Some might say you should never turn back but that is precisely what Volvo’s head of design Peter Horbury has done after spending the past few years in the United States with Ford. So why has he returned?
“A passion for the Volvo brand,” he says. “And an opportunity to make a difference. We had once before and there is opportunity still there. While I enjoyed the United States and miss it in some ways, I also missed Europe and I am an admirer of Swedish products. I also feel comfortable at Volvo.”
Horbury was credited with doing more than anyone to change the image of Volvo in the early 1990s from boxy and boring to stylish and dynamic. Does he plan another make-over?
“Well, things have changed in terms of what our customers expect. We have the new S60 and if you look at the current V70, the requirements of the customer for that car also have changed.
“We used to boast that you could drive to [UK home appliance retailer] Comet in the V70 and load a new fridge in the back. Now people order fridges on the internet and they get delivered. The new V60 will not be a square box”
His first task, however, is to re-organise the design department. “I am bringing a different attitude to managing design. When I came back there was nothing in the future beyond the next model – you need a viewpoint sometime in the future. After all we are the creative hub of the business and we need to be proactive and come up with new ideas.”
Horbury said he takes a bottom up approach to design rather than top down – delegating to the younger designers.
“My job is to set the vision, then the ideas are generated by young designers who think anything is possible. These ideas can then be tuned into something more realistic from an engineering point of view by more experienced people before they are presented back to me. It’s about letting creative people be creative.”
So what’s on the design menu? “I think a smaller car has a variety of possibilities. I believe we showed with the Lincoln C Concept in the US that you can have a car of limited dimensions which could still command a price premium if it looks right and is packaged correctly. But there will always be a demand for large cars.”
What are the constraints? “The demands that we have to design around – new environmental and safety technologies. In all the years I have been designing cars there have always issues raised through new technology or legislation that you have to work around.
“At the same time we want to give our customers a better experience. We can’t just say our cars are safer than everyone else’s because the only time our customers will benefit from that is if they have an accident – and that’s not a good experience.
“That said, we are proud of our safety reputation and the designers work alongside engineers to make Volvos even safer. We are not about passing exams – making sure the cars can get five NCAP stars.
“To achieve those stars all you have to do is pass the tests in a controlled environment. Unfortunately in the big wide world things aren’t controlled – it’s not about a front or side impact, it’s about being rear-ended into a truck and spat out into the oncoming traffic on the other side of the road.”
And the future under a new owner? “I think there will be different demand from different owners. Ford wanted Volvo to be more up-market and premium. Geely operates in the biggest car market in the world and wants to branch out. If they are smart they will pick our brains and allow us to compete in China from within – not as an outsider.”