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Holden has ‘mountain to climb’: Simcoe

Designs on the future: Vice-president of GM global design Mike Simcoe on the Cadillac stand at last week’s New York motor show in front of the new CT6.

GM design boss says Holden’s diverse product portfolio will still have ‘character’

General Motors logo3 Apr 2018

By TIM NICHOLSON in NEW YORK

GENERAL Motors’ vice-president of global design, Mike Simcoe, admits Holden has “a mountain down there to climb” in terms of rebuilding its position in the marketplace but says the Australian company will continue to cherry pick from GM’s diverse international portfolio to create its own unique model line-up.

Speaking with GoAuto on the Cadillac stand at last week’s New York motor show, Mr Simcoe – an expat Australian and former Holden chief designer – detailed some of the lion brand’s challenges but said he was confident the company could retain customers by getting them to sample the new product offerings.

“We clearly have a mountain down there to climb,” he said. “And the only way you are going to do that is to convince people to get back and look at the product. You can do all of the pitching you want, but without product and people’s bums in seats and experiencing it, then it’s always going to be down.” Mr Simcoe said the manufacturing withdrawal last October had confused some consumers who mistakenly thought Holden was abandoning the Australian market, and added that while GMH had massive brand awareness, it was not always positive.

“I think the perception down the marketplace for whatever reason was that Holden was going out of business,” he said.

“The announcement of the closure of manufacturing turned into ‘the brand is leaving the country’ and obviously there is a huge negative reaction to that. People feeling let down. The Holden brand is quintessentially the car, truck brand for Australia.

“Whenever you guys start talking about vehicles or brands, you don’t hear much about Toyota or Ford. You hear Holden always. If there is a general reference to automotive, it drops to Holden. Which is good and bad. It means you are thinking about Holden, the public think about Holden, but sometimes it is in a negative context as well.” As reported, Holden is in the midst of a product onslaught of 24 new models to be launched by 2020, and has initiated major improvements to customer and aftersales service programs.

Last month, Holden launched its first imported Commodore, based on the German-built Opel Insignia and featuring – for the first time – front/all-wheel drive underpinnings and no V8 option.

The company is not expecting the new mid-size Commodore to reach the sales highs of the Australian-made version and is instead banking on a new line-up of SUVs it hopes will appeal to family buyers, including the mid-size Mexican-sourced Equinox that launched last November and the US-built Acadia seven-seat large SUV that lands later this year.

Holden’s product line-up is currently sourced from a number of GM operations, including Chevrolet in South Korea, Thailand and North America, GMC in the US and, for the time being, Opel in Germany – diverse sourcing arrangements that mean many models do not share a close design DNA.

Asked whether it would make sense to source all new Holden models from the one GM brand to ensure a more unified look to its product portfolio, Mr Simcoe said that while a common design thread was important, Holden would benefit from taking vehicles from different brands.

However, he added that might not extend to every vehicle or brands such as Cadillac.

“I think the nice thing for Holden as a whole is that it gets to choose, it looks across all brands and gets to choose what it likes,” he said.

“There will be some character in the brand itself in the showroom. But it will be a mix of different vehicles.” As previously reported, Holden will have to decide in the coming years where it will source its next-generation Astra small car and the Commodore replacement after GM sold its European Opel and Vauxhall brands to French giant PSA Group.

While both GM and PSA have said there is a chance Holden could continue to source next-generation Opel models under its new owners, it is more likely the company will opt for GM-sourced models from North America or Asia.

Meanwhile, Mr Simcoe said the Melbourne-based team at GM Design Australia was continuing to produce work on global projects.

“We did a big EV show internally about two weeks ago and a number of the virtual products and physical products came out of Australia. And that’s what we use them for,” he said.

“The studios globally we use for different opinion. If you are not in Detroit, then you think differently. So we are centred in Detroit but we have lots of opinions globally.” In terms of overseeing the design of all GM products globally, Mr Simcoe said his job was to continue to ensure each GM brand, including Cadillac, Chevrolet, Buick and GMC, had its own unique, defined design language.

“My job is to continue the momentum each of the brands have. There is good separation there already, both in appearance, and in ethic and message and message about the brands themselves,” he said.

“We are locked into that, and all we will do is keep on making them more obviously different. The appearance of the vehicles will start to get more and more bold and more and more separate.” Mr Simcoe took the top design job at General Motors in 2016 after leading GM International’s design team since 2014. He rose through the GM ranks after starting as a designer at Holden in 1983.

Holden’s sales to the end of February this year were down 19.4 per cent compared to the same period in 2017, following its lowest-ever monthly market share in February of 4.9 per cent – enough for only eighth place among the major brands.

Last year, the company recorded 90,306 sales, down 4.2 per cent on 2016.

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