I describe myself as a ‘Design Junkie’ because I just love the artistic subtleties of car design. Although I have no creative design talents myself, I have been fortunate to become good friends with a large number of significant car designers over my almost 40 year career around cars.
That has meant many ‘after hours’ visits to rival design studios to see new concepts, and a great many dinners at restaurants around the world, watching great designers sketch ideas on envelopes and business cards.
I’ve always admired how designers can create a design around fixed ‘hard points’, and then design the surfacing and perspectives that go to make up a good design.
I’ve been fortunate to see top-secret Fords and Lincolns that were years away from launch; various Austin-Rover cars in the Canley Design Centre in the UK; Jaguar concepts that never saw the light of day; the entire new Daewoo range in 1996; a variety of Volkswagen group products; and many new Holdens, drawn on a variety of tablecloths and napkins!
The latter were done by one of my very good friends in the business, the former General Motors-Holden Design Director, Leo Pruneau. How I wish I’d saved those sketches, but to preserve his integrity they were cleared away with the dishes.
Recently I caught up with Leo for lunch in the sleepy Victorian town which he and his wife now call home. His design skills and passions have not evaporated, and he’s just as outspoken as ever, challenging conventions, and commenting on design (both triumphs and disasters) with his practiced eye.
It’s not hard to like Leo, he’s outgoing, and engaging, with a great sense of humour and love for life. He tells great stories, and many of his designs have stood the test of time, and are hallmarks of a distinguished career.
Born in Sainte Genevieve, Missouri, with three younger brothers and a younger sister, it wasn’t until he was around 10 that he got really interested in cars.
Leo’s father was a new car dealer, with the Plymouth-Dodge-Packard franchises before WW2. After the war, Leo's Dad just had the Studebaker-Packard dealership.
In his early teens his father encouraged his interest, when he saw Leo drawing cars in his spare time.
In 1961 Leo graduated with Honours from the prestigious Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. This institution has turned out a majority of America’s great car designers over the years, and graduating with a BA (Honours) was an immediate leg up for the young Pruneau. He joined GM as a Junior Designer, then in 1962 moving up to Senior Designer in the Advanced Design Studio 3; later he was promoted to the International Design Studio.
In 1963 he was appointed Assistant Chief Designer in the Body Design Studio; which preceded his move into the Divisional Companies, starting with Chevrolet in the Corvair Design studio.
Here is a small selection of cars designed by Leo during his long stint as Head of Design for GM-Holden.
I asked Leo when he decided that he wanted to stay in Australia? “Pretty much the day after I arrived in Melbourne.”
He was re-assigned to Detroit in 1974, but a year later he was back in Melbourne, where he was to stay working exclusively on Holden vehicles, until he retired in 1983.
The body of work which flowed from his role at GM-Holden was both extensive and varied, and the detail will form the basis for my next post on Leo, which covers the individual cars he developed, influenced and completed.