Peter Horbury was head of design at Volvo Car Corporation when the company was taken over by the Chinese carmaker Geely. He now divides his time between Sweden and China. Speaking in Detroit at the NAIAS, he tells just-auto of his task to establish a brand identity as well as to put together a new in-house team.

The in-house design team is based in Shanghai and the goal is to establish Geely’s own design capability rather than relying on outsourcing to styling houses around the world.

Horbury said: “The disadvantage of outsourcing is that you have to teach new people all time about the brand heritage and ambitions. There are definite advantages in having an in-house team.”

First that brand heritage has to be established and Horbury’s ambition is to make the cars ‘look’ Chinese.

“I’m not talking about having pagoda roofs or anything radical, but there is a certain subtlety I am looking for. I want to introduce some Chinese inspiration into the design language. There is a huge history in the country in terms of art and architecture going back 5,000 years.

“I want to be able to give Geely a design Chinese people can be proud of.”

What does that design involve? “ It’s quite difficult to quantify,” said Horbury. “For example there are certain curves in the architecture which are unmistakably Chinese. I say to my designers that if they draw a line with a brush stroke rather than a marker pen they will get a very different effect, almost like the ancient Chinese caligraphers. The result can be exquisite.”

The airport building at Hangzhou, Geely’s home city, is an example Horbury likes to call on. “Its roof uses sweeping convex and concave curves. It is very harmonious and a kind of ying and yang.

“Chinese people tend to prefer rounded rather than sharp designs that are in harmony. That is an effect I am looking for and it is a very exciting prospect. I want people to be able to look at a Geely and see it as a Chinese car, pretty much in the way you know a German car or a French one.”

French car designs did lose their way for a while but they have now got their joie de vivre back – you can see they are French. The Japanese since the 1990s have now become very interesting in their design, and distinctly Japanese.”

“Hangzhou is a city of myths and legends and I would like our designers to call on this for inspiration,” he says.

However, those designers are based in Shanghai because that is where Horbury can draw from a greater pool of talent.

“Shanghai is seen as where it all happens,” he said. “It is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in China and it’s where people want to be.”

He is slowly building an in-house team, recruiting the very experienced Ken Ma as design manager. “Ken was born in China and has US citizenship and between us we are bringing in any experienced people from around the world to mentor and provide the necessary experience for our younger Chinese designers.”

Horbury now divides his time between Sweden and China heading up the studios for Geely. He added: “I spend about 10 days a month in Shanghai and the rest of the time at home in Gothenburg. We have established a small studio in China Shanghai and my task is to manage the various design elements.”

At the moment Geely remains reliant on outsourced design. “It’s still early days and there is a big job to do in terms of establishing Geely as a brand. But it is a great challenge to be able to build a new team.

“Geely is an ambitious company and the Chinese industry is developing at a pace. As more foreign cars appear on the roads in the country, the customer perception in terms of design, quality and safety is also growing. They like what they see and the domestic carmakers have to compete.”

This will all take time but Horbury said new design influences will start to be seen on Geely models over the next two or three years. 

He added: “One thing for certain is that the Chinese carmakers will soon start to make their mark in global markets.”