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Shanghai show: Ford, GM power up Aussie design

Another one: Ford's new Taurus large car for China is the latest evidence of Australia's burgeoning global design and engineering role.

Ford and Holden 'flat out' in Australia as secret future vehicle projects flood in

Ford logo21 Apr 2015

By RON HAMMERTON in SHANGHAI

AUSTRALIA'S car manufacturing industry might be on its knees and destined for oblivion, but hidden away behind a cloak of secrecy, more future international automotive products are on the drawing board than ever before Down Under, according to two of the men who call the product development shots at General Motors and Ford.

Ford Asia-Pacific's design and engineering operation and GM's Design Australia studio – all based in Victoria – are said to be flat out, working on a range of products in liaison with sister operations around the globe.

Ford's Australian-based production development team of designers, engineers, technicians and mechanics has ballooned to 1550 as it takes on global development projects such as the next-generation Ranger ute and other models for specific markets such as China.

Speaking at this week's Shanghai motor show where Ford unveiled a new China-specific Ford Taurus that was developed with a large slice of Australian input, Ford's Asia-Pacific product development vice-president Trevor Worthington – an Australian engineer who joined Ford Australia in 1985 – described the Australian future-model operation as “jam-packed full”.

“We are working on multiple programs,” he said. “We never talk about what we are working on because to some extent that gives away the global cycle plan, but we are fully utilised – all our facilities are jam-packed full.

“That is good for us, but it is also good for the global product outcome, because we have a good team.”

As GoAuto has reported, numerous upcoming Ford vehicles are being tested at Ford's Australian proving ground near Geelong, including left-hand drive Fiestas that would seem to indicate another major light car program.

Across its design and engineering centres at its head office at Campbellfield, Geelong and the You Yangs proving ground, Ford Asia-Pacific has about 1200 engineers, technicians and designers – by far the biggest operation of its type in Australia, probably ever.

They are supported by a team of 350 mechanics who help to fabricate and maintain the test vehicles as they are brought to production readiness.

Mr Worthington emphasised the global nature of such product development, saying it was a collaborative effort with the main focus on achieving the best outcome for consumers.

Asked it he was proud of the Australian role in the development of the new Taurus for the Chinese market, he played down the Australian element.

“Of course we are proud of it – we are proud of all the things we work on,” he said.

“The important thing is that the product over there is exactly what the Chinese people want.

“PD (product development) is a global entity and we do a lot of work-sharing.

The most important thing is that thing over there (Taurus) is a success in its target market.”

The Taurus – to be built on a new Ford front-wheel drive, large car platform – was designed by a team headed by Australian Todd Willing who was on hand in Shanghai to see his handiwork unveiled by a who's who of Ford bosses.

Ford recently indicted the future was bright for Australian product development by announcing that the engineering team would take over the Ford Australia head office building once the sales and marketing team moved into new quarters in the inner Melbourne suburb of Richmond.

Much of the commitment is to Asia where the Blue Oval brand is on a mission to bring 50 new vehicles and powertrains to market, with many destined for China and India.

On GM's stand at the Shanghai show, GM vice-president of design Ed Welburn told GoAuto that GM's Australian design team also was working “flat out”.

“That place is probably busier than at any other time, I'd say,” he said, adding: “They have to be.”

As Mr Welburn spoke, he was surrounded by no fewer than three vehicles with Australian design and prototype fabrication input – the new China-only Chevrolet Malibu that was making its public debut ahead of a showroom roll-out later this year, the all-electric Chevrolet Bolt that originally appeared at this year's Detroit motor show and which GM has now confirmed for production, and the stunning Buick Avenir large-car concept that GM has hinted might yet be approved for production in some form.

Mr Welburn revealed that the Malibu design was a joint effort between studios in Australia and China.

Although Holden's engineering capacity has been wound back substantially since GM's decision to axe Holden's indigenous Commodore and the related global product development role, Mr Welburn has been the chief cheerleader in Detroit for the Melbourne design studio – one of a number around Asia-Pacific under the watch of GM International Operations design vice-president Michael Simcoe.

Mr Welburn's faith and support for the studio appears to be paying handsome dividends for both GM and Australia as GM recovers with a rush from its global financial crisis near-death experience, as projects such as Avenir keep jobs for highly skilled professionals in this country at a time when many other industries appear to be collapsing.

Even more encouraging, Holden's remaining engineering team appear to be getting a number of projects from overseas. These have included calibration work on vehicles such as the Opel Corsa OPC and chassis development for the aforementioned Chinese Malibu.

As well, a team of engineers is retained to support the GM Australia Design studio, to help turn designs into metal reality.

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