CAR interviews Volvo design vice president Peter Horbury (2010)

Published: 04 February 2010

CAR recently spent some time one-to-one with Peter Horbury, Volvo's new vice president of design. Horbury, who pioneered Volvo's modern look in his previous stint as design boss from 1991 to 2002 spent five and a half years in charge of Ford's North American design studio. But in May 2009, Volvo CEO Stephen Odell asked Horbury to return to the top job in Gothenburg. Here he discusses car design in general, the ongoing sale of Volvo to China's Geely and his plans for future Volvo cars. 

CAR: How is it to be back at Volvo?

Peter Horbury: 'It's fantastic. I started back at Volvo in May [2009] and moved back to Sweden in June [2009]. Gothenburg is a great city: half a million people, more Michelin-starred restaurants than you'd have thought and yet we're no distance at all from mountains and the middle of nowhere. I love it here. It's more cosmopolitan than when I last worked here. When I walked back in to the studio, my design team said, "That was a long lunch break!"'

What is your mission statement for Volvo design second time round?

'My job is to take bigger steps this time. In the 1990s we had to change people's perception of Volvo because some thought we built just boxy, safe, tank-like cars. So a lot changed in the 1990s. But I'd say you'll see as much change again in this new decade as you did then. We will still be about Swedish design, make no mistake. The last thing we should do is copy German or French design. Volvo tends to keep people in mind when we design cars – inside and out. This is important. Look at the shift in American values since president Obama took over. We are well placed to fit in with people's shifting values: the increasing importance of safety, environmental issues and design in general. That's Volvo through and through.'

Will all future Volvos sport a front end like on the new S60?

'Not necessarily. There might not be room on smaller Volvos for the secondary lighting bars you see on the S60. But when I came back from Ford, one of the things I was most pleased to see was how the Volvo grille had grown. In the US, you see a big smile and firm handshake when you meet people. It'll be the same with cars. The size of grille will matter more and more. I was really pleased with what they had done with the C30 and C70 facelifts in my absence. Volvos now have a bolder face with prouder badges and bigger grilles. This is a good thing.'

Did you have any hand at all in the new S60?

'Honestly, no. It was all the work of Steve Mattin [recently departed head of design]. But I am truly proud to stand in front of the S60 and say this is the new face of Volvo. It is the right car for us to be doing at this time.'

With Volvo currently being sold to Geely, does that present a more cosmopolitan outlook on future plans?

'This is nothing new. We already sell many cars in China and indeed across the globe – it is not a new phenomenon. But yes, we have to punch above our weight in sheer volume terms. And yes, we do have to be sensitive to global design trends. Did you know for instance that the broad shoulders and distinct rear end of the last S80 caused some problems in Asia? The back end is a similar shape to coffins! That one threw us a bit. Although we will develop predominantly world cars, we will do some bespoke models, such as the long-wheelbase S80 we build for China.'

What do you think of the Geely deal? Is Volvo safe in Chinese hands?

'We look forward to the future, but I can't talk about the deal in detail. But the Volvo brand and design are critically important to this deal – Geely does not want to change the Volvoness of us overnight. The opposite is true. That's precisely what they want.'

Critics say that some recent Volvo designs have been too samey. Just look at the outgoing S60 and S80. They're almost identical! What will you do about this?

'That's a fair criticism. Five of our cars had the same radius on the shoulders, for instance. But the new S60 has less horizontal shoulders and a new character along the flanks of the car, emphasising the wheelarches. You will see more differentiation in future – but all of our cars should be identifiably a Volvo, too.'

Volvo's had a long history of concept cars. How will you deploy them in future?

'During my time at Ford, we did the Flex concept car which reminded me of the power of concept cars. Showing it at a motor show and the resultant interest in it seriously got that car on the product plan. Previously it had not been a priority. I like concept cars to air new ideas, but they can also usher in new production cars.'

Where's the real innovation going to come from? I remember driving Volvo's SCC concept car in 2001 with those transparent A-pillars to remove the blindspot. How about it?

'Yes, we did study that idea. We modelled up A-pillars with a slither of glass in the middle of twin metal blades. But at present, we'll stick with conventional A-pillars designed to be as narrow as possible and positioned to minimise blindspots.'

Did you enjoy living near Detroit in your tenure at Ford?

'I was living in Bloomfield Hills [one of the five wealthiest cities in America – and the number one outside Florida or California]. It was like living in The Truman Show. All the grass was combed every morning!'

Who else is doing good design right now? Who do you admire?

'Audi has taken the old idea of what a German car should be. It's the last true German design, in my view. While the others have become slightly confused and more flamboyant, Audi has stuck to its German principles. They've also taken every which niche and sliced it in half. Their expansion is breathtaking.'

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By Tim Pollard

Editorial director of CAR's digital publishing arm. Motoring news magnet

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