Meet the man who left Land Rover to design Chinese SUVs
“Emergent car brand nabs top Western talent” – nothing fresh in that headline these days.
Being alerted to a top engineer or designer from a major, usually European, brand having relocated to a new life in South Korea or China, hardly seems newsworthy.
Unless it’s a very big fish. Last September’s announcement about Phil Simmons being recruited by Great Wall to direct its Haval and Wey sports utility brand lines caused quite a stir.
This English stylist has massive international standing through his work with Land Rover, most recently overseeing latest Range Rover design.
The current Range Rover and Range Rover Sport, the 2017 Range Rover Velar, the pre-and post-facelift Range Rover Evoque; Land Rover’s Discovery and Discovery Sport. All bear his touch. As does the next-generation Defender.
Such a great contribution, such a great future… assuredly, he could have enjoyed a cushy run to retirement with a marque he still holds huge fondness for.
But that’s all behind him. Since September Simmons has been running the Haval/Wey design, shuttling between the main studio in the grimy north China city of Baoding, where he lives, and another in more cosmopolitan Shanghai.
Because? Nothing like a clean sheet. Also, China’s largest manufacturer of crossovers and SUVs and Haval, elevated to primary brand status in 2013, “clearly values design”.
” Since September Simmons has been running the Haval/Wey design”
On that note, Haval’s immediate design path has been surely cemented under Pierre Leclerc, a Belgian who before leaving to join Kia – creating the vacancy Simmons filled – signed off current and next generation product we’ll see in 2021?
That’s true, says Simmons. Yet this industry veteran with more than 30 years of experience in automotive design assures there’s plenty of work remaining.
In that light, he is leading by example. Week one in this job was dedicated to forming the team that produced an all-new Haval concept just show at the Auto Shanghai motor show.
The 5G auto driving tech-loaded Vision 2025 large five-seater, he assures, presents accurate insight into Haval’s direction.
“It’s our first opportunity to show the world what we plan to do with the brand. We have an exceptionally strong DNA already… we want to take that and evolve it to the next generation.”
We sat down with this highly energised veteran at the show to discuss why he thinks China has become the automotive world’s new powerbroker.
What design elements of the Vision 2025 can we expect to see on future Haval production cars?
Insomuch as giving a clue as to what you can expect, it gives a pretty clear indication. Certainly, we don’t set out with an intention to show what we could do and then do something different. It is a statement of intent.
Can you explain how design opportunity at Haval differs from that at Land Rover?
The approach at Land Rover is very rigorous and there is a very careful methodology to the whole process. It works well internationally [yet] it is refreshing to be here and around a very different, more expressive DNA.
General Motor’s recently retired head of design suggested China is a hotbed of exciting car design talent. Is that your impression?
Yes. I think we will probably look back in 10 years and wonder why we had any doubt China wasn’t going to be right at the top. We have an international team, but certainly the Chinese element of is a major asset for us. They are a very young team, but are so keen, so enthusiastic. They learn very quickly and this will be a real advantage going forward.
How much design continuity is there between Haval and your upmarket brand, Wey?
The two brands are deliberately kept separate. They have their own design studios. There’s no common design team. There’s actually a little bit of competition between them.
Would you like to see Wey ultimately enter right-hand drive markets, as China’s rival to Lexus and German brands?
Yes, I think Haval and Wey need to internationalise. Going right-hand drive is the right way to go. I don’t have the final say on that decision but I’ve certainly put my thoughts across.
The scope for car design is quite limited overall – they always need a grille, headlights and wheels in more or less the same places. Do you ever have trouble drawing a clean sheet design?
I know what you’re saying. There is a phase in the process where designers get benefit from being just a bit naïve about the process and what can’t be done. Yet, it never ceases to amaze me how, when you apply creativity to this process, you always come up with a fresh answer.
Do you have an uphill battle against international preconception about Chinese vehicles?
I don’t feel daunted in the least. We have a strong identity which is very much our own. It’s been developed without the intense reference to other brands that you might see elsewhere in China. Here there is an intent, from the highest level, to compete at equal level with all brands around the world.
You’ve spoken about Haval’s intention to have autonomous cars operating in China by 2023; what further insight can you provide about that?
We’re not alone, by any means, in progressing autonomous driving levels. Level 4 [in which no driver effort is required for safety] is a company goal by 2023. I’m really not an expert, but to me it’s just astonishing how capable these systems are becoming. When you see how safety systems are also improved by autonomy, I think it can only be a good thing.
HAVAL is a specialist manufacturer of premium SUVs and is the No.1 SUV brand in the world’s largest automotive market and has been for the past 15 years. In 2017 Brand Finance valued HAVAL as the “world’s most powerful SUV brand” ahead of Jeep and Land Rover. With over 4 million customers, last year HAVAL was the world’s 10th largest SUV manufacturer outselling Mercedes, BMW and Mitsubishi SUVs. Our success is due to a combination of commitment, passion and listening to our customers. We utilise the best features, safety and technologies from around the globe to produce world class SUVs.
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