently the high­est rank­ing Aussie in the au­to­mo­tive world and man­ages 2500 staff in seven styling stu­dios, in­clud­ing China, South Korea, Ger­many and Aus­tralia.

He is the first non-Amer­i­can — and only the sev­enth in­di­vid­ual — to be ap­pointed to the role in the 107-year his­tory of the car gi­ant. Sim­coe has spent 34 years, or more than half his life, with Gen­eral Mo­tors, mostly with Holden, and this is his third as­sign­ment to Detroit.

Never in his wildest dreams did he think he would get the top job, even though he cre­ated hits such as the Com­modore coupe show car that be­came a mod­ern Monaro, even­tu­ally re­viv­ing Holden’s ex­ports to the US.

“This is a dream job and I’m hum­bled by the whole thing,” says Sim­coe.

He left be­hind a strong team of Aussie de­sign­ers who, given the im­mi­nent fac­tory clo­sure, now work on fu­ture global cars for GM rather than home­grown Com­modores.

Thanks to satel­lite links and high-res­o­lu­tion movie screens, the de­sign­ers beam their hand­i­work be­tween stu­dios around the world and have as much chance at shap­ing the next Corvette as do their coun­ter­parts in Cal­i­for­nia and Korea.

Other Aussies ro­tate through Detroit, too. An­drew Smith, whose last job at Holden was work­ing on the cur­rent Com­modore ute, is now head of Cadil­lac de­sign.

Sim­coe, hav­ing just clocked up a year in the role, faces the au­to­mo­tive in­dus­try’s big­gest chal­lenge yet: the emer­gence of au­ton­o­mous and elec­tric cars. These new tech­nolo­gies mean pro­por­tions of cars are likely to change.

“We’ve been locked in (to car de­sign) for some time, now the shack­les are off,” says Sim­coe. “Be­ing here … and part of chang­ing the di­rec­tion of au­to­mo­tive ... is pretty spe­cial.”

The hours are long. Sim­coe is usu­ally at work by 6am, start­ing his day with a walk through the Detroit styling stu­dios. Most car de­sign starts on a sketch pad or a com­puter. The last step be­fore pro­duc­tion is the clay model.

Long days are needed to keep in touch with de­sign stu­dios on the other side of the world where, Sim­coe stresses, staff also burn the mid­night oil to keep in touch with Detroit.

Is he in­tim­i­dated by the vast re­spon­si­bil­ity? “No mat­ter what job you’re do­ing, you don’t want to screw up. The con­se­quences of this one make it a lit­tle more daunt­ing,” he says.

Sim­coe’s of­fice is mod­estly adorned with an orig­i­nal bronze Holden lion logo, the steer­ing wheel from the Bathurst 24-Hour win­ning Monaro, as well as mod­els of clas­sic Jaguars and iconic Corvette race cars.

“Nothing too over the top,” he says. There is a down­side to get­ting the top job in the big of­fice: he’s not as hands-on with each de­sign as he once was. “The job is man­age­ment and de­sign di­rec­tion more than any­thing else but from time to time if I need to I’ll (work) on a clay,” says Sim­coe. “We have ex­tremely tal­ented de­sign­ers and the com­pany in­creas­ingly has a very di­verse global view.”

Do his col­leagues have con­cerns about be­ing led by an Aus­tralian rather than an Amer­i­can?

“Not that I know, at least they haven’t said it to me,” says Sim­coe. “I don’t think there was any dis­cus­sion about who I was or where I came from. It was, ‘Can he do the job?’ and I trust the peo­ple who as­signed me the job.”

On the threat of tech giants Google and Ap­ple com­ing into the auto in­dus­try, Sim­coe says the tech com­pa­nies “have dis­cov­ered build­ing a car is a re­ally, re­ally com­plex and dif­fi­cult thing and it’s not (as sim­ple as) hir­ing a few engi­neers and build­ing a team”.

“There’s a huge amount of in­grained knowl­edge and ca­pa­bil­ity in­de­pen­dent of the in­di­vid­u­als in­volved that a com­pany like GM has. For some­one to come into the busi­ness and try and repli­cate that is very dif­fi­cult for them … some have bailed out as a re­sult.”

Mean­while, Sim­coe and his de­sign­ers keep shap­ing what we’ll be driv­ing be­yond 2020.

“De­sign­ers are peo­ple who will al­ways see an op­por­tu­nity to make it bet­ter,” he says. “The best one is al­ways the next one, not the one you’ve just done.”

“The best one is al­ways the next one”: Sim­coe in Mel­bourne last year with a Monaro, main pic­ture; in Detroit with de­sign team

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