Aussie takes the helm of GM global de­sign


“I love you, Mike.” It’s the late 1990s and we’re in Detroit at the Re­nais­sance Cen­ter, those in­con­gru­ous sil­ver tubes that house Gen­eral Mo­tors world head­quar­ters. And it’s late. Din­ner for the me­dia has been a long and liq­uid af­fair hosted by Holden’s bril­liant, fear­less and some­times ter­ri­fy­ing sales and mar­ket­ing boss, Ross Mcken­zie.

Al­ways forth­right, some­times bru­tal, Mcken­zie is eu­phoric tonight be­cause Holden has topped Toyota in the sales race, riding high on the back of the mighty VT Com­modore. He’s a big bear of a bloke, with a porn­stache and beer drinker’s gut. By now he’s had more than just a few beers… and reds, too. Ba­si­cally, he’s pissed.

We’re in a bar some­where in the Ren Cen and Rosco – he was al­ways Rosco, al­though maybe not to his face – is draped over a tall, thin, de­cid­edly sober bloke dressed in black. It’s Mike Sim­coe, Holden’s de­sign chief. The man who led the VT de­sign team.

“I love you, Mike,” re­peats Rosco, slumped against Sim­coe with one arm around him and an­other hold­ing a drink. Sim­coe sort of shuf­fles, smiles in his crooked, sig­na­ture way. Clearly, he would like to be just about any­where but here right now.

Per­haps Mcken­zie senses Sim­coe’s quiet dis­com­fort. What­ever, he fears his mes­sage isn’t get­ting through. He grasps Sim­coe by both shoul­ders and turns him so they’re face-to-face, eyes locked. “No, Mike, I re­ally love you. I re­ally, re­ally love you.”

Sim­coe is caught in the spot­light. Gently, he dis­en­tan­gles him­self from Mcken­zie, of­fers an­other lop­sided grin and says in his deep, se­ri­ous voice, “I love you too, Ross”.

Mcken­zie seems sat­is­fied and turns his at­ten­tion else­where. Sim­coe drifts the other way. Clearly he is re­lieved to no longer be the cen­tre of at­ten­tion.

NEARLY 20 years on and Sim­coe re­mem­bers that mo­ment vividly. “Uncle Mike,” he laughs at him­self. There’s a lot of truth in that. Sim­coe has al­ways been the adult in the room, es­chew­ing the trite, al­ways seek­ing se­ri­ous dis­cus­sion, pon­der­ing the sig­nif­i­cance.

In a su­per­fi­cial world where the fivesec­ond grab rules, Sim­coe of­fers in-depth anal­y­sis, in­ter­lac­ing it with the oc­ca­sional dry-as-a-kham­sin joke (the wind, not the car, but he’d get both ref­er­ences), much of it self-dep­re­cat­ing.

And now the Mel­bourne lad who was dis­cour­aged by his RMIT lec­tur­ers from go­ing into au­to­mo­tive de­sign, who joined Holden in 1983 as an in­te­rior de­signer only with the in­ten­tion of stock­ing up his bank ac­count be­fore head­ing back to con­quer the UK, is tak­ing on the big­gest job in global au­to­mo­tive de­sign. In fact, it’s the orig­i­nal job in global au­to­mo­tive de­sign, over­see­ing the dis­parate brands of Gen­eral Mo­tors – Chevro­let, Cadil­lac (where his former Holden protege An­drew Smith is de­sign boss), Buick, GMC, Opel, var­i­ous co-ven­tures and, of course, Holden.

He of­fi­cially as­sumed the reigns from Ed Wel­burn as vice-pres­i­dent GM Global De­sign on May 1. The head­line bul­let points are im­pres­sive. The 58-year-old is only the sev­enth boss of what the leg­endary Har­ley Earl es­tab­lished as the Art and Colour sec­tion in 1927. He is the first non-amer­i­can to be ap­pointed to the job. He will be di­rectly in charge of 2500 peo­ple and 10 stu­dios glob­ally, in­clud­ing the Aus­tralian out­post in Port Mel­bourne where he learned his craft. He will over­see the shap­ing of the ex­te­ri­ors and in­te­ri­ors of 10 mil­lion ve­hi­cles sold an­nu­ally.

This isn’t just a big deal, this is the big­gest deal. In terms of Aussie suc­cess in the global au­to­mo­tive in­dus­try, only Jac Nasser’s ap­point­ment to run Ford could be rated higher.

Sim­coe looks un­com­fort­able as I reel all these head­line stats past him. He is back in the spot­light and he knows it. But the spot­light is worth this job.

“There are some pretty amaz­ing ghosts in that corner of­fice, and in some ways this is re­garded as the best job in the world if you are a de­signer,” Sim­coe says. “So that is daunt­ing.

“Do I see my­self as a match for Earl or Bill Mitchell (Earl’s suc­ces­sor) or some of the ghosts past? I see my­self as quite a dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter to some of those and it’s for a dif­fer­ent time. If I think too much about that – the scale of the job, the scale of the or­gan­i­sa­tion, the im­pact – then this be­comes a hugely daunt­ing role.

“Like in all things, or the way I do things, I will break this down to the chunks I can han­dle. I’m old enough now to know I can’t do every­thing all at once and I will deal with the things I think are pri­mary.”

Sure he’s older, but Sim­coe re­mains re­mark­ably sim­i­lar to the bloke I first met at the VT Com­modore long-lead in 1997. The man­ner has never changed. He’s as lean as ever, still dresses in black, and that an­gu­lar face, which at times has been styled with rocker side­burns, a waxed mous­tache and even a hip­ster beard, has aged well.

WE’RE sit­ting in Sim­coe’s Port Mel­bourne of­fice, over­look­ing Salmon Street and the low-rise in­dus­trial land­scape that leads to­wards the city high-rise. There are open card­board car­tons be­ing loaded with stuff headed for his new digs at GM’S mas­sive de­sign cen­tre in War­ren, Detroit’s largest sub­urb. But still sit­ting out on dis­play are mod­els of cars that are among the great achieve­ments of his 33-year ca­reer – the Com­modore Coupe that mor­phed into the re­born Monaro, the VE Com­modore, the fifth-gen­er­a­tion Ca­maro.

But he was a car lover be­fore he was a car de­signer and that love is still there. His cur­rent daily driver is a Com­modore SS-V Red­line. In his garage are a Lan­cia Aure­lia (fea­tured in Wheels last year), a 1961 As­ton Martin DB4 and an orig­i­nal Elfin Stream­liner (a re­vival was de­signed un­der his in­flu­ence in the early 2000s). Even be­fore get­ting to Detroit, he’s on the hunt for a split-win­dow 1963 Corvette.

Sim­coe has seven years in the top job un­til manda­tory re­tire­ment. We won’t see any com­plete ve­hi­cles pro­duced un­der his reign for three or four years. ‘Back-end’ in­flu­ence on pro­duc­tion ve­hi­cles will be two years away, con­cept cars will come sooner. He will lead a team charged with de­sign­ing every­thing from the next Corvette to EVS and emerg­ing-mar­ket minis such as Spark. The link be­tween such dis­parate of­fer­ings is the pas­sion with which GM De­sign must cre­ate them.

“If we’re do­ing a ve­hi­cle that might be a first-time pur­chase for some­one in a coun­try where trans­port is de­vel­op­ing, you want that ex­pe­ri­ence to be as vis­ceral and emo­tional for those peo­ple as for some­one in a de­vel­oped mar­ket mak­ing the choice of buy­ing a Corvette,” he in­sists. “Whether it’s a Spark or some un­known prod­uct that is some­one’s first pur­chase mov­ing from a moped or some­thing like that to a first fam­ily ve­hi­cle, it’s pow­er­ful stuff.”

Dig into more de­tail and Sim­coe ma­noeu­vres care­fully around the sub­ject of his new job, like a tug­boat cap­tain cir­cling the ocean liner he will soon be lead­ing. He doesn’t want to sound shal­low, he doesn’t want to sound dis­re­spect­ful to his pre­de­ces­sor, and he doesn’t want to sound over­con­fi­dent. Yet at the same time he doesn’t want any­one think­ing he isn’t look­ing for­ward to the chal­lenges and doesn’t have ideas about how he will make the job his own.

“They wouldn’t have asked me to do the

“This is re­garded as the best job in the world for a de­signer ... so that is daunt­ing”

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