GOTHENBURG, Sweden -- The Briton who smoothed out Volvo's boxy lines is aiming to give China's Geely global appeal by ditching its utilitarian image.
Peter Horbury is central to efforts by Volvo sister brand Geely -- long seen as a cheap, no-frills brand in China and unknown in the West -- to push upmarket and go international by tapping European design and technology.
Zhejiang Geely Holding's purchase of Volvo from Ford in 2010 has helped Geely quickly gain decades of r&d expertise. Meanwhile, the tie-up has enabled the Swedish automaker to sell more vehicles in China than anywhere else and will result in a common platform for Volvo and Geely compacts.
But Geely has a long way to go in a sector suffering from overcapacity and stiff competition. To get there Horbury, who has headed design at Volvo, Jaguar, Aston Martin and Ford's premium Lincoln brand in the past, says Geely should play up their roots.
"I'm not suggesting we'll do cars with pagoda roofs, but all new cars have a little signature somewhere that's Chinese," Horbury, Geely's chief designer since 2011, told Reuters at the Swedish design studio where he spends three weeks a month.
That means dashboard curves which he compares with a famous Chinese bridge in Hangzhou where Geely has its headquarters.
"Here at a Chinese company, I think there is something special to sell, and if you just become anonymous, that's what you remain," said Horbury, 66, who spends a week each month in Shanghai.
Volvo and Geely each sold about half a million cars last year while world leaders Toyota, Volkswagen Group and General Motors sold about 10 million each.
In China, Volkswagen tops sales charts for all vehicles compiled by LMC Automotive, with the biggest homegrown manufacturer Changang in fifth place and Geely in 14th.
Geely cars cost from 38,900 Chinese yuan ($6,000) to 249,800 for an electric vehicle. Its new GC9 flagship sedan, which Horbury worked on, starts at about 120,000 yuan.
Unlike neighbors Japan and South Korea, which are among the five top car exporting countries in the world, China is not even in the top 20, the World's Top Exports website shows. It exported fewer than half a million passenger vehicles in 2015, according to data from the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers.
At the heart of Geely's ambition to break into European and U.S. markets is the China Euro Vehicle Technology (CEVT) development hub, created by Geely in 2013 in Sweden to build the platform which will be used in new Volvo and Geely small car models.
On Wednesday, Volvo is set to unveil two new concept cars -- the first to use the common platform.
Sources have told Reuters Geely will launch a new brand next year, code-named L, with cars based on the platform.
"Not even during my time at GM did I experience a more aggressive growth plan," said auto industry veteran Mats Fagerhag, who heads CEVT, a tech center in Gothenburg with a staff of 1,700 in which Geely is investing several hundred million dollars a year.
Fagerhag said local production in Europe could be a future step, to enable Geely, which also owns the company that makes London's trademark black cabs, to get a complete range of brands the same way Volkswagen has.
Horbury declined to comment on brands.
After initial skepticism over whether Geely could make the most of European technology, it has proved to be a keen investor and collaborator. The joint development between the Swedes and Chinese appears to be paying off when looking at the numbers.
Volvo saw earnings triple last year thanks in large part to demand in China, now its largest market.
"We went from zero to three factories, to 5,000 people, 200 dealers," Volvo CEO Hakan Samuelsson told Reuters.
Record sales are predicted this year as Volvo uses models such as the new XC90 and S90 to push harder into a premium sector dominated by German heavyweights such as Mercedes-Benz and BMW.
Geely, which means auspicious in Mandarin, came through China's auto market slowdown with sales up 22 percent last year compared with 4.7 percent for the market overall.
"Both can learn from each other -- the knowledge that we have that is in the bricks here of how to engineer a car the way Volvo has ... the way we approach design from a more human point of view perhaps, and the fact that the Chinese come with a spirit of 'Let's get it done,' " Horbury said.
The designer, who started with a staff of six in a "borrowed room" at Geely, now leads 350 designers in Gothenburg, Shanghai, Barcelona and California.
Geely Chairman Li Shufu, who founded the group in 1986 as a refrigerator partsmaker with a loan from his father, sometimes visits the Swedish studio -- an old shipbuilding warehouse.
Horbury said Li's approach was very different from that of his American or European bosses, combining entrepreneurship with art and poetry. One time, Li brought a stack of books to the studio littered with Post-it notes.
"One was on geology -- rock formations -- one was on Chinese landscape, one was on Chinese architecture, and fashion," Horbury said. "Just examples that he felt would inspire the designers for the next Geely."