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'Father of the Mazda MX-5' working on new Geely

More to come: A prototype – thought to be the Chinese-made EC9 under test in Melbourne – will not be the last Geely on the roads of Australia if former Mazda product planner Bob Hall has his way.

China's Geely hires Bob Hall to draft new “game-changer” mass-selling model

Geely logo5 Sep 2014

By RON HAMMERTON in MONTEREY

CHINESE car-maker Geely has handed Bob Hall, the man regarded as the “father of the Mazda MX-5”, a task to come up with an all-new mass-selling vehicle to hit the spot with western markets, including Australia.

And Mr Hall, an American ex-journalist who spent several years with Mazda before heading to Australia to work for Wheels magazine, is all in favour of Australia being a test market for a new generation of Geely cars before setting out to conquer North America and Europe.

A former colleague of Mr Hall, veteran journalist Peter Robinson, broke the news of Mr Hall's new job with Geely on the Wheels website, saying the appointment had come via former Volvo and Ford chief designer Peter Horbury – now design chief for Geely in China – who has great respect for Mr Hall’s talents.

Mr Robinson quoted Mr Horbury as describing Mr Hall as Geely's “head of brainstorming”, tasked with coming up with ideas for a new product.

“It’s a potential segment buster and, like the Miata (MX-5), is a common-sense vehicle, and maybe that’s the point,” Mr Hall said about the Geely product he was working on “Unlike the Miata, it’s in a real segment too, with global volumes well in excess of six million cars. I reckon it could take 300,000 sales a year.” Mr Hall, who is in Monterey as a guest of Mazda at the global launch of the fourth-generation MX-5, told GoAuto that the Geely appointment was a dream come true.

He said he had longed for such a ground-up product planning job since leaving Mazda, and while he said he could not disclose the nature of the vehicle he was working on, it had few design constrictions from the corporate end.

“It's a blank piece of paper,” he said. “That's the coolest part.” Mr Hall is regarded as the man who came up with the plan for Mazda to reinvent the affordable rear-wheel drive sportscar, as the MX-5 in the 1980s, using traditional British ideas combined with Japanese excellence.

He said he and Mr Horbury had long wanted to work together, respecting each other’s talents in vehicle development.

British-born Mr Horbury reinvented Volvo as a well-regarded European marque, before being seconded to Ford as head of design for its premium brands.

But when Ford sold Volvo to little-known Chinese car-maker Geely, Mr Horbury was poached back to the Chinese-Swedish company with almost a blank cheque to produce products that would lift Geely from an also-ran Chinese operation to a true global automotive power.

As GoAuto has exclusively reported, some of Mr Horbury's yet-to-be-released products were spotted at Melbourne-based Premcar – the former Ford Performance Vehicles (FPV) engineering centre once owned by British outfit Prodrive – at Cambellfield on Melbourne's northern fringe.

The Geely EC9 – apparently based on the Volvo S60 platform – was believed to be at the Premcar workshops to receive Australian engineering touches ahead of its launch in China.

But Mr Hall has bigger fish to fry, telling GoAuto that the product he is working on is not Volvo-based, but a ground-up, true western-standard vehicle from Geely for global consumption.

He said he would be working from the United States, where he has been living since he gave up a stint with Malaysian car-maker Proton after leaving Wheels.

The Wheels article suggested Mr Hall would like to set up a fully fledged Geely design studio in the US, in the same way that Japanese and South Korean manufacturers have done, mainly in California.

It was in California that Mr Hall suggested to Mazda the idea of a “bugs in the teeth” sportscar revival, resulting in the launch of the original MX-5 in 1989. Since then, Mazda has sold more than 940,000 MX-5s, making the rear-drive roadster the best-selling open-top sportscar to date.

Geely has long been a contender for the Australian market, so far only operating in a toe-in-the-water capacity in Western Australia where importer Chinese Automotive Distributors – owned by West Australian car dealer John Hughes – has sold models such as the CK and MK light cars as a learning exercise.

The company is awaiting western-standard models with Volvo levels of safety and build quality before launching full-scale in the eastern states.

As a resident for several years, Mr Hall is well aware of the historical importance of Australia as a test-bed for Asian manufacturers, first those from Japan and then South Korea.

The theory is that the car-makers can test styling, technology and build quality in a western market with similar tastes to North America without the financial consequences of any mistakes.

Mr Hall said he had had talks about such matters with Mr Horbury at Geely, but declined to say anything further on the subject.

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