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Detroit show: Holden design lifts Buick

Future now: Holden’s design team was responsible for the exterior styling of Buick’s striking Avenir concept that made its debut at a GM event ahead of the Detroit motor show.

GM’s Simcoe ‘proud’ of Australian design input for Buick Avenir concept


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12 Jan 2015

GENERAL Motors’ Australian design centre has played a starring role at this week’s Detroit motor show, with a concept car double act headlined by the striking Buick Avenir concept showcasing the Melbourne-based studio’s capabilities.

Unveiled at a pre-show event in Detroit overnight, the Avenir concept provides a glimpse at a possible future Buick flagship model, and while the interior was penned by GM’s American design studio, the exterior design was an all-Australian affair.

The second GM concept is due to surface overnight Australian time and is believed to be a collaboration between the Australian design team and stylists from other global GM studios.

The Avenir – which means ‘future’ in French – is a full-size rear-drive sedan concept that combines modern cues with elements from classic Buick designs.

In an interview with GoAuto this week, GM International vice-president of design Mike Simcoe ruled out any chance of the Avenir previewing the next-generation Commodore replacement, which is still under wraps but confirmed as being sold here as a fully imported model once the American auto giant closes its Australian production plants and most of its engineering operations in 2017.

“No, this is definitely not the Commodore replacement,” he said. “From day one this was always going to be a flagship Buick design.”

It could, however, possibly end up in Holden showrooms as a replacement for the long-wheelbase Caprice that will end production alongside the current Commodore come 2017.

Mr Simcoe said that unlike many international design collaborations, including some that Holden has worked on such as the Chevrolet Adra crossover from last year’s Delhi motor show, the Port Melbourne team did not have to bid against other global teams for the Avenir program.

Instead, Mr Simcoe said the project came about at the right time, thanks to a sketch by local design lead Warrack Leach.

“There was no competition on this one,” he said.

“There was a discussion about a need for something that was the pinnacle of the Buick portfolio and we were working in that space at the time and the sketch that Warrack did set the direction and once they started to create models and we really worked the proportions of the car, the whole thing came alive.”

Mr Simcoe said the passion displayed by Mr Leach and the Australian design team was evident in the completed product.

“There is a subtlety to it but a level of emotional power that you get when you create a surface around this proportion. And the best thing about it, the designers and the modellers doing it, they get very protective and emotional about doing it once they are into it,” he said.

“If you can’t get a designer and the teams working with them hooked and very enthusiastic about what they are doing then you see that lack of enthusiasm in the ultimate design.” While the GM design team knew they were onto a winner with the design, Mr Simcoe said the reaction of key GM executives – including global design chief Ed Welburn, president Dan Ammann and global product development chief (and former Holden boss) Mark Reuss – at the official unveiling was gratifying.

“I guess this was nice because we had seen some reaction to it, but to see Ed Welburn and Dan Ammann and Mark Reuss really enthusiastic about the car – and that came across in the way they presented it too – that’s half the battle. All is good.”

The Avenir is proof that the Australian design centre is one of the most capable in the GM world, according to Mr Simcoe.

“The team in Australia is our most mature studio in the region and frankly one of the most mature studios in ability in the global GM design network, and this is just a proof point around that,” he said.

Holden is a sponsor of the ‘Shifting Gear – Design, Innovation and the Australian Car’ exhibition to be held at the National Gallery of Victoria from March 6 to July 12 this year, and Mr Simcoe confirmed that the full-sized clay model of the Avenir would be a part of the exhibition.

“It beautifully answers the question people keep asking of, ‘Why would you have a studio when you are not manufacturing cars down there in the future?’” he said.

“What you have basically got is a bunch of designers who are recognised for their skill and sculpture and their ability to interpret brand and they are just a classy bunch of very experienced designers who, given the right information, can turn their hand to any of the brands. And they love doing it.”

He added that it is a great way to encourage young designers and remind them that automotive design has a future in Australia beyond 2017.

“The sort of scenario that they are shutting the place down, we want to prove that that is not the case and there is an opportunity. And here in North America they still like what we do.”

With his elevation to vice-president of international design, Mr Simcoe now splits his time between GM Korea and Australia, but said he is immensely proud of the work completed by the Australian design studio.

“This is all fairly emotional stuff, and particularly when you have got a success like this one. Sometime you show something and you can hear the crickets, but with this one the room came alive. I am not a very demonstrative person but on the inside I am very, very proud,” he told us.

Mr Simcoe said the Melbourne team was currently working on other projects, and while he declined to detail them, he said that the designers were “very busy”.

He also revealed that future Buick and Opel designs would become more closely aligned, with GM’s European arm already providing products that are rebadged and sold in the United States as Buicks, including the Regal (Insignia), Encore (Mokka) and the Verano (Astra sedan).

He added that some of these shared design cues are likely to be seen on future Holden products, with Australian management already confirming that about one third of its future line-up will come out of Europe.

The next Commodore is widely anticipated to be sourced from Opel, probably based on the next-generation Insignia.

“It’s no secret that we will have a touch of European in our portfolio going forward which is right on the money for Australian buyers,” Mr Simcoe said.

GM’s Australian design centre has had varying degrees of input into a number of global design projects in recent years, including the aforementioned Adra and the Chevrolet Niva from last year’s Moscow motor show.

GM CEO Mary Barra shored up the future of Australia’s design studio with Ed Welburn, despite the fact that the production facilities will close down in 2017.

Ford’s Australian design centre is also thriving, with major global design and development work continuing – including the next-generation Taurus large car – despite its manufacturing pull-out here in 2016.

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