Tuesday, November 21, 2017


This could be the ‘Kiss of Death’, but having now had the chance to drive the Volvo S90 sedan; XC60 and V90 wagons, I have to say these are among the most well-resolved, sophisticated and stylish series of cars I have driven recently – from any car manufacturer represented in this mid-luxury segment.

Whatever they compete with, they are their competitors’ equal. I shy aware from saying the word ‘mature’ – lest I damn the Volvos I’ve driven recently with feint praise, or even worse, turn peoples’ minds to the old Volvo image as ‘cars for old folk’.

The current range of Volvo cars and wagons are as good as you will get, in terms of design, powertrains, fit & finish, equipment and comfort.

They ride and handle well, are perfectly stable in highway cruising conditions, and doing battle in the commuter crush.

In fact if I was driving one of these cars on a daily basis, I would regard myself as being very fortunate. This recent batch reek sophistication, luxurious finishes and excellent equipment levels.

Volvo, under its new ownership by Geely of China, has matured in every respect to be among the most competitive range available in this price sector.

The Chinese management has acted in a similar manner to Tata Group – where the principal, Mr. Ratan Tata, made it quite clear to the Indian members of Tata Group and Tata Motors, that Jaguar Land Rover was ‘off-limits’ for meddling.

Both ownership groups appear to have invested their collective faith in the British and Swedish managements to design and develop competitive vehicles in their chosen sectors, and then ensure their needs are well-funded.

However, whilst JLR has rocketed ahead, breaking stereotypes, blazing trails, developing new technology and delivering on the promises, Volvo has not been so fortunate.

Volvo has had to battle a series of ‘image issues’ because the company has never, ever been clear on what it stood for.

We all know that most of the community considers Volvos to be safe and boring. However, that does a disservice to the folks in Gothenburg who are working their tails off to prove that Volvo vehicles today are relevant, well-designed, well-built, and most importantly highly competitive on the basis of performance, economy, luxury and reliability.

Volvo vehicles today also represent very good value-for-money, and if you doubt this statement, go drive one. It will surprise anyone, that this company’s cars have truly matured to be global benchmark products.

Monday, November 20, 2017


Back on March 19, within days of Groupe PSA’s takeover of GM’s troubled European operations, Adam Opel AG, DRIVING&LIFE called the death of the yet to be released ZB Commodore.

Not due for launch in Australia until 2018, the Opel Insignia-based ZB Commodore would be a single lifecycle model.

On May 27, I confirmed this prediction after receiving information from one of my highly-placed moles.

Then on September 1, I speculated that Holden may completely disappear within a decade, either by refusing to sell cars from PSA's empire, or, if GM desired retaining ownership, it may rename it Chevrolet, and supply all new Commodores (or whatever they may be called), from the American Chevrolet range.

On November 9, Opel-Vauxhall’s new CEO, Michael Lohscheller (right), held a press conference in Russlesheim, Germany and confirmed the first part of my prediction - that the German platforms would simply disappear, and any future Opel/Vauxhall cars would be based on Groupe PSA platforms.

Similarly for powertrains. Opel currently has 12 powertrains, which will be culled to four, and its light commercial vehicle range will also completely changeover to PSA-based platforms.

Lohscheller, Opel’s former CFO was sworn in to the top job on June 12, and despite looking amazingly comfortable at the Opel press conference, his big dilemma will be how to handle the future of Opel’s 38,000 employees which Groupe PSA inherited.

The German unions, IG Metall in particular, are strident and aggressive in their protection of German jobs, and just how Groupe PSA can justify such a huge workforce, to knock out PSA-based cars with Opel and Vauxhall grilles and badges, is a big challenge.

As I said before Holden's future doesn't really figure large in Groupe PSA's future thinking. It could care less, especially with the relatively low volumes Holden will take, and with the multitude problems it will face in Europe, like over-staffing and over-capacity..

To repeat: Holden will just become a passenger on the PSA Express.

I’m smugly pleased that the three big scoops I broke during my life as an automotive writer were based on Holden news. First, Holden Gemini in 1974; then the original Holden Commodore in 1976 (two years before its launch); and now the death of the ZB Commodore – before it even hits the showroom floor!

Sunday, November 19, 2017



This year the Australian automotive industry has seen three highly-experienced, energetic and successful CEOs dismissed from their posts. I'm charged with the energy to ask what is going on?

All three earned the respect of their peers, car dealers representing the franchises, and the automotive media.

It appears to me that all three have lost their jobs because their plans for their company's future, whilst unusual and surprising, may well have turned out to be too rational and successful. And, not in line with head office thinking.

The men I am talking about are Richard Emery (Nissan Australia); Kevin McCann (Volvo Australia); and Justin Hocevar (Renault Australia).

RICHARD EMERY did something unthinkable. He laid the groundwork for Japanese 'Loss-of-Face' by suggesting that Nissan Australia needed to stop offering slow, or low-selling Nissan passenger cars - and instead focus on its successful light trucks and SUVs.

His thinking was that these high margin vehicles could make real profits for Nissan, whilst continuining to spend wasteful dollars trying to sell passenger cars in a volatile market, was a hiding to nowhere.

Once the chief of the Renault-Nissan-Mistubishi Alliance, Carlos Ghosn, was made aware of Emery's strategy, he was gone. In the blink of an eye.

How could Nissan possibly face withdrawing its passenger cars from the Australian market, when its competitors Toyota, Suzuki, Subaru and Mazda, would continue to be represented?

No matter how sensible Emery's plan, it was never going to fly. So Richard was dumped and replaced by a long-standing Nissan executive, who will do what he is told by Tokyo.

KEVIN McCANN, previously CEO of Volvo Australia has suffered the same fate, but the circumstances are slightly different.

Like Richard Emery, Kevin McCann is highly experienced and has worked for some of the leading automotive companies in Australia. He has an impeccable track record, but the problem was always going to come down to numbers.

Despite inventive and innovative marketing plans, Kevin failed to reach acceptable numbers fast enough. The fact that he and his team had to overcome ridiculous odds, and targets which failed to reconcile with the state of the Australian passenger vehicle market, he had to go.

Volvo Australia has never recovered any consumer respect after the ill-thought-out 'Another Bloody Volvo' ad campaign. Rebuilding faith in Volvo's reputation, and launching new, high quality vehicles was an uphill task in a market where 64 different vehicle brands are fighting for oxygen.

Volvo sits in a difficult segment, which is highly competitive, driven by marketing spends, and subject to extreme and volatile shifts in consumer preferences.

The fact is that none of the European brands' managements - sequestered in their comfortable European head offices - understand just how hard it is to compete in such a highly competitive environment, 16,000km away.

JUSTIN HOCEVAR'S  dismissal is a complete mystery to me. I recently interviewed him and found him to be smart, insightful, honest and down to earth. Maybe, like Emery and McCann, that was his problem.

Renault Australia exists in a very unsual segment - the 'Australians-who-love-French-cars' segment. It's tiny, and the battle is only against French brands like Peugeot and Citroen (which endure similar problems), plus the very competitive Korean brands.

So Justin began to whittle the range of offerings down to models which would enjoy a point of difference in the market, retain their margins, and sell with (really) modest advertising and marketing campaigns.

Guess what? It wasn't enough to satisfy Paris. The French suits were probably suffering from the same Loss-of-Face issue that the Nissan executives had to come to terms with.

So the lesson here is: You can keep your job if you do what you're told, regardless of whether it makes any commercial sense. Does the phrase "Throwing good money after bad" resonate?

The answer is simple, and I have first-hand experience of the mindset. The European managements have no idea what happens in the Australian market. They do not bother to identify the issues which face them in such an intensely competitive market. They treat it like a problem which remains at arm's length. The CEOs they've appointed just need to get on with it, and deliver the expected results.

Well, duuh!

They keep changing CEOs, and end up with the same result. Will the lightbulb moment ever come with these wankers?

Sadly, not.

Friday, November 17, 2017


During my 40-year life and career in and around cars, I’ve met many whom I would describe as giants in the field of automotive design. Many of those designers subsequently have become good friends of mine, and one thing they all have in common is the ability to successfully, and cohesively blend art and design.

However, shifting tracks for a moment, I’ve recently had the honour of meeting an architect, whom I must also describe as a giant – Nino Sydney.

Nino was born in Zagreb, Croatia in 1932, studied architecture at the University of Zagreb between 1950-1954. In 1955 he worked in Germany, joining design teams which designed apartments, a bank, and a modern housing estate in Luxemborg – but at the end of 1955 he set sail for a new life in Australia.

Of course, his adopted country would not recognize his architecture degree from Zagreb, so he studied and graduated in architecture at the University of Sydney in 1958, winning a medal for design in his final year. In 1959 he returned to Germany for a year, but then returned to Sydney, where he joined the Lend Lease company.

In 1961 he was appointed Chief Architect for Lend Lease Homes, a division set up by Lend Lease founder, Dick Dusseldorp, to develop homes on large tracts of land in and around Sydney which had been acquired by Lend Lease.

And here’s my personal connection to Nino. In 1969 my wife and I acquired a steeply-sloping block of land in the northern Sydney suburb of Carlingford, simply because we had visited the Lend Lease Homes exhibition village and had fallen in love with Nino’s ‘Casa Blanca’ concept, designed especially for sloping land.

We did not end up building the home, as a job as a radio disc jockey was offered in Perth, Western Australia – but there was no doubt that for most of our lives we imagined creating a home in the ‘Casa Blanca’ house.

Our choice of design was recognized by Nino’s peer group and he won a design award from the Royal Institute of Architects for Casa Blanca.

However, Nino was certainly no one-trick pony. Probably, equally famous was a house he designed called ‘The Beachcomber’ – which many say is inspired by Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye. This design was also an award winner.

Nino’s division went on to sell as many as 1000 homes, based on 16 basic designs, ensuring Nino Sydney’s place in the pantheon of notable Australian architects.

Recently, thanks to a friendship with his daughter Maya, I was able to meet Nino at his home in Sydney, to discuss his life, his achievements, and surprisingly, an automotive connection.

I learned that whilst his home design ideas were inspired by the modernist design ethic emerging in Europe following the end of World War 2, and also the Bauhaus emphasis on simplicity, he was also a great fan of budding expatriate French designer, Raymond Loewy, who had moved to the USA in 1919, after serving in the French Army in WW 1, and winning the Croix de Guerre.

Loewy's 1961 sketches for the Studebaker Avanti, which debuted in 1963
Loewy coined a famous phrase called ‘Ugly Doesn’t Sell Well’ and although, he was essentially an industrial designer, he became inexplicably linked to the design of Studebaker cars. I will write more about Loewy in a separate post.

Nino truly admired Loewy’s flowing, avant garde approach to design, and his combination of artistic influences on the practical elements of product design.

In automotive terms he appreciated Loewy’s initial 1961 sketches for the famous Studebaker Avanti, and especially the final product in 1963.

I visited Nino and Maya at his house during the time I was driving the latest, spectacularly-beautiful Alfa Romeo Giulia. I asked him to come and look at the car, and his response was typical of the man.

He loved not only the practical elements of the design, but also its flowing shape. He commented that it appeared to him to be: “not only of classic proportions, but elegant, in a simple way”

For a man who successfully blended art with architecture in both a modernistic and simple manner, Nino Sydney emerged from my afternoon’s discussion not only as a giant of design, but also a man of enviable humility, and satisfaction with his life’s work.

Nino told me that Dusseldorp was hard for most people to deal with. Nino saw him as decisive and determined.

From the outset he and Nino were on the same wavelength. Nino said: "Whatever I needed to get the job done, I would tell him, and it would happen."

It was really Nino Sydney, who almost singlehandedly, brought Australian house design to the highest echelons of ‘modern’ design following his arrival in his new country.

Thanks Nino – you served your country well.

By the way, even his daughter’s name – Maya, comes direct from a quote by Raymond Loewy. “Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable.”

Saturday, November 11, 2017


I have received a number of sketches, allegedly by Enrico Fumia, from the widow of a deceased Italian friend of mine who was a regular contributor to my Alfa Romeo archives.

The sketches show that Fumia, who was part of the Pininfarina design team, submitted many proposals prior to his final design ideas for the Alfa Romeo 164.

The whole business of designing for Alfa Romeo is a subject that arouses a great deal of passion among established Italian designers, and all the would-be’s in the broader Alfisti community.

The ex-Pininfarina sketches reveal early thoughts, and then some more finished designs.

Ital Design, led by Giorgetto Giugiaro, who was responsible for design of three of the Type Four cars (Fiat Croma/Lancia Thema/Saab 9000), also submitted design ideas for the soon-to-be 164 (right) – however, by that time FIAT had already decided that Enrico Fumia’s design would be the successful submission.

Ford Motor Company made a play for Alfa Romeo in 1986, and along with its highly conditional bid, submitted several design ideas from its Dearborn-based designers.

The Ford bid failed, due to several reasons. First, the fact that it only wanted the car division of the Alfa Romeo conglomerate, and was vague about what it would do with the commercial vehicle, and the credit/financing divisions.

The Italian government conglomerate Istituto per la Reconstruzione (IRI), which owned the whole of the Alfa Romeo business also wanted guarantees from Ford about employee numbers, but Ford of Europe’s President, Alex Trotman, would not be drawn, and said the offer was final. It was believed to be about USD$2.5 billion.

FIAT’s eventual takeover bid was thought to be about USD$5.8 billion, and was all-encompassing. In addition both the FIAT and Alfa Romeo executives were apparently disgusted by Ford’s pedestrian design submissions, saying at the time that it was clear that future Alfa Romeo’s would probably ‘be based on Ford Cortinas’.

That alone would be enough to ensure that IRI would choose FIAT over Ford.
Ford's Italian studio, Ghia, was never consulted on the bid.

It is easy to believe the 'Alfisti' think certain tragedy was averted in 1986 by FIAT’s victory.

Although it took until 2007 before the world saw the 8C Competizione, the 4C (2013) and recently the Giulia.

All passionately driven by one man - FCA’s Chairman and CEO, Sergio Marchionne.