Volvo V70 R AWD (P2) | The Brave Pill

One old friend helps us say goodbye to another

By Mike Duff / Sunday, 9 July 2023 / Loading comments

The sudden death of Peter Horbury on a business trip to China last week came as a huge shock to all of us at PH. Rather than add to the growing pile of obituaries for one of the UK’s most successful car designers, we decided to celebrate his life with an example of what was probably his most famous model. Certainly the one that did most to transform the brand that built it: the ‘P2’ second-generation Volvo V70. 

On a personal level, I’m going to miss Peter hugely. He was one of the motor industry’s biggest beasts, but he was also a friend. Apologies for any line blurring between man and machines here. I’ll try not to get mushy.

Horbury had numerous employers throughout his long career, the list including Chrysler, Ford, Geely and latterly Lotus – with freelance roles for many others. He very nearly took what would have been the biggest job in car design, having been offered (and accepting) the role of GM’s overall design boss in 2003, before Bill Ford Jr. personally persuaded him to stay at Ford. 

But it was at Volvo that he will be best remembered, after three separate stints at the company. The first was as a lowly contractor, joining in 1979 to be paid by the hour to work on interiors. At the time design had such a low priority the whole department was an offshoot of engineering, the tiny team of stylists working to – as Horbury remembered it – “make their ideas look a bit less ugly.” 

That had changed by 1991 when he re-joined Volvo as the company’s head of design. He led what was little short of a revolution, Volvo moving beyond the straight lines and boxy forms that had defined it for the previous two decades. The S40 and V40 began the transition – Horbury’s team cleverly hiding the amount they shared with the Mitsubishi Carisma – but it was the S80 in 1998 that really started the revolution. It was the first Volvo to have curves since the P1800 had died, a transformation so radical that Horbury received hate mail from traditionalists. It was the S80’s estate sister, the second-gen V70 sharing the new P2 platform, that really marked the change of the epoch. Horbury later described it as being inspired by the Jaguar E-Type at the front and a Transit van at the rear. He was joking, but only a little. 

The V70 radically changed Volvo’s image and ownership profile. The previous 850 R had proved that utility could combine with performance, but the new car added more power and attracted younger buyers as Volvo added more performance. The T5 engine option was respectably potent at launch, with 247hp through the front wheels. But the V70 R that arrived in 2004 was upgraded to 296hp and standard all-wheel drive, with other features including the pioneering use of electronically controlled dampers. Volvo claimed a 5.9-sec 0-62mph time and an electronically limited 155mph top speed. 

Bringing us to this week’s Pill. With the pool of period-appropriate V70 Rs being limited in the classifieds, we’ve opted to increase the braveness by selecting a very smart-looking example freshly imported from Japan. It hasn’t been registered yet, or certainly hadn’t been when the pictures were taken, but the dealer in East Sussex selling it promises that it will come with both freshly applied numberplates and a shiny new MOT.

Having spent its life in Japan will bring some benefits. Most obvious is the fact it won’t have been exposed to salted roads in the winter, but also the need to have been well maintained for the notoriously tough Shaken tests. The dealer says it has covered 89,000 miles, which is on the high side for an ex-Japanese car, but still qualifies as being barely run in by P2 V70 standards. Conversely it is possible the odo is still reading in kilometres and it has travelled a mere 55,000 miles. It certainly seems immaculate in the images.

But there are also some risks. As an import, it will almost certainly be a very limited ownership history, with the likelihood that any which has made the journey will be in Japanese. It is also boasting what looks to be an aftermarket Japanese head unit in the dashboard, one which will need to be replaced to listen to British radio. Then there is also the risk of less obvious non-standardness. I’ve no reason to doubt the advert’s claim that parts and servicing will be identical to a UK example, although I do know people who have imported Mercs from Japan and found perplexing detail differences including revised emissions control systems and irksome 112mph speed limiters. Forewarned is forearmed.

Coincidentally the last T5-engined Volvo to feature here was also a Japanese import, that being a first-gen V70 R that had covered than 155,000 miles before arriving here. Despite being older, leggier and a fair bit shabbier that one was being offered for a not-outrageous £7,450, making the £8,990 this one is wearing look very fair if the reality is as good as the pictures.

Okay, so the chronology doesn’t quite add up. Horbury had left Volvo by the time the V70 R AWD was introduced. By the time our Pill was built in 2005 he was leading Ford’s American design, a role that brought more challenges than manifesto pieces. One of his jobs was leading the transformation of the final Ford Taurus to become the Five Hundred, a task he later described as being asked to redesign both ends of the Sydney Harbour Bridge while leaving the middle unchanged. His career would take him to bigger and better roles: another stint at Volvo followed by a promotion to Geely’s head of design, managing a team of more than 400. Even at the age of 72 he was still working hard as Lotus’s global design boss; several of his projects will arrive posthumously.

But despite the importance of his roles, Peter was never dull or corporate. He was certainly never afraid to express an opinion, or to tell a joke – many against himself. He had a self-deprecating sense of humour that is vanishingly rare in his vainglorious profession, once saying that most of his success was down to his knack for hiding the visual mass of front-driven cars. In truth, it was far more than that. He was enormously proud of both his work and the many, many colleagues he inspired.

So long, Peter. Thanks for all the cars – but especially the Volvos.

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