A history of icons

Phillip Zmood 

Phillip Zmood had a hand in designing iconic Australian cars such as the Holden Kingswood, Monaro and Commodore in his role as Australian Director of Design for GM Holden. In 2009 he donated his design collection to the RMIT Archives, which are now part of the NGV’s Shifting Gear exhibition. Here he tells the stories behind some of them.

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Sketch, late 1954  

When I was young, I developed a passion for cars. I copied pictures and drawings of cars from the beautiful American Saturday Evening Post magazines; this picture is typical of my drawings in my earlyteens. A relative was a prominent commercial artist who did freelance car illustrations. He encouraged me to develop my drawing and automotive design composition skills.

I gained a place in the RMIT industrial design course in 1960 and was fortunate to be the first industrial design student to be awarded the John Storey Scholarship in the second year of the course. I entered in the British Carriage and Automobile Manufacturer’s Automobile Body Design Competition and won. This recognition subsequently resulted in an offer to work as a designer in GM Holden’s new design studios in 1965.

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Sketch, late 1954
Sketch, late 1954  

When I was young, I developed a passion for cars. I copied pictures and drawings of cars from the beautiful American Saturday Evening Post magazines; this picture is typical of my drawings in my earlyteens. A relative was a prominent commercial artist who did freelance car illustrations. He encouraged me to develop my drawing and automotive design composition skills.

I gained a place in the RMIT industrial design course in 1960 and was fortunate to be the first industrial design student to be awarded the John Storey Scholarship in the second year of the course. I entered in the British Carriage and Automobile Manufacturer’s Automobile Body Design Competition and won. This recognition subsequently resulted in an offer to work as a designer in GM Holden’s new design studios in 1965.

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Cadillac concept drawing, 1966
Cadillac concept drawing, 1966  

About a year after graduation, Holden thought I was worthy of broadening my training. I did an internship at General Motors USA – Detroit. I spent time in a number of the famous brand studios including the Cadillac studio, where you might have to do four or five drawings like this before lunch time. This drawing has all the brand characteristics of the Cadillac – the big egg-crate grill, tombstone engine hood, the Cadillac emblem, swoopy sculptured side graphic feature line and form.

After lunch the design management would review all the designers’ drawings from the morning sketch session, and they would pick design themes from the submissions to be developed further. You could do these drawings quickly and they were effective. I loved doing them; you got so absorbed in the creative process you had no time to think about anything else. There were lots of very talented designers there and I learned an enormous amount, which I shared with my colleagues upon returning to Australia.

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Monaro GT Swheel cover, 1968
Monaro GT Swheel cover, 1968  

After returning to Australia I was promoted to Assistant Chief Designer in 1967 and then Chief Designer from 1969 until 1978. I worked on cars such as the Kingswood, Torana and Monaro. This Monaro GT Swheel cover was the first 3D-pressed wheel steel trim made in Australia – it was innovative for its time.

To me, good design is about having an exciting theme embodying practical vehicle architecture. I am also passionate about the detail of a design, use of materials, fit, finish, form and line harmony. Customers cannot always express why they like or dislike a particular car design, but it is usually because some of these qualities don’t meet expectations. Drawing continues to be an essential skill for industrial designers because they still need to be able to communicate quick ideas by creating thumbnail sketches before launching into further development with the computer.

After working overseas, in 1983 I was appointed as the first Australian Director of Design at GM Holden and served 14 years in this position, and then ran a consultancy after retiring.

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Torana LH/LX, 1974-76
Torana LH/LX, 1974-76  

This sketch of a Torana hatchback was done for the Marketing Director and motor shows. It was a pretty exciting car in that time; I had a few of them myself. The Torana was the first hatchback car designed in Australia and marketed to younger people. It was an affordable sporty vehicle, rugged and simple in its engineering, which became very popular with motor sports enthusiasts.

A lot of younger people now aspire to own a Torana or Monaro and do them up. These cars were hero cars in their time. The thing that’s unique about Australian designers is that they’re innovative, yet practical, and they’re trying to get the most out of the least.

My advice for getting a job in industrial design is to first think about the area of design you want to work in, then get a mentor. Enter design competitions, as prize winners often get recognition. When you graduate, apply for all design positions, irrespective of whether you think you’re not experienced enough or qualified. Remember design is a global profession; consider overseas opportunities as well as local. Whatever your situation, don’t be afraid to have a go!

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Auto Style magazine design competition entry, 1962
Auto Style magazine design competition entry, 1962  

Success to me means having the ability to achieve a balanced lifestyle with family and work. Also striving to achieve career aspirations and encourage younger designers. Everyone can be a critic, but if you’re passionate about design, or what you do, you’ll eventually succeed.

A few years ago, I was going through my garage and I came across a number of old sketches and designs from my 37 plus years with Holden and GM. A friend mentioned that I could donate them to the RMIT Design Archive. I met Harriet Edquist from the Archive and I was blown over. They explained that by donating the material I would help students, as both learning examples and as part of Australia’s design history.

Previous Artwork
Next Artwork
Previous Artwork
Next Artwork
Sketch, late 1954

Sketch, late 1954

Cadillac concept drawing, 1966

Cadillac concept drawing, 1966

Monaro GT Swheel cover, 1968

Monaro GT Swheel cover, 1968

Torana LH/LX, 1974-76

Torana LH/LX, 1974-76

Auto Style magazine design competition entry, 1962

Auto Style magazine design...