BARCELONA: Revving up the 'Revolvolution'

Volvo updates its utilitarian image and learns that wagons can be sporty

As chief designer of Volvo cars, Peter Horbury has a delicate task. He must inject some excitement into a brand that was widely viewed as boring and stodgy - without jeopardizing Volvo's reputation for safety. Horbury explains his 'Revolvolution' to International Editor Chris Wright at the automaker's new design studio in Barcelona, Spain.

In the past few years, Volvo design has changed dramatically from a boring, boxy shape into a more sporty style, even for the wagons. Did you just throw the design book out and go for something new?

Far from it. We decided that there were two guiding factors at Volvo that we should use in the future. The first one is that we are a Swedish company, and this should remain so and be obvious. Second, Volvo has a heritage. In other words, we were going to change an image without losing an identity.

Volvo sells cars in almost every market in the world. How do you design them to suit all tastes?

The problem with trying to satisfy every international taste is that you tend to end up with something that upsets no one but does not excite anyone either.

So, what else can you offer customers so they can show off to the neighbors?

We decided we had to remind them every day why Volvo is special. In the past, when our engineers developed safe cars, they did not know when to stop. By adding material you add weight.

We have to be able to afford to drive the car, so fuel consumption is important. Therefore, a Volvo must also be light. That's where the cleverness is - in the structure.

Apart from safety and environment, what else reflects the Swedishness of your cars?

Uniqueness is a cornerstone of Swedish design in general. If you are not following fashion, you can't go out of fashion. You can create a sort of timelessness - another characteristic that is seen in Swedish furniture.

Swedish furniture is based on simple, clean lines, which makes it difficult to date. Some of the most modern-looking chairs in the world that you can buy today in exclusive furniture stores were in fact designed in the 1920s.

Functionality and practicality are other words associated with Swedish products.

Functionality is the cornerstone of our wagons. Look at the V70. The cargo box is straight and boxy compared with competitors such as Audi, BMW or Mercedes. They start with a curved, angled side glass growing out to a wide point. All of this cuts down the usable interior space. The Audi and BMW look sporty with their curved rear doors. Ours is vertical, so you can get more in the back.

Volvo interiors are also functional. We make sure that when you are in a Volvo, you know it's a Volvo, and you know where all the controls are.

With each evolution, we try to reduce the number of buttons and controls despite the increase in electronic equipment.

Are there any other aspects of Swedish design that you use?

Light. For six months of the year, daylight is a precious commodity in Sweden. When we have it, we tend to capture it and reflect it. When you look inside a Swedish interior, you notice just how light it is. Daylight is captured and reflected among light woods and the light fabrics used inside.

You call this a Revolvolution. What about Volvo's own heritage? Where does that fit into your designs today?

In every Volvo since 1927, the car is based on one line running right through it from front to back. It runs in a positive arc right through the car from front lamp to rear lamp.

On top of that there are now usually three side windows and surrounding that a vertical surface, which we call the Volvo Bridge. That is the essence of every Volvo. It's a convex line creating visual tension in all our cars.

If you look at the front of our new cars, we have reintroduced a strong V-shape. It first saw the light of day in older Volvos - the PV and the Amazon. Similarly, the Volvo grille has always been vertical.

When we introduced the 850, people said to me, 'I can see it's a Volvo, but I don't know why.' It's not a matter of being retro because then you repeat yourself. What we are trying to do is create an almost subconscious recognition of our product.

Volvo has become famous for its station wagons. There can be little design flexibility in producing a new one.

Being asked to design a new Volvo wagon is like being asked to look after Sweden's crown jewels.

We were faced with the task of matching the front of a Ferrari with the back of a Ford Transit - in spirit, that is.

The angle of the front pillars and the side windows creates a dynamic sporty look.

Look along the side, and you will see that the angle of the side windows pivot outward. When you reach the load space, the side windows are almost vertical. That preserves the good, efficient box qualities in a true Volvo wagon.

Here is another important rule: The third side window has to be longer than the second, to emphasize the load space.

Does safety still define Volvo's image?

Safety is number one at Volvo.

Unfortunately for us, the only time people remember why they paid extra for a Volvo is when they had the worst experience of their life - a near-fatal crash. But 99 percent of the time, it all remains hidden. It's nice to know it's there, but you can't show it off to the neighbors.

How does the Barcelona studio fit into Premier Automotive Group?

Barcelona is a Volvo facility. But if a Jaguar designer wanted to come here for a few months, there is no problem with that. The same can be said if one of our designers wanted to make use of one of the other group facilities.

You have design centers in California and Spain. What will they contribute?

While it is important to create this Swedish image, you can't sit in an ivory tower in Gothenburg and think you know what's happening around the world.

We have had our California studio since 1986, and it has served us well. California is the place to study trends. This is where they start.

If there were a southern European equivalent of Los Angeles, it is Barcelona, the creative capital of the region. This is why we, Renault, VW and Audi have design studios here.

Things happen in Barcelona that spread around Europe. It also gives us the opportunity to study smaller vehicles and the environment they operate in.

It is much more difficult to drive a V70 around Barcelona than it is Los Angeles. And if you want to take a look at the competition, you can just stand on the balcony and look down.

E-mail International Editor Chris Wright at automotiveinternational@compuserve.com

You can reach Richard Feast at autonews@crain.com

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