Profile - Peter Horbury: Vice president’s lifelong hobby of making cars better by design

Peter Horbury
Peter Horbury
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AFTER a long history with Volvo Car Corporation, car designer Peter Horbury has taken up a role at Geely Group as senior vice president, design. Suzan Uzel interviewed him.

AT the age of seven, Peter Horbury knew he wanted to design cars.

“It was what I did for a hobby and it still is my hobby to this day,” said Mr Horbury, now 61.

He explained: “My dad taught me to draw perspective when I was about five. I was always interested in cars, buses, trains, trucks.

“I used to draw them. Then I got into imagining the next version of a particular car that was out at the time. That ability to spot the character of a car and move it on a few years was exactly what we’ve been doing at Volvo.

“Even the newest, most modern Volvos have something from the past, not in a retro way, but taking something from the past and modernising it.”

Despite having spent nearly 40 years working in the industry, Mr Horbury still gets a thrill from seeing a car he has worked on.

He said: “It’s still a fantastic buzz when a car drives by which used to be a sketch, used to be an image on the drawing board. I’m not saying that I draw them anymore. We have a team of people.

“But it is very satisfying to see something drive by that somebody has spent money on that was an idea you were working on and saw through the whole process.”

Born in Alnwick, Northumberland, and part-educated at King Edward VII School in Sheffield, Mr Horbury lived in the city from the age of seven to 12.

After moving up to Darlington, Mr Horbury went to art school in Newcastle, going on to complete a Masters at the Royal College of Art in London.

His first job was at Chrysler at the age of 24.

Mr Horbury said: “I was just a straightforward designer doing bumpers, head lamps and door handles. When you start, that’s the sort of thing you get involved with.

“Eventually you go through the process of learning how to design cars. I spent three years at Chrysler and moved to Ford in Essex in 1977.”

Among many other things, Mr Horbury worked on the Ford Sierra programme, splitting his time between the English and German studios.

In 1979, Mr Horbury took a job as a contractor to Volvo, moving to Sweden at the age of 29 to work on the interior of a new small car, which became the Volvo 480, which launched in 1986.

Mr Horbury spent two years in Sweden before moving to Holland, and staying there for five years, before returning to England.

He said: “I met an entrepreneur who was supplying Volvo in Holland with engineering services. The only thing missing from his company was a design studio.” Mr Horbury bought MGA Developments, based in Coventry, and created the design part of the company.

He lived in the Midlands until 1991 when he met an old colleague from Volvo at the Geneva Motor Show.

Mr Horbury said: “He introduced me to the head of product planning at Volvo who was looking for a new chief designer. I was invited to Sweden to interview.” In August 1991, Mr Horbury became head of design for Volvo, and was based in Sweden.

The process of a car’s journey from sketch to production takes about three to four years, said Mr Horbury.

“I’m a great believer in allowing young designers to get their ideas out,” he said.

“A design manager’s role is to spot the really good ideas and help the young, inexperienced designer get it through that process into a produceable form.”

Mr Horbury likens the role to that of a film director.

He said: “He doesn’t write the script, or act or edit the film, but at the end of the day it’s his creation. He had a vision and through the efforts of everyone, the actors and the writers, he achieves that vision.”

In 2002, Mr Horbury was asked to become head of design for Ford’s Premier Automotive Group, which included Aston Martin, Land Rover and Volvo.

Two years later and Mr Horbury was Detroit-bound to take over the design reigns for Ford in the United States. Mr Horbury describes “playing a small part” in Ford’s turnaround in the US as one of his greatest achievements. In 2009 , he returned to Volvo in Gothenberg, Sweden, which is where he lives now with his Swedish wife and their four-year-old daughter.

Mr Horbury also has two sons, one of whom is aged 31 and works in design for Land Rover, and the other, a 29-year-old, who lives in Antigua.

He said: “In Gothenberg there are so many Volvos driving around. They make up quite a large portion of the landscape or the cityscape.

“It would not have been like that if I hadn’t been here. It’s a bit of an ego trip I suppose, but at the same time it’s very satisfying.” It is clear Mr Horbury is no stranger to travel, but being a foreigner has been a benefit not a hindrance, he said.

“It’s very useful to be a foreigner working in a different country, to have a fresh pair of eyes as it were.

“You’re spotting the visual cultural differences in society and using that to create uniqueness for the brand,” said Mr Horbury.

He added: “There are certain design features in buildings and furniture which are unique to Swedish style. My Swedish colleagues were brought up with them all their lives and haven’t regarded them as anything special.

“When you don’t come from that culture you can pull them out and use them. That is what we’ve been doing at Volvo, trying to create a car that reflects those Scandinavian features.”

The same goes for China, said Mr Horbury, who was promoted to senior vice president of design at Chinese car maker Geely only a few weeks ago.

Geely bought Volvo from Ford in 2010. The turnover of Geely Automobile Holding and Volvo Cars combined, which both come under Geely Holding Group, is expected to reach £13-£15bn for 2011.

Mr Horbury, whose new role will see him travel between Sweden and China, said: “No doubt it will be fascinating to go there and observe what is uniquely Chinese and create a bold, unique design for the brands.

“I’m interested to see if we can put a little bit of China into the Chinese brands and make them attractive all over the world eventually.

“I think to me the most successful designs today are those that reflect that sense of origin. The best Italian cars could only come from Italy. Citroen is now producing truly French cars and they are successful because of it.”

The automotive industry is in good shape, said Mr Horbury.

He added: “It seems to have pulled itself out of the 2008 financial crisis pretty well. It is down to giving customers what they want, not what the factory can make and hopefully people will buy it, as it was in the old days.

“You can see both in America and Asia there is still a strong market and China has become the biggest car market in the world.”

No matter how much legislation changes the format of the vehicle, it is still a very strong business, said Mr Horbury. “Buying a car is very much an emotional experience. You don’t have emotions when you are buying a fridge or a washing machine. You have a connection with a car that is beyond that with other products”, he said.

“The automobile has been very kind to me throughout my career,” reflected Mr Horbury, but it is also a hobby, he added.

“It has been fascinating to live in different cultures and countries. I suppose you could say my life has been spread very thinly across broad horizons,” said Mr Horbury.

Peter Horbury Factfile

Title: Senior vice president, design, Geely Group

Date of birth: 27/01/1950

Education: Masters degree at the Royal College of Art in London; BA degree in industrial design from the Newcastle College of Art and Industrial Design

First job: Chrysler UK in Coventry as a designer

Favourite song: Sympathy for the Devil by The Rolling Stones

Car driven: Ford GT

Favourite film: Deliverance

Favourite holiday destination: Northumberland

Last book read: The New Chinese Empire: And What It Means for the US, by Ross Terrill

Most proud of: All the designs that are driving around today that I was responsible for