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”