The three big names of Australian automotive design talk to Wheels about their craft, what makes Australia such a great breeding ground, and what the future holds.
THE FIRST, arresting presence is a large and luxurious American sedan. It’s the original clay model of the Buick Avenir concept, a headline act of this year’s Detroit Auto Show. Nearby is the Holden Efijy, no less striking now than almost 10 years ago when it, too, rocked the US motor show circuit.
Through the doors just beyond there’s a cutting-edge hot rod in carbonfibre; low-slung sports-racing cars that took on Europe’s best; Abigail-curvy muscle cars; a practical pick-up that delivered a global trend; a Formula 1 world championship winner. All are world-class cars. All designed here in Australia.
The National Gallery of Victoria’s recent exhibition Shifting Gear: Design Innovation and the Australian Car was remarkable in being the first major exhibition to celebrate Australian automotive design.
It’s a sad irony that so many visitors were at last awakened to 120 years of Australian automotive achievement, as the industry itself counts down to the end of local car production in 2017. The curtain will be drawn on almost 70 years of a major manufacturing industry that, thanks to the foresight of our wartime political leaders, propagated far-reaching knowledge, skills and employment.
The Ford GT, above, was designed by Tasmanian Todd Willing.
What now for the car-mad kids who gawp at the retro-futurist edginess of the Torana GTR-X – designed and built just down the road? What hope for the next Todd Willing, Tasmanian-born designer of the 2015 Detroit Show-stopping Ford GT, whose career began with a high school work-experience placement in Ford’s Broadmeadows studio?
While there’s little consolation for manufacturing jobs, each of Holden, Ford and Toyota has indicated its intention to continue designing cars in Australia. Shifting Gear may indeed have represented just that: a lift of the throttle as the industry selects a new speed.
Wheels assembled the three heads of Australian automotive design – Richard Ferlazzo of GM, Nick Hogios of Toyota and Todd Willing of Ford – against the backdrop of the Shifting Gear exhibition, to shed light on the past, present and future of their craft.
What became apparent is that Australia, with its richness of cultures, a skilled technology base, proximity to the world’s growth markets and – not least – enviable lifestyle, is a great place in which to design motor cars. And, as the likes of Mike Simcoe (GM), Max Wolff (Lincoln), Peter Arcadipane (Beijing Auto) and others continue to prove, a great place to cultivate designers.
Long may it be so.
Design Director, GM Australia Design
Richard Ferlazzo, 53, was born in Windsor, north-west of Sydney, to Italian parents. His father owned a 1948 Fiat 1400 until he “did the wise thing” and bought an EH Holden Special.
“Growing up, the only cars I was interested in were Italian sports cars and Australian muscle cars,” Richard says. He studied industrial design at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, graduating in 1982, and joined Toyota in 1986.
He moved to Holden in 1988 and has worked on every Commodore since VN, leading interior design on VR, exterior design on VT and serving as chief designer on VE and VF. He also redesigned Holden’s logo in 1994. Despite all that, Ferlazzo is justly famed for his 2005 Efijy concept. He was named design director of GM Australia in 2013.
"AUTOMOTIVE design has been happening here for a very long time. Some car companies weren’t even in existence when we were already designing cars here. Australians are early adopters: we had a great film industry from the beginning, a great car industry from the beginning.
"The challenges are the same as they’ve always been. We’re a small market, we historically only did products for our own market, a limited number of platforms, and therefore a concentration on mostly sensible, family vehicles.
"The way we injected interest was to create things like Monaros, Falcon GTs and Chargers, turning a humble family sedan into a very high-performance vehicle, like our Commodore SS. And that’s the upside of Australian design and engineering; we don’t have this close-minded mentality.
"We have a very broad understanding of the whole process. I can go to the engineering guys – we’re on a first-name basis – and we discuss the issue. With larger organisations, that’s not possible. We don’t just style something and throw it over the fence.
"People often ask: ‘If you had the same resources as BMW or Mercedes, could you do as good a job?’ Probably. But I’ll ask: If they had the limited resources we have, would they do as good a job as we do? And I don’t think so, because the mindset is different.
"Is there an Australian design aesthetic? I would say pragmatic, with a bit of bravado. All of our large cars have a good stance. Drop ’em a couple of inches, put big wheels on and they look great. That athletic look, the purposeful look, is part of the feel you get from Australian products.
"Any of the cars designed in this country have been designed with great skill, and I say that for my brothers at Ford and other places. It’s a small community and it levels itself out. Not so much designers, but modellers, everyone else, they move around and that skill gets spread around, as it should.
"Our design department currently has about 140 people. Of those, there are about 10 exterior and 10 interior designers. There are five or six people in colour and trim design. The rest is mostly in larger groups: 20-30 clay modellers, about 25 in studio engineering [the link between design and manufacturing], probably 25 in digital modelling, and 15-20 in the fabrication team.
"We’ve been designing for other GM brands for many, many years. Around the mid-2000s, it flipped from mostly Holden work to a small portion being Holden work. We’ve been doing work for Pontiac, Chevrolet, Buick, Cadillac, plus regional stuff for China. The way the global GM design system works now, we’re heavily involved in just about any large project.
"Our design will remain exactly as it is. We have no intention of reducing at all – at times we will probably expand. We will continue to design for different GM brands, some of which will come back to us as Holdens. We’re working on something like that, let’s say for Chevrolet, right now."
Design Director, Ford Asia-Pacific
Todd Willing, 41, grew up around cars, his father owning a motor garage in Hobart. Todd became passionate about kart racing and sketching cars and mechanical things. Through a family friend, he secured work experience in Ford Australia’s design department, where he met Steve Park, Wayne Draper and others. “The atmosphere, the way they went about things, I knew it was for me.”
The Ford team steered him towards studying industrial design at Monash University in Melbourne, though Willing returned for a couple more placements during his study. After graduating in 1995, he joined independent design firm Radial Pacific (now defunct), then joined Ford in 2003. He has worked in Ford studios in Melbourne, Hiroshima, Cologne, Dunton (UK), Detroit and back to Melbourne in 2014, as design director of Ford Asia-Pacific.
"FOR ME, historically Australian cars were about space and freedom, packing the whole family in and going long distances. I would say its origins are a blend of European and American design, because that was the nature of the companies that were producing them.
"The Australian taste was inherently conservative, but it’s far less so today. On the fringe, we’ve always had this performance car rub that’s affected pretty much everything we do.
"In terms of design, we’re not limited in any way at all. The scale gives us nimbleness and flexibility. I’ve worked in all the Ford studios and we’re not missing anything. In fact, we have an advantage in being a bit out of the way; you can keep your nose down and get on with it.
"We have monthly virtual reviews with the global teams, when we go into the office from midnight to 4am. Our representation is always just as strong as anywhere. In fact, Moray Callum feels that we punch above our weight quite regularly, and that’s why we’re growing.
"We have one main studio, quite an open-plan area. We have surface plates, where all the models are set up, with a modular armature [modelling framework] that allows different platforms to be simulated. We try and keep our team as close as possible. I want to be able to see everything from my office in the corner.
"Right now our studio is sitting at about 140 people, but we’re in a period of growth. By the third or fourth quarter of this year we’ll have increased that by about 40 people. That’s across the board: the ratio of designers, modellers, digital modellers and engineers is pretty similar, because that’s what it takes to deliver a program.
"We are responsible for Asia-Pacific, and the predominant market is China. Our advantage is a little bit geographical, but a lot to do with the time zone, and being able to operate there using the skill base we have here. We share information daily, and doing it in Australia, you don’t end up with a day’s slack while you’re waiting for someone to respond to something.
"Australia is already unnaturally represented when it comes to the automotive industry, in design and engineering, for our population and scale. And that’s come out of that historical legacy. The skills and expertise exist here and will continue to do so."
Corporate Manager, Product Design, Toyota Australia
Nick Hogios, 40, wasn’t from a car family, but his immigrant parents were definitely an inspiration for hard work.
“As a child, I loved anything with movement, colour and speed – whether it was robots, spaceships or cars,” says Sydney-born Hogios. He developed dual enthusiasms for Australian muscle cars and interesting Japanese cars.
Convinced early of his calling, Hogios began studying industrial design at the University of NSW in 1992 and emerged four years later as dux.
He freelanced for a couple of years (he designed the Wayne Gardner Racing bodykits) until he saw his big chance in the 1999 Ford Australia/Wheels Young Designer of the Year. “I put everything into it, and it was a busy year for me, as I got married as well.” He won, and spent two years at Ford before crossing to the newly established Toyota Style Australia in 2002.
"THE BRAND defines the aesthetic of a car, that’s the DNA of its design. But we are a big country, we have vast open spaces, big roads and bright colours, and I think Australian car design tends to be a bit bolder. For us, it’s about the face, the 100-metre, down-the-road message.
"Our history of design has proved that we can do a lot with a little. We don’t have teams of thousands of people, with everyone doing their own little bit. Our success is that we have a very holistic view of the overall design of the car. Our smaller teams can put out a lot more work and a much more unified design that the world seems to be loving at the moment.
"People might think we spend our time sketching pretty pictures and handing it over to someone who miraculously makes it happen. It’s not the case. We come up with our own ideas and directions and we have to fight for them against the commercial realities.
"There are other design resources around the world and we have to go out and actually get the work and bring it back to Australia. There are competitive design programs, but we’re constantly in contact with our other affiliates and head office and putting ideas in front of them.
"Toyota is obviously the most recent  and the smallest of the three [design centres]. Our Port Melbourne studio was built in 2007. It’s a main double-level studio area, two clay plates, all the designers sitting there, a milling machine, a fabrication shop. It’s all arranged in a big loop, so from the first clay model you go around to each station.
"There are 20-30 people in total, depending on projects. It’s always changing, but we’ve got five or six creative designers, about the same number of digital modellers, a couple of clay modellers, four in studio engineering and the rest fabrication staff. We’ve got quite a young team as well, and that’s intentional.
"When I was studying, the internet wasn’t around. We had to scour any article in Wheels that had a sketch from one of the local heroes or an overseas designer. If there was one sketch, we’d buy the magazine and stick it in the scrapbook.
"These days, on YouTube, you can see instantly what the car design world is doing. We’ve just got a little bit further to travel for business trips or motor shows, but there is really no reason that we can’t be globally competitive.
"We fully plan to continue doing what we’re doing, and we want to expand and keep growing. Without being too specific, Toyota has a commitment to keeping the design function going in Australia, which is fantastic, and we want to have more of a global significance.
"We can offer the world something unique."
THE END OF LOCAL MANUFACTURING
FERLAZZO: “I’m extremely sad to see manufacturing go from this country. It’s a tragedy. Very skilled people in so many different areas, contributing to not just this industry, but lots of spin-off industries. I fully understand the economics of all of this, that’s the way it goes. It has become too expensive to make things in Australia. But it’s not too expensive to design things here. There will always be cheaper places to build cars, but Australia will remain a very smart place to design them.”
HOGIOS: “I’m very critical of where Australia is heading. Our ingenuity, our skill is where we have to position ourselves in future. The guys in the factories; you’re not just talking about line workers, you’re talking about very smart people who have continually strived to make things better. But moving forward, with design or local engineering, I believe we need the government’s support, we need recognition that this is a big part of Australia’s future. I want my kids to be able to pride themselves on this kind of thing. Okay, we can’t make stuff any more, but we can certainly design it here.”
THE FUTURE OF AUSTRALIAN AUTOMOTIVE DESIGN
WILLING: “We’ve never had so many people working within our four walls [at Broadmeadows], and it’s growing again. The outlook is pretty good for the foreseeable future and it is driven by the growth in the region. It’s a real shame about the demise of local manufacturing, but the talent and skill and experience that exists here is ripe to be tapped, to service those growing needs.”
FERLAZZO: “Design studios will continue here. We can work without manufacturing. The universities will continue to be feeders to our studios, and the fact we have more focus on global programs means we’ll probably rotate people through our other studios more than before – meaning those designers will have even more exposure to other markets. All the design studios here are held in high regard around the world.”
HOGIOS: “I came out of university during the recession and there were very few design jobs here. There was pretty much only a local focus. If you think where we are now, with so much more international intention in what we do and our involvement in the international scene, I think it’s actually a better situation. I don’t believe there’s any reason we should just stop and curl up, or all become baristas.”
WILLING: “Composites in body construction and surface panels, and the freedom it gives us in terms of sculpting a more radical appearance. The technology has become affordable and there’s a double benefit in light weight and the ability to create new aerodynamic profiles. In fact, the universities here are at the global forefront of composite development technology.”
HOGIOS: “It’s manufacturing technology as well as technical advancements in powertrain and so on; that’s when you see big shifts in design. I don’t have one favourite thing but we’re still making headlamp shapes with LED lighting inside. The next stage will be to integrate that LED or other types of lighting technology more into the vehicle.”
FERLAZZO: “On the interior, we’re seeing fewer and fewer mechanical devices. You can’t get rid of all buttons; if things are menu-driven, people hate it. But you won’t see too many mechanical gauges in future. It may be that you can make it look mechanical; it will be more personal in the interface.”
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