The Master: Volvo Design Head Peter Horbury

CaLLe HÖglund

Englishman Peter Horbury transformed Volvo design beginning with his 1992 ECC concept. He led its design studio when Ford bought Volvo in 1999, and again when Ford sold it to Geely in 2010. In 2012, he moved from Volvo to Geely to set up and lead a design department for the parent, though he remains based in Gothenburg, Sweden. Todd Lassa caught up with Horbury as Geely unveiled his studio’s Crossover PHEV concept at the 2014 Beijing auto show.

How would you describe Geely design?
Geely had been designing by buying the surfaces of outside suppliers in various countries, with little concentration on any visual brand identity. As you can see, the cars are, um…very diverse. I showed [management] a presentation where I likened it to an animal. I showed all the Geely cars with every model supplanted by a different animal. It’s the same as the animal world where there are many, many different species, and only a distant, common ancestry. If you concentrate on one species, in this case, the cat, there are plenty of alternative cats, from the lion to the pussycat to the leopard. Every one has its own character, its own personality, but you know they’re related. That’s what I wanted to do. We showed pictures of five pussycats, and then five, different stretched versions with longer legs and bigger heads, and said, "This is the way some companies do it. Take one design and make it different sizes." We’re not going to do that. The cat family has enough variety to make sure that we do cars with personality of their own. But by looking at them, you know they’re part of the species – the Geely brand.

Had design begun on the 2014 Beijing concept, the Cross PHEV [pictured below], when you moved from Volvo to Geely in 2012?
It had just begun with another consultancy somewhere in China. The result that they showed I really felt was not the direction we wanted. It was nothing like anything else, it looked like somebody else’s, which is another issue that I’ve tried to remove. Copying may be an honor on the Eastern side of the globe, but it’s criminal on my side. We took it back, and redesigned it to something we wanted. In very short time. I think it’s amazing what we managed if you know what time we took. These concepts are very close to what we are doing [for production]. There are another two projects underway which will be arriving early next year and early-, mid-’16 that will continue this family identity.

What is Geely’s new design language?
I’ve always believed in beautiful shapes rather than excessive decoration. It takes a little longer to do and a little more skill, but you know when you look at a Porsche, they’ve spent a lot of time getting it just right. You don’t have to put gratuitous lines on the side to create excitement. And that will stand the test of time, I promise you, many, many years compared with over-decorated, "Hey, look at me" design. And by the way, [the design language] has a degree of movement. It’s not static. There’s a degree of shoulder over the wheel, it just rises a little, so there’s an impending action.

Describe Geely’s studio.
We chose some of the [young] incumbent team who worked in a design facility within the engineering institute and technical institute near Hangzhou and offered them jobs in Shanghai. The rest stayed with the engineering division. I brought people from America, some ex-General Motors, some from Australia, from Europe, some senior managers. Some older than you would think, but I needed people with experience. We had these young Chinese guys from Hangzhou, and they had no real experience with a production car. So I brought in some old stalwarts from ex-GM…We quickly took in some of the projects and started to do them properly. Thankfully, it was recognized quite quickly; the boss saw the difference. We found a building on the old Shanghai 2010 Expo site and we took half the ground floor, which is huge. Then our friends at Chery saw what we had done and moved in to the other half. I’m embarrassed, but we were there first.

What does Volvo share with Geely?
We’ve announced the joint venture with Volvo on a new [small vehicle] platform for a complete series of cars for Geely, where design would be the distinguishing factor and the platform would be the common factor. We set up in Gothenburg, with 300 engineers already and 45, 48 design staff, so that will be up to a hundred people. Shanghai will be 100, 120 [people].

What is "Chinese automobile design"?
In the Confucius days, the learning was the case of the master and the apprentice. The apprentice must learn from the master by more or less copying what the master knows, until he is more or less the equal. Then the apprentice can develop his own ideas. I tell them, "If you want to copy the Germans, copy where they put the wheels, relative to the extremities of the car, and where the upper part of the car is to the lower part, and how wide the track is compared with the wheel arches." China has thousands of years of art history, architecture, fashion, all the visual arts that have been untapped. For the interior on this car and the previous concept, we took the design for the famous "broken bridge" in Hangzhou [Geely’s headquarters] and put it on the instrument panel. The fretwork on the speakers is pure ancient Chinese design from architecture.

Will Chinese design soon be ready for Americans and Europeans?
Yeah. I’d like them to think, "Oh, that’s a beautiful car, it looks like it comes from China." That would be the ultimate goal. I think that we’ll lead them gently into it. It won’t be a shock to start with.

What’s it like to go from Volvo to Geely?
It’s exciting. I’m 64. I should be thinking about hanging up the pen and the pencil. But not now. I’m looking at another five years, apparently. After 40 years, it’s the first time I’ve had a clean sheet of paper. And it’s daunting. I’ve sat there at the Gothenburg studio saying, well, there’s no heritage, there’s no brand, there’s nothing. What do we do?

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