Classic Wheels: Leo Pruneau designed differently

Epic tales from our archives

Leo Pruneau Jpg

Almost immediately after Leo Pruneau retired from GM’s Design Staff in November 1988, he was interviewed by David Robertson for this story. Robertson, then Wheels’ News editor and The Bulletin’s motoring editor, was a real newshound.

Pruneau’s first involvement with Holden was in Detroit, working on the HD. In 1962, after designing the Opel Diplomat, Pruneau, with help from Don Laski, was given the job of styling the next new Holden, complete with the HD’s soon-to-be-controversial extended front guards, an idea from GM’s global design director Bill Mitchell. A few years later, when he arrived in Melbourne, the first car Pruneau wanted to see was the HD with those “dammed front guards”.

Pruneau was never one to hold back. The highlight of Robertson’s discussion with the then 57-year-old American, who retired to his property outside Woodend, Victoria, was Holden’s 1979 decision to kill the Kingswood.

“I thought it was wrong, wrong, wrong. They got tired of me objecting to what was planned, they gave me a minuscule budget to facelift the HZ, but it wasn’t enough to replace the bumper bar and grille.

“Hell, we should have kept making the Kingswood alongside the Commodore; we would have had two car lines filling two market slots and we could have rolled with market trends.”

At a time of dramatically increased oil prices and diminished oil supplies, all the company’s prognostications suggested Holden would only be building four-cylinder cars by the mid-1980s. The directors – among them Evan Green, then director of public relations – voted to kill the Kingswood.

Five years later, in a Wheels story, Evan Green remembered Pruneau’s comment when he showed them the little-changed and very ’70s WB Kingswood styling proposal: “If you guys don’t give me the money, this is what you’re gonna get.”

Given market trends, it was an easy decision: the Camira replaced the Torana, and the Commodore the Kingswood, leaving Holden without a rival for the Fairlane, or a ute.

Then the oil producers began fighting among themselves, the oil crisis disappeared, and big cars returned.

What upset Holden MD John Bagshaw most was Pruneau’s criticism of the merger between Holden and Toyota in Australia. “To me it is an indication that the corporation isn’t serious about being involved in Australia for the long haul. GM grabbed it as a chance to ease its way out of a loss-making problem,” Pruneau told Robertson. “From everything I’ve seen, the Japanese are going to win in the long haul.”

The success of the VN Commodore, and later the arrival of the hugely successful VT, changed the dynamics of the merger and creation of the short-lived and disastrous UAAI.

In his retirement, Pruneau continued to consulate to Daewoo/Bertone and became a valued member of the Wheels COTY judging panel.


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