When Yorkshire-born Helen Emsley heard she’d been given the task of designing the interior of one of America’s most iconic sports cars, she joked to her boss: “I can see the headlines now: ‘British woman kills Corvette’.”
But she did no such thing. Instead, she improved the cabin of the 2014 Corvette Stingray and was promoted to one of the most unlikely jobs you’d expect a British woman to be holding: head of design at GMC.
If you’ve not heard of GMC, that’s understandable. It’s the brand within General Motors that builds SUVs and pick-up trucks so American in their size and visual toughness that they’re barely sold outside the US.
When we interviewed Emsley at Autocar’s recent gathering in London to hail Britain’s most influential women working in the automotive industry (Emsley won the design category), she told us she’s about to be named head of design for another GM brand, while still keeping GMC. Buick? Chevrolet? She wouldn’t say.
So how has Emsley effortlessly demolished cultural and gender barriers to get where she is? Her story is more remarkable for the fact that she was no petrolhead growing up in a former mining village just outside Doncaster. She struggles to even remember her family car back in the 1970s, eventually recalling that it was a Vauxhall Viva estate. “My father worked on the railways, so we went everywhere by train,” she says.
At school, her dad fought her corner when the deputy head teacher dismissed her chosen career in the arts as barmy. “They thought it meant starving artists,” she says. After leaving, she studied textiles in Birmingham and only got thinking about cars seriously after entering a competition to design fabrics for a Ford Escort. It spurred her on to apply for the then single annual place to study textiles at the Royal College of Art’s prestigious transport design course in London – a place she won.
It was there she met Wayne Cherry, then Opel’s head of design and GM’s future design director. “I had an awful hangover,” she says. “I told him and he just said: ‘Did you have a good time?’ I said yes and I remember thinking: ‘I’m never going to see him again’.” But Cherry remembered her when she graduated the following year in 1989 and offered her a job in Russelsheim, Germany, working in Opel’s colour and trim department, which is responsible for interior materials and exterior paints.
Emsley is convinced her frankness has got her where she is today. “I’m good at saying what I think,” she says. That helped her when she followed Cherry to the US in 1998 to manage GM’s colour and trim studio in Warren, Michigan.
Once there, she realised there was almost zero communication between GM’s global colour and trim departments, so she took her findings to Cherry’s successor, Ed Welburn. As GM moved to sourcing cars from its factories globally, rather than regionally, she’d counted up to 11 different versions of white paint on cars in GM’s US dealerships. Not only did it look bad, it was also costing GM a packet. Welburn agreed and promoted Emsley to global head of colour and trim in 2006 to unite the departments.
It’s a truism in automotive design that the few women in the business are mostly working in colour and trim. Shifting to the studio to design interiors and exteriors is rare, for men or women. It was Welburn who gave Emsley the confidence to make the leap. “I haven’t heard of anyone else [in my position] who started in colour and trim. You worry people think you’re not a car designer,” she says. “Ed took a risk on it.” Her reaction to being offered the Corvette interior? “I said: ‘You’ve got to be joking’.”
Now clearly confident in her role, she says her lack of experience at the drawing board was no hindrance. “My job is to lead the team. I have to push. I’m not afraid of pushing and taking a risk.” Has being a woman helped? “I don’t think it’s ever hurt me. But I’ve got away with a lot more because of my accent rather than the fact I’m a woman,” she says, laughing. Despite living in the US for almost 20 years, she still sounds like she’s fresh out of Doncaster.
But what about design inspirations? Doesn’t she have to at least have a plaid shirt in her wardrobe? She counters by saying she drives a heavy-duty GMC Sierra diesel pick-up and previously had a GMC Yukon Denali, the really big SUV, as opposed to just huge. She claims dealers and customers usually aren’t fazed when told their trucks are designed by a British woman. But she does tell a story of a recent marketing event held in Texas and attended by many GMC dealers.
“The marketing vice-president is also English [former Vauxhall head Duncan Aldred] and he’s talking and I’m talking and they’re all looking at each other. They didn’t expect it because GMC is so American,” she says, adding that the head of exteriors, Matt Noon, is also a Brit and the interiors lead is Canadian. “So Duncan told them: ‘We’ve got a slight problem, haven’t we? The Commonwealth is running GMC’. They laughed.”