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Holden design studio has hammer down

More to come: GM Australia Design has followed up its award-winning Buick Avenir with a number of jobs for GM.

Global design projects keep coming for GM Australia Design

25 Feb 2016

HOLDEN-based General Motors Australia Design is working to capacity on up to three production vehicle projects and at least one concept car for GM at any given time, says design director Richard Ferlazzo.

Speaking at the Melbourne studios where he showed journalists a rare glimpse inside the inner sanctum, Mr Ferlazzo confessed the studio sometimes had to turn down offers of work from GM sister brands.

“I suppose I shouldn't say that, but we have plenty to do,” he said.

The continuing success story of the 140-strong design team – responsible for award-winning concepts such as the Buick Avenir that starred at the Detroit motor show last year – is in stark contrast with the manufacturing fortunes at Holden which are heading for termination late next year.

The design centre includes GM's only fully fledged concept car fabrication workshop outside of Detroit, capable of turning a design from data into a rolling, fully operational vehicle for a major international motor show.

Mr Ferlazzo can be excused for having a soft spot for the fabrication centre, as that was where his FJ Holden-inspired Efijy concept – a car that still draws crowds wherever it goes – was born in one of the earliest projects in the current centre after it opened in 2003.

He said the fabrication operation was a key part of GM Australia Design, helping to maintain a critical mass for the whole design studio.

“It is an important part of our business and I will fight to keep it forever,” he said.

So far, the workshop team of 12 has built about 30 concepts and show cars, including GM's star car at next month's Geneva motor show, the Opel GT sports coupe concept.

Before that, the team turned out the concept for GM's first all-electric series production car, the Chevrolet Bolt, which shared the Detroit show limelight with the Avenir last year.

Holden's concept car pedigree dates back to 1969 when it crafted the wedge-shaped Holden Hurricane concept sportscar that left Melbourne motor show attendees gob-smacked that year.

Mr Ferlazzo said if a concept car was both designed and built in Melbourne, like the Avenir, it could take 12 months “without interruptions”.

Such a vehicle could cost $3-to-4 million dollars, he said.

Smaller projects – usually those based on a production vehicles – could take about four months and cost substantially less.

Mr Ferlazzo said the Australian design operation had reached its peak staffing level of about 180 people when it was developing cars such as the VE Commodore for local manufacture in parallel with important ground-up overseas vehicles such as the Camaro.

He said the current level of 140 designers, clay modellers, digital modellers, design engineers, fabricators and related staff at Holden was still historically high, and rated as one of the biggest industrial design centres in Australia.

The Australian operation is part of GM International Operations – the “other bits” zone outside the three big ones, the Americas, Europe and China.

It is one of three design studios in the zone, along with those in Korea and India. All are overseen by Melbourne-based GMIO vice president of design Michael Simcoe.

While the design operation in Melbourne is significant within GM, the dismantling of much of Holden's engineering capability to about 160 has shrivelled the company's vehicle development team, and it now lags well behind that of Ford Asia-Pacific whose operation now boasts about 1300 engineers, designers and technicians.

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