The CAR Inquisition: 'Copying is over in China' - Peter Horbury, CAR+ December 2015

Published: 11 November 2015

► We interview Geely design boss, ex-Volvo's Peter Horbury
► He tells us why he thinks China's car copying is over
► Plus the lowdown on his new taxi for London 

Despite confessing that he’s old enough to qualify for a bus pass, 65-year-old Peter Horbury shows no signs of quitting. After a distinguished career at Ford and two stints as Volvo design boss – including during the influential ’90s when he redefined the ‘boxy’ brand, courtesy of a pronounced shoulder line and strong, smooth lines on the first-generation S80, S60 and C70 – he ended up back in Sweden in 2009 just before Chinese upstart Geely decided to buy the brand. Moving swiftly to design senior vice president for the Geely Group in 2011, he’s spent the last four years putting fire under the brand’s ambitions. ‘It’s a whole new challenge and so much fun,’ he enthuses, ‘because there was no brand identity before, no design department. My job is to design the next wave of cars but my even bigger job is to bring up a whole new generation of Geely designers capable of taking that momentum into the future.’

Now boasting a team of 320 people he’s busy making sure design is at the heart of Geely’s car-making process. ‘To get a car into production takes an awful lot more than doing a sketch and maybe a clay and giving them to an engineer. That’s what Geely did in the past. All the inevitable changes were done by an engineer who hadn’t really got the same eye or approach. Now we have to show how design and engineering work together in a way that doesn’t lose the design intent. That’s as much a part of the education of the company as it is the young designers.’

So presumably there’ll be no more copycat designs from Geely – like the awful 2009 GE concept that sullied the Rolls-Royce Phantom? ‘It’s a strange phenomenon,’ concedes Horbury. ‘Confucian teaching said that the master knew everything and the apprentice had to learn everything the master knew before he could form his own opinions. So copying was very honourable. I’m supposed to be honoured if a company turns out a product that looks like an old Volvo. It came to a head again recently with the Range Rover Evoque copy [the X7 by Landwind]. But copying is over in China. Companies have proper design departments and that’s given them confidence.’

Isn’t the ‘new’ vehicle for London Taxi International (a brand also owned by Geely) and unveiled in the capital in October as part of the Chinese president’s state visit to Britain, a bit derivative too though? ‘When the job to design the next London taxi came up I thought, “that’s a great swansong”. And the brief was totally clear: it had to look like a London taxi. But it’s not a repeat, it’s a reminder.’

To be fair to Horbury and his team, he hasn’t simply updated the latest TX4. Instead he’s ‘gone back to the future’, taking design cues from the earlier 1958 FX4 Fairway, including the longer bonnet, vertical grille and round lamps, plus a shoulder line that kicks up over the real wheel. It’s also longer to fit six passengers, has a large glass panoramic roof so tourists can take in the city skyline and returns to a C-pillar-hinged rear door to make it easier to get into the back after chatting to the driver about his willingness to go south of the river. 

Geely’s 2009 GE. Confucious say ‘He who knocks off Rolls shall inherit Peter Horbury’

Oh, and the drivetrain is a plug-in petrol/electric hybrid promising 30-plus miles in full electric mode and has a modern driver’s cabin with a large floating centre console and colour touchscreen plus switchgear similar to the latest XC90’s. Are some in fact the same? ‘I can’t tell you,’ Horbury chuckles. ‘You’ll have to make that conclusion’. Designed in Geely’s Barcelona studio and built in a new purpose-built factory in Coventry, the idea is to sell the taxi well beyond London and in other spin-off shapes to help its business case. Meanwhile, a new range of Geelys sharing Volvo platforms are coming to Western Europe by 2018 to boost global sales from just over 400,000 in 2014, starting with a Qashqai-sized crossover – what else? – that will, says Horbury, match Ford quality. Will he have his feet up on a round-the-world cruise by then? He laughs at the thought. ‘I have an eight-year-old daughter and two sons aged 35 and 33, so I won’t be going to play golf. I’m staying young…’

CAR's curveballs

6 questions only we would ask…

Tell us about your first car...

‘It was a Renault 4 L bought when I was a student at the Royal College of Art. The L stood for “lousy”. I had a limit of £300 and found it in the Evening Standard newspaper.

Which achievement makes you most proud?

‘Having the ambition from the age of six or seven to become a car designer and actually getting there. I remember at my grammar school careers night saying, “I want to be a car designer” and my teacher replying, “Have you thought about insurance? Cars need insurance.” But I went to art school and in 1974 walked into Chrysler’s Whitley studio – now Jaguar’s – and started work on the Horizon model. I did the bumper, grille and lamps.’

What’s the best thing you’ve done in a car?

‘Taking my Ford GT onto the Falkenberg track in Sweden with a professional driver to show me the ropes. Finding out where the limits are, or actually not finding out where the limits are, was fantastic. I still own it.’

Tell us how you screwed up…

[Laughs] Dear, dear, me… every car design has at least one mistake, or one thing that could have been done better. On the 1994 Volvo 960 facelift the front bumper seems to be falling off. That side feature line rubbing-strip still really grates on me. 

Supercar or classic?

I buy Classic Cars magazine, so I can choose a different classic every month and not actually buy one. 

Company curveball…Did you know about Geely founder Li ShuFu’s unusual poetry-writing hobby?

Yes, he once sent me a poem he’d written about the moon. It was translated very well into English. He’s completely different from any other boss I’ve previously had…

By Guy Bird

Contributor, cultural curator, design commentator

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