The UK-born Geely Group design chief sets out his life and stellar international career in 12 cars
If a car designer’s inspiration needs to be matched by experience to get them to the top of the tree, it’s no wonder Peter Horbury holds the leading design job at China’s restless Geely Group, where both full-steam brand building (Lynk&Co) and careful development of age-old marques (such as Lotus) share priority.
As Geely Auto’s executive vice-president of design, Horbury’s task is to deploy both creativity and talent as a team leader to guide a rambling global car conglomerate encompassing everything from trucks to private cars, with EVs, sports cars and taxis sandwiched in between.
His renowned ability at handling these tasks – plus more than 40 years in other top design roles – has led Autocar’s judging panel to declare him the winner of a special Lifetime Achievement award, an accolade rarely given.
Horbury says he has relished choosing a dozen cars to describe his life, not least because as a celebrated raconteur, he has plenty of life experiences to share…
1950 Morris Oxford
“This one looks odd,” says the designer, “but it comes from a story my mother tells about pushing me around in a pram as a baby. I was just about old enough to sit up, and as we passed a car at the kerbside, I pointed and said it was a ‘Morris Ox-Ox’. My mother insisted it wasn’t but a passing gentleman corrected her. ‘Madam,’ he said, ‘your baby is quite right.’ I think that must have been the beginning of something. My first Dinky toy was a Morris Oxford, too.”
By the time the E-Type was launched, Horbury was 11 and, like many a kid, constantly drawing cars in the margins of his school books. But he wasn’t into copying existing designs. He’d take an existing model and draw its successor: “I liked deciding what the important design features were, and massaging them into a future state.”
With the E-Type, it was love at first sight. The car seemed to come from another world: “Even if much of it was done by an aerodynamicist [Malcolm Sayer], it was clearly influenced by somebody with a designer’s eye [Jaguar founder Sir William Lyons]. There’s a subconscious recognition of natural shapes running right through that car, the kind of muscular tension you see in a cheetah or a tiger. I’ve never owned an E-Type, but if I did, it’d be the two-seater coupé.
I love the hips and that arched back. Whenever I look at one, I see that strangely upright screen in an otherwise sleek shape. That makes it special: if the screen was more raked, your eye would be taken to the roof but instead it follows that wonderful line running from the bonnet, right to the rear.”
There are not many of these about nowadays but, for Peter Horbury, the Horizon will always be special because it’s the first car he worked on. The Horbury family moved a lot during his childhood – to Glasgow, Wolverhampton and Sheffield (“I got used to being Peter, the new boy”) – but the car obsession was a constant.
It took him to Newcastle’s School of Art, then to the Royal College of Art in London for postgraduate studies in transport design – in the same year as Martin Smith, later Ford’s design director in Europe. Horbury’s first job was in Chrysler’s design studio at Whitley, near Coventry.
“The Horizon was my first car,” he says, “and the sense of pride never goes away. In those days, you didn’t do everything, but I was responsible for the Horizon’s face: the grille, headlights and front bumpers. From then on, whenever I saw a Horizon, I only saw those bits.
“We moved to Detroit to finish the job because this was a world car, called the Dodge Omni in the US. It started as a softer, more adventurous shape but the VW Golf (Rabbit in the US) was doing well so they wanted to emulate the VW’s sharper lines. It also had to have Rabbit wheel arches, which meant its little wheels – it used Simca 1100 running gear – were lost underneath. The interior was rather good, though.”
“This was another E-Type moment for me,” says Horbury, “and a huge inspiration for many car designers. By now, I was at the MGA consultancy in Coventry, working on Ford projects, and got sent to Ford’s HQ in Cologne for a few months. I’d seen the pictures of the 928, but never the real thing. On the first night, walking through the city with friends, we turned a corner – and there was this spaceship parked by the side of the road!”
The 928’s appeal was how well it integrated so much new design theory, says Horbury: the integral bumpers, the tail-lights sunk into the body and the way the corners were knocked off that so that from three-quarter rear, the last thing you saw at the front was the wheel. That was revolutionary.
“The 928 became a big influence around the world,” says Horbury, who remembers a night out with its designer, Wolfgang Möbius, when the car’s creator came very close to being run down by a woman driving one. “It certainly had a big influence on the Ford Sierra, especially the XR4i we were doing at the time.”
Saab 900 Turbo
Horbury loved the Porsche 928 so much that he was planning to buy one when his wife announced she was pregnant, so he opted instead for a black Saab 900 Turbo on Inca wheels, the unique ribbed pattern that began with the 99 Turbo.
He says: “I was working on Volvo projects at the time, so it didn’t go down well. But the car taught me a big lesson: whenever I saw another car like mine, I’d notice how the wheels sparkled as they moved. “That was something I took to work. It was no good looking at wheels on a studio wall: could we spin them? A few days later, we came up with a system powered by compressed air, which was great. One thing I have against today’s diamond-cut designs is that they only present one surface to the onlooker, so when they spin, they become a blur.”
In 1981, Horbury took his 900 to live in the Netherlands, where the Volvo 480 was being designed and would soon be built (“we were proud of its ergonomically sound computer that didn’t force you to take your eyes off the road”). He remembers how, on Dutch roads, the Saab’s low header rail meant you couldn’t see overhead traffic lights without opening the sunroof. “Still, the hi-fi was great,” he recalls, “because it was enhanced by the car’s surround screen.”
In August 1991, Horbury became Volvo’s head of design, and early in the job, he travelled to the company’s design base in California, where his “fantastic team” was working on an 850-based gas turbine hybrid car. He immediately saw this as the chance to investigate Volvo’s exterior design at the same time, a plan that led to the Volvo ECC (for Environmental Concept Car), which he now describes as “the car that allowed me to change Volvo forever”.
Horbury put his new design team to work on a suitable concept and one sketch by a designer called Doug Frasher stood out, picking up partly on Volvo’s heritage but proposing the body ‘shoulders’ for which Volvos have since become well known, and the ‘Volvo bridge’, which frames the front and rear side glasses from above: “When Volvo’s CEO, Mr Gyllenhammar, saw it, he said: ‘Well, I don’t like that’, but I promised him that eventually he would…”
The car was well received when shown in 1992, which freed Horbury and his team to use its principles for a radically different S80 executive saloon, eventually launched in 1998. “We had a lot of opposition,” Horbury recalls. “Somebody wrote: ‘If this Englishman thinks this is a Volvo, he must have mad cow disease.’” But with Pehr Gyllenhammar’s blessing, Horbury’s team set about designing a range of successors to existing cars that used the ECC’s and new S80’s design cues, which did indeed change Volvos. And boosted sales.
Horbury calls this “the pinnacle of the new look”. Volvo had never done an SUV and many thought it never should. But the brand had always had a strong following in the US and demand there won the day. Horbury’s team interviewed women about design features and discovered that many saw SUVs as “gigantic threatening macho machines”. They wanted safe cars, even muscular cars, but macho was bad. “We gave our design strength,” says Horbury, “but not too much. It was confident but not a street fighter like all those Fords and GMCs. It had a transverse engine so we could move the occupants forward to give more space, a priority.” The car was a huge success and it stayed in production from 2002 to 2017.
While all this was going on, Horbury’s rising prominence meant he started getting offers for top jobs around the world. He was courted by GM’s Bob Lutz. Then Ford’s Richard Parry-Jones announced: “Bill Ford wants a word with you.” The upshot was Horbury became head of design for Ford’s Premier Automotive Group (encompassing Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover, Lincoln and Volvo, all of which had their own design staffs). He subsequently found it “a bit of a figurehead job” so he took the 2004 opportunity to move to the US as Ford’s American design boss, when J Mays wanted a move in the opposite direction.
“Not long after I arrived in the US, I was offered the chance to put my name into the internal lottery to buy a Ford GT,” says Horbury. “They were just finishing the clays as I arrived. Pretty soon, someone contacted me to say my name had come up: did I want the car? It took me a fraction of a second to say yes – without knowing where the money was coming from.
What colour? I couldn’t think beyond that No2 GT40 Bruce McLaren drove at Le Mans in ’66, so I opted for black with silver stripes. It was literally my first foray into sports car ownership. It’s a tremendous car, which I occasionally take to the track. It’s at home in my garage right now.”
Ford Superchief concept
Given that it’s America’s – and the world’s – best-selling vehicle, US traditionalists are jealous about who designs the next Ford F-150. In his role as design chief of the Americas, the task fell to Horbury, who was all too aware that the job was so big that if he botched it, he’d cripple the entire Ford company.
In the background, lots of Americans were convinced it was impossible for an Englishman to design a truck – although they were mollified when the mighty F-250 Superchief concept of 2006, an obvious precursor to new F-series production models, was unveiled “The eyes of America were on me,” says Horbury. “I thought: you want a truck? I’ll give you a [expletive] truck. I was convinced the F-series needed to look like it was constructed from solid. This was Ford of America: why shouldn’t we act proud about that?”
The 12th generation F-series hit the market in 2009, complete with Horbury’s hewn-from-solid look and (pretty soon) a sales performance every bit as stellar as its predecessors.
Another high-level task the designer took on was to renew the huge-selling and much loved Ford Explorer SUV, the fifth-generation model of which hit the market late in 2010. But by then, Horbury had moved on again…
Geely KC Concept
He went back to Volvo, his spiritual home, to replace departing design director Steve Mattin and was just about ensconced there when Chinese-based Geely created big headlines at the end of 2009 by paying $1.8 billion (equivalent to £1.2bn then) to buy the Swedish company from Ford: “We knew they were going to buy it and it was obvious there would be changes at the top. Anyone who understood the rules of cricket was on their way out.”
However, more or less overnight, literally as Horbury was clearing his desk, Geely’s founder-owner Li Shufu announced his appointment to a new, overarching position as head of Geely Group design – responsible not only for Volvo but also for Geely, the Lynk&Co brand that was soon to emerge and various other companies. It’s the position Horbury still holds.
“It ruffled some feathers,” he says. “It was clear they were going to have to get much more serious about design. There was a big saloon under way, but it was a bit of a smorgasbord of design ideas and we had to change a lot of things.”
The chairman’s idea was that the grille of this flagship car, the Geely KC Concept, should carry a complex pattern of concentric rings, representing a view into the expanding cosmos, developing a theme Volvo had used a couple of years earlier with its Concept Universe.
In the end, Geely launched a proud, graceful saloon concept at the 2013 Shanghai show. “It incorporated some of the intricate elements Chinese buyers enjoy,” says Horbury. “The chairman was delighted and the cosmos theme was carried into the next four Geely production cars, which sold out of their skins.”
Despite all his experience, Horbury says creating a new marque for a new market space is “scary”, simply because you have so many options. But some boundaries for the new, more youthful marque were clear very early: “There was plenty of price and model room between Geely and Volvo, and we were obviously going to share all major components.
“We decided on softer surfaces for the first model, the Lynk&Co 01, but because Volvo had its many associations with light wood, natural fibres and natural light, we decided to try the opposite, a darker brand – not in a negative sense but in a mysterious and exotic way.
“The Lynk name was challenging – there was a danger of confusion with Lynx – but when we added ‘&Co’, it became cool and clever; the kind of name not used before for a car.” The first model, a Volvo XC40-sized SUV, was well received at launch three years ago. The range is now up to 05, a coupé-SUV unveiled late last year.
At a stage of life when many have retired, Horbury sees a life of continuing challenges, most of them emanating from China. He believes his track record as the foreigner who progressed Volvo by recognising its modern Swedish strengths continues to stand him in good stead. “It’s a matter of remaining open-minded,” he says. “The last thing you want to do is impose your own ideas in lots of different places all around the world. The Chinese are responding more and more to the idea of their own country and heritage being celebrated. There’ll be a lot of that in what we do from now on.”