First published in the December 2015 issue of Wheels magazine, Australia's best car mag since 1953.
South Australian ‘mag’ designer is never out of fashion.
Glynn Helgeson is an Australian automotive designer you’ve probably never heard of, perhaps because he’s never designed a car. Adelaide-based Helgeson, 38, designs alloy wheels for venerable Australian company ROH.
The British-pedigreed engineering company began making wheels in its Woodville North plant in 1946. At times in its long history, ROH supplied original-equipment (OE) steel and alloy wheels to all of Australia’s carmakers, while also marketing a large range of aftermarket styles.
The aftermarket industry began to change in the 1980s as more new cars arrived with OE alloys. Ford and Holden, however, began sourcing wheels from China a decade ago. But ROH has continued to design and manufacture here in Australia, sustained by its OE contract with Toyota.
Helgeson studied industrial design for four years in SA before joining ROH 15 years ago.
“I always had an eye for cars and architecture, even before I knew what an industrial designer was,” he says.
Helgeson typically has half a dozen designs in development at any given time, but he’s currently turning over virtually the entire catalogue of about 20 models. “We’re trying to change the face of the business, because it’s a fashion industry, so you have to turn over your styles quite quickly.”
As the product designer, Helgeson’s first job is to scour the market and identify new product opportunities. Then the design process begins.
“It can start with a sketch on a little Post-it note,” he says. “Then you go to a bigger, scale sketch, draw up one spoke and get into the CAD … I look at one spoke at a time and formulate a shape from that. When I started out, I looked at nature. I’ve done silly things like pull a wishbone from a chicken, look at the form and translate that to a spoke.”
He then must steer his design through the usually conflicting interests of marketing, sales, engineering and manufacturing. “Meeting all these criteria is very difficult with a cast component – it’s not simple like an injection-moulded part,” he says.
Designs that reach the prototype stage enter a battery of cornering, radial and impact tests. As that applies to each size and fitment, this consumes hundreds of wheels each year.
For all the variety of ROH’s glossy aftermarket wheel catalogue, the looming end of Toyota’s Australian manufacturing casts a long shadow over the company, which has to prove its financial viability to survive past 2017. But for now Helgeson reckons he has a dream job. “I feel privileged to have this position, to be one of relatively few stylists in the world.”
WHEEL designer Glynn Helgeson has been flattered by comparisons between his award-winning ROH Mantis design and the original-equipment wheel on the Lexus LFA supercar. “Maybe it was coincidental, but Lexus came out with three cars in a row with wheels similar to our Mantis, Fury and Vapour, and not long after. Or maybe I’m delusional.”