OSHAWA, Ont. — Multimatic Inc.’s chief technical officer Larry Holt was talking about the “best day ever” at his farm northeast of Toronto, a property now owned by his ex-wife that had a motocross course carved into it. He loved roaring around that course on his dirt bike, but he also used it as a testing ground to secure what has become one of his company’s most lucrative contracts: making front suspension components for Ford Motor Co.’s iconic F-150 pick-up truck.
The aforementioned best day ever was straight out of a Dukes of Hazzard episode, only instead of a muscle car, and a couple of good ol’ boys fleeing the law, there was Holt watching a professional race car driver fly off a jump in a Ford pick-up, catching huge air before crashing to Earth with a mighty wallop. Oh, Holt’s eight-year-old son was strapped into the passenger seat at the time.
The impact demolished just about everything on the truck’s undercarriage, except for the parts engineered and made by Holt’s team at Multimatic, a privately held, globally renowned auto parts supplier/boutique supercar maker headquartered in Markham, Ont., just north of Toronto.
“Have you seen the video of the truck?” Holt enthused, pulling up footage of the F-150 on his smartphone and smiling with glee before reaching the story’s conclusion: he showed Ford’s senior executives the video of the flying truck when he met them to strike a deal. The rest, as they say, is Multimatic business history.
“That’s been a huge job for us,” Holt said, as a crowd of people he affectionately refers to as “motorheads” hovered nearby, hoping for a chance to meet, as one middle-aged onlooker characterized him, the “legendary Larry Holt.” Another man gushed that Holt was his “hero.”
The bespectacled, 60-year-old automotive engineer with wild, shoulder-length curly grey hair and Abraham Lincoln-inspired mutton chops, waves away such fawning with a declarative: “Oh, f—, please, don’t call me that.”
With Larry Holt, just plain old Larry will do.
But on a snowy Wednesday in late February, Larry, dressed as he typically does in blue jeans, hiking shoes and a black hoodie, had been booked as the keynote speaker, another term that furrowed his brow, for an event at the Automotive Centre of Excellence (ACE) at Ontario Tech University in Oshawa, Ont. (Holt is a member of the university’s board of governors).
Two students walk past signage for the General Motors of Canada Centre of Excellence at Ontario Tech Universitys ACE facility.Peter J. Thompson/National Post
With ACE, Ontario Tech has positioned itself to be a key player in the reinvention of Oshawa, from a blue-collar General Motors Co. town to an innovation hub and training ground for would-be automotive engineers who can meet the demands of industry players playing around with who-knows-what in the wind tunnel.
If you’ve never heard of Ontario Tech, ACE or, for that matter, Larry Holt, you’re not alone. The school was founded in 2002 and formerly known as the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, a tongue-twister of a name that was recently retired in favour of the new one.
The ACE facility, featuring a state-of-the-art climatic wind tunnel, has had a much easier time gaining traction — and paying customers — among major automobile manufacturers, such as General Motors, startups, architectural firms, cycling teams, electric car visionaries, the Canadian Armed Forces and others.
Ontario Tech University student Shaurya Rana tests the aerodynamics of a Mclaren racing car in a wind tunnel at the ACE facility.Peter J. Thompson/National Post
Students use the tunnel as a classroom. Industry uses it to simulate, in real time, whatever climate they choose to dial up: rain, snow, hurricane-force winds, desert heat or equatorial humidity are all but a few button pushes away from bearing down on whatever is being tested.
Want to bake a car in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights? ACE is for you. World Cup skiers use the tunnel to perfect their aerodynamics, fire departments to see how their equipment performs at minus-40 below and carmakers to trial run all sorts of cloak-and-dagger equipment.
“We see ourselves as the eastern anchor of the Toronto-area tech boom,” Ontario Tech president Steven Murphy said. “People around here are very proud of Oshawa’s history, in relation to the automobile, and we are the next chapter, and technology is going to play a huge role in that.”
The spirit of burbling optimism and youthful energy is harder to detect 15 minutes south of the school, at the General Motors plant near Lake Ontario.
Now staffed with a skeleton crew of a few hundred, after 2,600 employees were let go at Christmas, the scale of the factory is staggering: kilometre after kilometre of buildings, smokestacks, security kiosks with no one inside, vast parking lots and, for the most part, a pervading sense of emptiness.
“To think that we no longer make cars here — it just floors you,” said Don Thompson, branch vice-president for Unifor Local 222, the union representing the laid-off workers. He has put in 36.5 years at GM. His father worked for GM, his grandfather, too.
Thompson has been answering a steady stream of calls from union members for the past two months. People seeking help with unemployment insurance forms, polishing resumes, asking about possible job leads or following up on the latest rumour about the future of the plant.
“There is a huge amount of stress and anxiety in the community,” he said.
The outside of the GM plant in Oshawa on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020.Peter J. Thompson/National Post
Holt, naturally, is sympathetic to the former GM employees’ plight in Oshawa. It is a “sad story,” and he is a “car guy,” so he gets it, but he also understands that the past is what led to a facility such as ACE being built, and that the present only moves in one direction: forward. On that front, Holt has a few thoughts.
Part of Multimatic’s business involves building the Ford GT, a slick ride, mostly made for racetrack drivers and serious car collectors — or seriously rich people — that retails for about US$450,000. (Holt cracked the rear wing of his personal GT after meeting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at ACE in 2018, but that’s another story). His company makes the shock absorbers for Red Bull’s Formula One car. But it also makes humble door hinges.
“Everything is predicated off our engineering,” Holt said. “We sell technology in parts.”
The current technological race in the mainstream automotive world isn’t about self-driving cars, as Holt sees it, but about perfecting the hybridization of the gas-burning internal combustion engine.
People around here are very proud of Oshawas history, in relation to the automobile, and we are the next chapter
Ontario Tech president Steven Murphy
“I am a motorhead,” he said. “Now we have Greta Thunberg out there raving about how we are burning the planet. But the truth is, Greta is right, we are burning the planet, and it’s a challenge, and that excites me.”
Not in having cars go fully electric, mind you, but finding a way to capture, say, all the energy wasted when a city driver accelerates, brakes, accelerates, brakes, and using it to help power the car. The future is achieved in increments, and improving upon hybrids is an obvious next step.
Less obvious was Holt’s next move at ACE after he had done his bit as the keynote speaker. He had a glass of wine, three chicken skewers and a mini-cheeseburger, but his fans just kept coming at him, hoping to grab a quick word with Larry, the reluctant legend.
“I am not comfortable with people making such a big deal out of me,” he said. “It’s the team at Multimatic that gets all this great stuff done.”
Financial Post
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