Wrecker to Roadworthy

Wrecker to Roadworthy – Josh vs Libby in Cobalt’s car restoration projects

The Cobalt team have an eclectic range of fascinating hobbies outside work. However, the word ‘hobby’ doesn’t quite cover the car restoration projects; obsession might be a better description.  Two of our team, Associate Principal Libby Christmas and engineering intern Josh Bell, are in the thick of their very own car restorations. Libby’s 1961 Morris Minor 1000 and Josh’s 1974 Volkswagen Super Beetle L are currently parked at their houses, slowly being restored to their former glory. Libby rescued her car from its idle life under a tree, and Josh’s was formerly owned by an elderly lady, in a decent state albeit some questionable wiring. Despite each car being run down, Libby and Josh saw the sparks of potential waiting to be revived. But has their design and engineering backgrounds helped or hindered their progress?

What inspired you to start the project?

Libby: I was torn between a fun car and further study. But I figured a car project was a great way to do both! That and an excuse to have some fun with car design.

Josh: I’ve always had a pretty strong interest in cars (especially the late 60s to 70s) and I love building/restoring. It’s been inevitable that I would buy a project car since I was 13! Plus, it was a great opportunity to learn more about basic mechanics.

How far along in the restoration process are you?

L: It’s been a slow start removing rusted and stuck parts, as well as learning metal fabrication and welding skills; but things are speeding up. The rear end is almost rust free, and the modifications to fit in newer lights, widen the guards and re-shape the rear bumper area are partially completed. New suspension upgrades should have the rear end finished this year. The front end is going to take a lot longer… but I’d like to be driving the car before I turn 40!

J: It’s coming along a lot faster than I thought; my goal is to have it back on the road this year. At the moment I’m on track. I fixed the majority of the engine issues for now and the interior is 80% done. The suspension and brake overhaul is next.

What part are you most looking forward to completing?

L: Having it run will be fantastic, but the most exciting part is the customisation. I’m changing the body form a lot and incorporating newer features. I’m looking forward to seeing the physical output of my imagination.

J: I can’t wait to lower it! I’ve completed a lot of the other fun jobs and lowering it is the last major one. Once it’s got the right stance I’ll feel as though it’s much closer to being done. I’m also really keen for a bit of an engine overhaul. I’m planning on a adding a couple of speed parts to make it a meaner bug.

Any stories from dodgy car parts sellers?

L: Actually the parts sellers have all been great! I get a lot of encouragement from the guys working/shopping at the wreckers and people in the car community. The only dodgy seller was the guy that sold me the car – who said it was running when he parked it. But the lack of critical hoses, battery, and some epic engine block corrosion showed otherwise…

J: Apart from the classic issues of trying to buy stuff from gumtree or marketplace it’s been pretty easy. I have a fair few odd parts to buy in the next few weeks so we’ll see how that pans out.

What part has taken the longest to repair?

L: Rust! It’s a relatively low-rust car compared to others, but 60 year old rusty bolts are very slow to remove without damage. As my welding and panel fab skills improve I’m a bit freer with the angle grinder and so it’s getting faster.

J: Trying to lower the thing, especially the rear end. It’s becoming extremely difficult due to a 3mm interference. If it cleared it would be a half day job…. I’m dreading getting into it properly but also excited to make it work. My motivation to put the bug on the ground is too high to stop me now.

Has your product design background helped or hindered the process?

L: I’d say both. I have higher standards of finding solutions that both work and look good, and I want the finished result to look as good as a new car – which can be frustrating when I have some gaps in my car specific skills or knowledge. But it’s a benefit to be able to use CAD and trial changes before I do something on the car, to reshape things completely or to design custom parts. I think it’ll mean I’ll end up with a different type of result than most home builders would.

J: At the moment it’s helped heaps. I’ve had to build a few custom parts and I am planning a lot more in the near future. A lot of the plastics parts in the beetle have been bashed, warped or vanished. Once I tune my 3D printer, hopefully those parts can be replaced and updated. Parts the old owners hacked (like the radio) will be nice to replace. Ultimately, using my product design background to make things for the car is also a way for me to put my own individual mark on it and make it a little more one of a kind.

What do you like most about the other person’s car?

L: It runs!! Josh has taken an approach that lets him enjoy the car a lot sooner, which I’m quite jealous of…

J: I really envy the amount of custom work Libby is doing to her Morris. I think that the amount of herself that’s she’s putting into the car will make it so rewarding and awesome when it’s on the road.

So will there be a next project? Libby noted that she’s concentrating on finishing this one before she even thinks about another. And while Josh agrees that his will also take a while longer, he’d love to do a “ground-up” car project or buy an old ‘clinker-style’ ski boat with a V8 inboard. If not that, an old school American muscle car is in his sights.

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Tarzan Grip 15 Year Article Thumbnail

Hanging Around- 15 Years of the Tarzan Grip

Still Hanging Around- 15 Years of the Tarzan Grip

Melbourne’s tram network is one of the world’s biggest. From the severly-70’s Z-Class , the vintage W-Class, and the modern E-Class, trams play a lead role in Melbourne being named the world’s most liveable city for a record 7 consecutive years. What’s more, the iconic ‘Tarzan Grip,’ designed by Cobalt, has cemented itself as an iconic part of the network that keeps Melbourne moving.

Most people will never have thought about the green ‘anchors’ dangling from the roof of most Melbourne’s trams. We don’t blame them; thinking about handles and the passenger experience is a particular job and one that we at Cobalt relish. In the case of these distinctive handles, they started from a thought had hatched almost 20 years ago…

In 1999, Yarra Trams engaged Cobalt to redesign the interiors of the then newly privatised tram network. At this time, passengers had sturdy brown Bakelite handles, or actual leather straps to hang onto during peak hours. Not content with just a different look or colour, we knew we could design something that improved passenger convenience and safety.

As usual we started by observing real users to discover unmet needs. At peak hours or after popular events like MCG football finals or concerts, there were simply not enough places for all of the standing passengers to safely hold onto, causing an uncomfortable and potentially dangerous situation.  This was our inspiration – a handle that can be held by two passengers at once, doubling passenger safety and convenience in one iconic stroke.

Before being introduced into refurbished trams in 2002, the ‘Tarzan Grip’ went through rigorous design and engineering to make the concept a real and reliable product. We reviewed and refined everything from the grip’s size, shape and strength – we even built a load test rig, applying weights to replicate the most reckless schoolboys acting out their very own ‘Tarzan’ scenes, and twisting it over 10,000 times to mechanically simulate the most extreme conditions.

It’s often difficult to see, but even something as simple as a tram handle has hours of thought, design and engineering knowhow behind it to make it the best it can be. And in the end, it’s worth it- the Tarzan Handle has become one of the most recognisable features of the Yarra Trams fleet; its success keeping it in continuous service for over 15 years.

Transcending its utility the Tarzan tram handle has become part of Melburnian’s everyday icons, being featured in major exhibitions at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) and Museum Victoria.

Something to think about next time you’re hanging around on a Melbourne tram.

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Plastic bottles in landfill

Less By Design

Tapping into our social conscience

At Cobalt we believe that, as designers and engineers, we have a social responsibility to improve the world that we live in. To support this ideal, we created our socially responsible design blog, lessbydesign.org. At its heart, socially responsible design is about less waste, less resources and less hardship – hence ‘less by design’.

Since we started the blog in 2012, we’ve heard a diverse range of voices deliver different perspectives on a vast array of topics, including resource-saving innovations, waste and recycling, as well as technology developed for positive social impact. Contributors have included our own in-house designers and engineers at Cobalt, as well as sustainability and healthcare experts.


Whilst talk is cheap (and writing blog posts is too), we have endeavoured to apply our beliefs around socially responsible design by engaging in projects that also support this philosophy. Great examples of this are the ASRC Food Justice Truck and the KeepCup product family. These are also excellent case studies in illustrating how socially responsible design can make good business sense.

Take a look at our latest post. We’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Hack My Van

Cobalt Design Wins Mercedes Innovation Competition With Mobile “CodeCamp”

Pitched against five other shortlisted business ideas in an intense one-day ‘Hackathon,’ Cobalt’s winning ‘innoVito’ submission was announced by Philip Dalidakis MP, Victorian Minister for Small Business, Innovation and Trade.

Cobalt teamed-up with coding education leaders Code Camp for our submission which converts a Mercedes-Benz Vito van into a mobile code teaching environment in minutes. The winning concept includes a lightweight pull out pod which folds out in ‘transformer’ style into desks for up to 20 participants. Additionally, two 3D printers are stored to enable students to see and touch examples of their work. An optional power generator and inflatable shade enables classes and demonstrations to be conducted virtually anywhere.

The project was an ideal opportunity for Cobalt to apply our Design Thinking process to Mercedes’ brief. This involved the first step of engaging with educational specialists to understand the users real needs. True to the ‘hacking’ approach encouraged by the competition, the final submission was evolved by a tight but diverse team and a truly exploratory, iterative process.

According to Cobalt Principal Jack Magree, once a need was determined the solution became clear. “The challenge in Australia is to offer specialist hands-on educational experiences such as coding to children beyond, as well as within, the urban environment” said Magree. With this as a starting point, partnering with Code Camp was one of the easier aspects of the process. “Cobalt can design a physical pod and environment, but working together with Code Camp means we knew the concept can be delivered”.

Coding: The New Core Subject For Today’s Children

The importance of coding as a field of study for children is well established. However Australia currently lags many of other OECD countries who recognised the need earlier and now have significantly higher student participation rates. Code Camp have existing programmes that teach coding to students across Australia. Says Magree; “winning this competition accelerates our vision to enable educational experiences to be taken to rural and remote communities”.

Cobalt and Code Camp now commence the task of developing their pitch into a reality.

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Melbourne's Newest Icon: Yarra Trams

Melbourne's Newest Icon

Melbourne’s Newest Icon

The Victorian government announced last week that Bombardier will supply Melbourne’s next generation of trams. Melbourne-based development group Cobalt worked with Bombardier to develop the design of the new trams.

Bombardier won the tender with a submission that featured a high percentage of local manufacturing. They realised the importance of local content not only to manufacturing but also culturally to a tram city like Melbourne. The Bombardier bid was underpinned by the collaboration of the in-house Australian industrial design teams of Bombardier and Cobalt, ensuring the tendered design uniquely captured Melbourne’s identity.

The project will pump hundreds of millions into key parts of Victoria’s manufacturing industry and has been nominated as being ‘strategically significant’ by the Victorian government. Whilst high local manufacturing content is rightly being formally acknowledged, our tourist and creative sectors will also benefit by the tram’s local design identity.

Iconic Status

According to Jack Magree, Cobalt’s managing director and transport team leader, Melbourne has a unique relationship with trams. “They are like red double-decker buses are to London, or even as the Opera House is to Sydney and it’d be unheard of for these icons to be based on off-the-rack designs imported from elsewhere”. The trend in transport, as in automotive and other industries is to rationalise models, where apart from minor local requirements and livery, the same rolling stock can be seen in cities as diverse as Vienna, Amsterdam and Budapest. Whilst there are obvious economies of scale for this approach, Magree believes that “given the cultural and infrastructure importance trams have to Melbourne, not to mention the sheer size of our tram fleet, we believe our new trams should be relevant and unique to our city.”

Cobalt used their local and transport experience to develop a number of interior and exterior tram designs to supplement the tram designs from Bombardier’s in-house industrial design team. Cobalt also produced sophisticated computer-generated animations of the new tram designs which created scenes of the trams travelling through archetypical Melbourne streetscapes. Referencing Melbourne’s history, design and architecture “we sought to enhance and tailor Bombardier’s platform to be unique and relevant to Melburnians. Our part of the Bombardier lead submission was a super human effort by all involved and the result is one we have been dreaming of for a long time. We are very proud,” said Magree.

Design History

Cobalt have a strong base in transport design with two particularly striking examples; the Victorian Police booze bus and the ‘Melba 2011’ a pre-emptive design study on what was then future-gazing what a new Melbourne tram may look like.
The original W-Class model had an extraordinarily long life and remains the quintessential Melbourne tram. Cobalt’s ‘Melba 2011’ featured a single, round LED powered front lamp, an external asymmetrical route number plaque and three side lights. The aim was to project what the design of the Melbourne tram would be if there had been a continuous link from its launch in 1923 through to the present.

About the designers

Cobalt is a leading Australian product development group with local and international clients. Employing 18 staff, and working with clients across Australia, the United States, Europe and South East Asia. It designs products for a number of industries including award-winning medical devices, the innovative KeepCup and even sculpturally-styled water tanks for our cities’ parklands. Within the transport sector, Cobalt has worked with Melbourne’s tram operator Yarra Trams since their inception and their distinctive green anchor grab-handles were designed and supplied by Cobalt.

“Completing this project required us to expand our IT infrastructure and human resources. Ultimately this led to reaching new capabilities in collaborative design practices and in the level of our computer generated imaging (CGI)” said Magree. The project’s tight timeframe stretched the whole company. Key designers within Cobalt & Bombardier teams were each averaging 70 – 80hrs/week for several weeks to meet the deadline.

The results are stunning, and show how CG animation can transform good design into a compelling and successful narrative.