Volvo, Ford and Lotus designer Peter Horbury has died | Top Gear
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Volvo, Ford and Lotus designer Peter Horbury has died

Horbury transformed Volvo design in the 1990s after his radical gas turbine-powered ECC concept

Published: 03 Jul 2023

To the shock of the car design community, as well as his family and innumerable great friends, Peter Horbury has died. He was 73, still hard at work and far too young to be lost.

He was one of the giants of design, having most famously turned around Volvo's aesthetic in the 1990s. He went on to bring great changes to Ford in the US in the early 2000s, and then shape the multi-brand strategy of the China-based multinational Geely Group, including Lynk & Co and Lotus, as it stretched itself beyond pure sports cars.

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Horbury was born in Northumberland, and carried detectable traces of the accent his whole life, however many continents he'd lived in. 

His car-design education was at London's RCA, one of the first great schools in the subject. Among other towering alumni of that era – tutored by a young Peter Stevens – were Ian Callum and Martin Smith. Many remained great friends over half a century.

From the mid-1970s he went on to work at Chrysler UK, then Ford in Europe, having a role in the Sierra programme, then his first stint at Volvo where he did the – rather revolutionary – interior of the 480. In 1986 he joined a busy British consultancy, MGA.

It was from there, in 1991, that he was hired to lead Volvo's design. The company was making extremely boxy cars and it was an astonishing achievement to change that over the long term. 

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(But first he had a typically left-field idea for a quick-fix image change. He introduced Volvo bosses to Tom Walkinshaw, getting the brick-like 850 estate cars into BTCC racing and earning some race success and much more publicity.)

He had all the qualities to bring about profound design change. He was a great designer himself, a collaborative team leader, and always charmingly persuasive. The car that showed his direction was a 1992 concept called the ECC, a luxury saloon powered by gas turbine.

The turbine was of course a distraction. Although I did drive it at the time I remember little of the powertrain. But 30 years on memories remain vivid of an evening with Peter as he explained why and how Volvo had to change its design, and the potential for the company if it did so. Then we had another bottle and the remains of the day, as often with him, got a little blurry.

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So he gave the world the S80 production car which drew much from the ECC, and after that the XC90, which absolutely turned the company around, and then a succession of cars that developed the same theme. A theme that informs the current and future range. Always Horbury would have a memorable soundbite to explain them. Of his 2000 V70 he said, "I wanted a Transit van at the back and an E-Type Jaguar at the front."

Volvo then came under Ford's ownership, and in 2002 he was transferred to lead the design of Ford and Lincoln in the US. Perhaps unexpectedly after the Volvo work, he gave Ford a more squared-off chunky look, known as 'red, white and bold'. He had understood that for America, the added swagger was perfectly appropriate. It was soon seen as another success for Horbury's vision and leadership.

Then in 2009 a vacancy came up at the top of Volvo design and Horbury went back to Sweden, a country where he felt at home. Soon Volvo was again taken over, this time by Geely, and he was given several projects all over that expanding group.

Among them was the all-new LEVC London Taxi. Horbury brought his remarkable cultural awareness to bear, and gave us a vehicle instantly recognisable yet wholly modern, serious and appropriate for its task.

We last met him at the launch of the Lotus Eletre electric super-SUV. His official role by then was "Senior VP, Executive Advisor, Design, Lotus". Somehow having his combination of gravitas, modesty and humour was a great help to Lotus in explaining this gigantic directional pivot.

Horbury never adopted the self-conscious rockstar posing of some in the design world. He might have: he leaves a legacy packed with hits and almost devoid of misses. But he was just too down-to-earth, human and just plain funny. So many people are shocked by his departure, and will miss him terribly. They have our sympathy.

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