Michael Simcoe: from prams to Pontiacs; Designing automobiles wasn’t at the top of the consideration list for Michael Simcoe, but his influence will be felt for years to come
Kevin M. Kelly
“I wanted to be an architect, but I remember talking to someone early on and they said there’s not too much money in architecture,” recalls Michael Simcoe of his decision to follow a more lucrative career path during his formative years in Australia. The 50-year-old obviously made some good choices along the way: he’s now the executive director of exterior design for GM North America. And there’s good money in automotive design–at least at that level.
Simcoe obtained a degree in industrial design from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, then left the commonwealth for the U.K., where he obtained a job at Ogle Design. There he designed products ranging from helicopters to baby strollers. He returned to Australia in the fall of 1983 for what he thought would be a brief visit. While there, he had a conversation with one of his college instructors who urged Simcoe to meet with people from the design staff of GM Holden Ltd. He decided that he’d become a vehicle interior designer.
Simcoe’s rise at Holden was quick. He was named senior designer in 1985 and chief designer of Australia’s largest vehicle manufacturer just two years later. He came to the U.S. for a brief stint, from 1990 to 1992, when he penned the Buick Sceptre concept. But then it was back to Australia, where he and his team toiled with apparent little visibility to the management back in Detroit. Things changed in 1998 when the Commodore Coupe concept was revealed. It morphed into the ’01 Holden Monaro. Simcoe recalls, “That’s the one project that changed things for me, and made me really visible to GM. It was purely an inside design job where we knifed and forked a coupe together out of the Commodore sedan.” Although the plan called for vehicle profitability with sales of just 4,500 coupes, when production ended in 2005, the Monaro had sold 55,000 units. The curiosity of GM management was piqued by what they were doing down under. Bob Lutz visited Holden, where he was Simcoe and his team working on the Commodore VE, “The first from-the-ground-up production car Holden had ever done,” Simcoe says. It was also the car that was so appealing to Lutz that it became the basis of the Pontiac G8. (The Monaro had been translated into the Pontiac GTO.)
Simcoe was named executive director of GM’s Asia-Pacific design in 2003, which had him oversee the day-to-day activities of the automaker’s Pan Asian Technical Automotive Center in Shanghai and kept him involved with Holden’s design activities. Then in 2004 he was moved to the U.S., where he became director of design for Body Frame-Integral. He was promoted in June 2007 to his present position. One of his primary areas of focus currently is on the exterior for future GM trucks. He admits that U.S.-sized trucks were initially “a shock,” but adds, “Since I’ve taken them on, I have been on a rapid learning curve.”
Simcoe believes automotive design is entering “an incredibly challenging period,” brought on by increased regulations and concerns with fuel economy and safety. While some people might express frustration, believing that these factors can put a crimp on expressive vehicle design, Simcoe is not deterred: “It’s all about the guys who can best use the regulations to their advantage,” and so he and his team are busy figuring out how best to do that. He says, “The winners are going to be the people who best understand and work within the regulations to get the best results.”
Clearly, architecture’s loss is automotive’s gain.
Kevin M. Kelly
Kevin M. Kelly, Senior Editor
RELATED ARTICLE: What’s in Simcoe’s Garage?
Among the vehicle’s Simcoe is proud to own:
– ’56 Series 5 Lancia Aurelia B20 GT
– ’61 Series 3 Aston Martin DB4
– ’61 Lancia Fulvia 1.3 HF
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