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Peter Horbury - Changing the Face of Ford

As the executive director of design for Ford's North American marques, Peter Horbury is working to provide a distinctively American look to the Ford, Lincoln & Mercury brands. And he happens to be a Brit.

Peter Horbury is a busy man. Hard on the heels of what is credited with being a rather remarkable decade-long run at Volvo Car Corporation (1991-'02), then a stint as executive director of Design at the Premium Automotive Group (Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover, and Volvo), he is now (appointed January 1, 2004) the executive director of Design, North America, at Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, where he and his staff are undertaking a considerable transformation of what the Ford, Lincoln and Mercury brands represent to the public. Perhaps this "transformation" is really something of a more clear definition. "I don't think we've been where we need to be," he acknowledges. "We have a lot to do." Yet perhaps because it is the sort of thing that leaders ought to say, or, more likely, it is because this is something that he actually believes, Horbury insists, "The opportunities are fantastic."

So, for example, there's the main brand, Ford. This fact of being central is something that Horbury finds to be useful: "Ford in America stands for an awful lot to the public. It is a highly respected brand. It crosses all age groups and all people." So there is the potential to take "Ford" to this wider market. Horbury says that whereas someone once suggested to him that Ford is a "blue collar brand," he has a slightly different take: a "blue jeans brand." He explains, "I don't know anyone who doesn't wear blue jeans at some point. That is a better description of the brand. Everyone has a use for it sometime, somewhere." So for Ford, the design message needs to be one that plays more on the American heritage.

What is important to note at this juncture is that Peter Horbury is British. Yet he is keen on the American-ness that Ford can represent. This is somewhat interesting in as much as across town from Dearborn where Horbury has his office, in Auburn Hills, there is another purveyor of what is openly described as being an American design ethos. Trevor Creed, executive vice president-Design, Chrysler Group, has transformed the look of Chrysler and Dodge cars by accentuating the American heritage of these products (see: "American Design Redefined," AD&P, June '03 http://www.autofieldguide.com/articles/060302.html ). Is this a coincidence? Horbury doesn't think so. Rather, he points out: "It was the same in Sweden; I wasn't Swedish, either." Yet Volvo products that emerged during his tenure there, such as the S40 and XC90, still have a Scandinavian quality to them, even though the vehicles are a vast reach from the boxy-ness of yore. "One of the great benefits of being a foreigner in a society" Horbury explains, "is that you see things unique to that society but that the local population has grown up with, and gotten used to, so they don't notice it." He says that when, for example, he first arrived in Sweden he spent time traveling, looking, noting, absorbing, discovering aspects of the distinctively Swedish approach to all aspects of life and used elements to form the design philosophy for Volvo. "I am trying to do the same here—just as Trevor is, I'm sure."

Modern American Luxury. What of the other two brands? "If we can get Lincoln to be understood as modern luxury, but again with an American touch, then we've got something the Japanese can't claim, nor the Koreans as they build up on their reputation, nor even the Germans and the other Europeans," Horbury says, making a statement that may seem obvious (of course there isn't an American heritage to a car from elsewhere), yet is an observation that is little considered. In his view, there is a greater sense of openness, which he contrasts with the more discrete approach that he finds in other parts of the world. "In America, if you've becomes successful, you don't need to hide the fact. I have friends in Italy who have become extremely wealthy, but they drive the most mundane cars because they're frightened to show they've got some money, I suppose. In America, it's quite the opposite. And I think American luxury cars should reflect that, as well." Does this mean it is all about bringing on the bling in copious quantities? Hardly. He refers to the openness that he finds characteristic of Americans ("Hi, I'm Dave!") that can be reflected, say, in the front end of the car with a bigger grille and a higher front end. "I'm not saying they should be brash and over the top, but a strong statement is required."

If the phrase for Lincoln is something like "apparent American affluence," the word for Mercury is "contemporaneous." Perhaps the word "smart" would work, as well, as Horbury describes a Mercury as being a car that is to be targeted at someone born in the ‘50s, ‘60s or ‘70s, who might, for example, live on the 50th floor of a high-rise apartment in Chicago, someone who would have a kitchen that is decked out with the stainless steel, light wood and granite accoutrements and fixtures that would be found in the pages of Metropolis, not Country Living. "We need to reflect that lifestyle." A modern lifestyle, not one ensconced in mahogany. 

Fresh. Assuming that Mercury isn't there yet, and given that these people are driving something right now that doesn't necessarily have the waterfall grille, what are they rolling in right now, in his estimation? Maybe a Honda. Maybe a Ford. "Maybe it's a German or Italian car." He points out, "Audi has been celebrated for the extremely high quality of their interiors; you see modern materials there." He adds, "That's a good example of a company reflecting its national heritage." Once again, no coincidence: One of the Audis that helps define what that company is all about is the TT. It was designed by Freeman Thomas. Speaking to the development of that car, Thomas said, "Audi was in a situation where it was difficult to define its brand. It had a very mixed-up history, but it had some very strong cores to it that nobody knew about. At the same time I wanted to do something that never existed before, but at the same time you felt as though it was something that came out of this history but it pointed toward the future." So, he said, it was about "Coming up with a fresh name, a fresh design vocabulary, a fresh kind of vehicle, creating aspiration, and making it affordable." Thomas is not a German. He is an American. And Thomas is now director of Strategic Design at Ford, where he works with Horbury and another American with whom he helped design a quintessential German car, the Volkswagen New Beetle, J Mays (whose primary office is in London nowadays).

Tools & the Designer. When the subject of design technology comes up, Horbury, who acknowledges that Ford, like its competitors, has made significant investments in the wherewithal to deploy computer-aided styling and design, emphatically states: "Let me say one thing before we go any further: No computer ever designed anything." He goes on to say he finds it absurd to read a criticism that says "A computer designed it; it doesn't look interesting," as if there wasn't a designer behind that tool.

While some vehicle manufacturers talk about going from math to vehicles with virtual reality in between, so far as Horbury is concerned, at Ford there will be physical artifacts in between. "We use big screens to make early judgments about models, but we will continue to make models in clay, a material which is changeable, instantly, as it were." He says that they're teaching computer skills to the clay modelers so that they can deploy computer-aided milling. "They'll have an extra tool in their toolbox. They don't change jobs; they use their skill with a different set of tools. They're not scraping clay all the time."

That said, this is not to say that Ford design is being based entirely on physical models. He says that they're finding the computer models to be advantageous in a number of ways, including that of being able to determine feasibility in short order. "If there's a part of the suspension poking through the front fender on the design, you know you either have to pick up the phone and talk to the suspension engineer—kindly—or move the design. It happens instantly rather than spending weeks wishfully thinking that the ‘Suspension Fairy' is going to come in during the night and change the suspension. It's real-time design and engineering together, which I think is saving an awful lot of time. So I'm very much a fan of the digital process." He says that during the development of the Volvo S40 he and his colleagues were reviewing three digital models. They liked the front end of one model but the rest of another. So they had a swap made in a matter of minutes rather than the weeks it would have taken to create a new physical model. This is the sort of thing that he likes about digital design capability.

Still, there is more than having compute power. People matter. One of the issues that is faced at Ford—like at many organizations—is what Horbury describes as a "traditional battle between the technician and the stylist." Engineering wants one thing; Design wants another. But he acknowledges, "We can't design in a vacuum. Our relationship with those around us"—including engineers—"is absolutely critical." He says that since taking his current position they've been working on improving relationship between the two groups. "I call it ‘Come to the table, don't step into the ring.'"

Creative Clinics. Another challenge that designers face in getting what they perceive to be great products to the market is, well, the market and the marketing people. Just as many politicians make decisions based on polling data, sometimes the designs that are selected also have this least-common denominator criterion, as well. "If you design a car so as not to upset a single person, you're not going to excite anyone, either," he says, adding that too often, traditional design clinics, when people are brought in to look at models, they pick things that are less than what could be. Horbury goes on to point out that when designers go to university, they are not only trained in their physical skill, but also to be able to visualize the future, to create products that heretofore haven't existed. He says that designers are specialists in developing products and that this specialization is something that companies should do a better job of taking advantage of. "I worry that if we do something exciting and daring and show it to present-day customers, they may not get it, quite frankly. You run the risk of watering down a good idea just so that it is acceptable today. In two or three years when you launch the thing, you find that they wanted something newer."

This is not to say that he thinks that designers should work in a vacuum. Far from it. But he thinks that the traditional clinic isn't particularly useful. An alternative approach is one that they took in developing the Volvo XC90. They assembled a group of women in California with whom they would have dinner on a regular basis. During those dinners, they discussed (among other things, certainly) cars. "We gleaned a lot of information that allowed us to design that car in a specific way. It's particularly attractive to women, but it's not unattractive to men." In other words, the car was designed predicated on information about not only today, but on the future needs and interests, as well. Talking of that experience he says, "That's the sort of market research that I'm interested in."

Although it is widely acknowledged that design is key to the success of any car company, Horbury knows that it is a challenge for designers to convince the people who hold the proverbial purse strings to take a risk on a design. "I think one of the problems is that the chief suspension engineer can stand in front of the entire board and say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, X, the cornering forces, times Y, the weight of the vehicle, equals Z, the suspension.' They all nod and agree." After all, there's data. Numbers. "I can't really do that. But I have to have a convincing argument, a way of articulating form to tell them why this is far better than the other." His challenge is not only to create great designs, but to be able to gain the confidence of those in the company who can help assure that those designs become real. Given his résumé, Peter Horbury is more than up to the challenge.