DETROIT’S MOST INFLUENTIAL AUSSIE
GM’s GM global design boss is Australian Mike Simcoe. The man who revived the Monaro now has 100 cars to style
M any 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.”