Not many people can lay claim to having flown first class on every business trip, and on the Concorde five times, but Leo Pruneau has the ‘souvenir’ glasses to prove it.
Such was the jet setting lifestyle of a top General Motors designer, “in another life” as the now 88-year-old Woodend resident describes it.
Responsible for the design of some of GM Holden’s most iconic cars, including the Torana A9X, Monaro LE, Commodore HDT and Commodore SS, Leo’s career has taken him from Detroit to London and Melbourne … a long way from his birthplace in a small mid-western American town called Ste Genevieve, on the Mississippi River about 60 miles downstream of St Louis.
The town was about the same size as Woodend and Leo’s father was a car dealer who sold Chryslers, Plymouths and Dodge trucks.
“I like to say that I’ve been in the car business for about 70 years, because I started when I was around 10 years old or so, sweeping the floor,” Leo says.
“I would go down there and read every piece of literature that the factory would send out, I was just so interested in every detail, and I thought Detroit must be heaven.”
Leo’s grandfather was a photographer and manufactured cameras, and he hoped Leo would take over the business, but the teen had other dreams.
“I was his blue-eyed boy and I worked basically for him, but on the weekends it was always down to dad’s place, to the car dealership,” Leo says.
“I used to sit and draw cars on the back of photographs in the dark room when he wasn’t looking and I always thought ‘gee, I’d like to design cars’, but being in a small town in mid-western America I had no idea how that would ever happen.
“One day a magazine arrived in the newsstand, Hot Rod Magazine, and in the magazine was an advertisement for the Art Center College of Design in California – ‘Learn to be a car designer’.”
Leo convinced his grandfather and father to let him go out to California just to see what it was all about, so he took a Greyhound bus for two days and three nights to the school in LA.
Leo worked hard to catch up to the better-trained art students and eventually won a GM-sponsored scholarship. After graduating with honours in 1961, he joined the GM design team in Detroit.
So impressed was GM’s director of design, Leo was soon sent out to England to work on new Vauxhalls for seven years before he was assigned to General Motors-Holden Australia as assistant director of design.
“Not knowing much about Australia, I thought to myself ‘well I know it’s settled by a lot of English people but it’s pretty remote, so it’s probably going to be about halfway between Kansas City and London’. Well it was more like Kansas City when I got down here I can tell you!” he says.
“When I was here early on, the chief engineer said ‘look, if you’re going to design cars for Australia, you ought to get to see a bit of Australia’.
“This was 1969, so Australia was pretty raw in those days, but Holden, because it was ‘the’ Australian car, would always be running experimental and test trips out in the outback.
“I got to see a lot of Australia and just loved working here.”
1973 brought a return to Detroit where Leo joined GM Styling’s International and Advanced Design Group as assistant executive in charge.
In late 1974, it was back to Australia and Holden again, now with the position of director of design, where Leo remained until the end of 1983. At that time, he returned to Detroit once more, to take up the position of international coordinator of design.
During the next few years he travelled extensively, coordinating and contributing to the design of General Motors and affiliated companies’ automotive products in Japan, Korea and Europe.
After retiring in late 1988, he returned yet again to Australia, to settle in Woodend with his wife Christine.
“Because I used to fly a lot out of Tullamarine, in the summer we’d be coming in to land and I’d look down and see all this green grass, and I thought ‘oh man, beautiful, I’m going to live down there some day’.
“It’s almost like going back to Ste Genevieve, living in Woodend. I’m just a little guy, not very important, yet I lived that life.”
From time to time Leo would be asked to speak for car clubs, including one in Castlemaine where he talked about the Torana he designed that was raced by Colin Bond and Peter Brock.
“I showed them what I called the ‘A9X Unfinished’ because in the business, when you’re a designer, you get to spread your soul thin over these models, these cars that you want to make, and sometimes you get management to approve them and sometimes you don’t,” he explains.
“And more often than not, the problem that you run into is with the bean counters, the bloody finance guys, and here’s this thing sitting there and you want it just like it is and the bean counters say ‘yeah, yeah, it’s fine Leo, but you can’t have this and you can’t have that’, so the trick really was to get as much of the design that you originally came up with to production.
“In the case of the A9X, I got about half of it. I wanted the wheels from a Corvette but the bean counters wouldn’t import those from America – too much money – the price would go up too much.”
Because the A9X was such a high-performance car and Brock had been doing so well on the racetracks with it, Leo dreamed of taking it to Le Mans in France.
“Even though I didn’t think we could win it, there were various classes, so I thought if we could get one over there and enter it and get Brockie to drive it, we’d probably have a good chance of winning in our class.
“And of course if Australia and Holden were running a car at Le Mans we’d have got $10M worth of free publicity because it would be broadcast live around the world.”
Although his Le Mans dream proved yet again too expensive an ambition, Leo is still amazed at the places his career has taken him.
“I did things in my life that I never thought I’d ever do.
“I was in a stratosphere I never imagined being part of.
“It was just good luck I think. The stuff that I designed, the car guys liked!”
Leo’s top 10 car designs
Vauxhall HB ‘Viva’ (original Holden Torana)
LJ Torana ‘GTR-XU1’
LH Torana ‘A9X’
HJ Holden ‘Sandman’ van
HX Holden ‘le’ Monaro
VC Commodore ‘SS’
VK Commodore range
WB Holden ‘Statesman Caprice’