I know you got Soul: how Peter Schreyer made Kia cool

Open gallery Close News by Steve Cropley 9 mins read 10 May 2022 Follow @StvCr Share

In an admiring and intimate book called Roots and Wings, published last year to honour the work and life of distinguished German designer Peter Schreyer, two succinct sentences in the foreword shine out.

They’re written by Euisun Chung, executive chairman of the Hyundai Motor Group, about his “dear colleague and friend” Schreyer, who he had met 15 years earlier.

“Peter showed everything a designer can do in our journey together,” writes Chung. “His arrival marked the beginning of the Hyundai Motor Group’s change.”

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Words as generous as these are rare from a car magnate to an employee, but they reveal succinctly why Schreyer is the perfect choice for this year’s Autocar Lifetime Achievement Award.

Few people have the determination and ability to change the course of a massive car conglomerate for the better – especially when accepting that the task entails ditching a thriving career at the age of 53 to embrace a completely different corporate culture on another side of the world.

But Schreyer did just this in 2006 when he accepted the position as the chief design officer at Kia and started work on the exciting challenge Chung had laid down the previous year: to change Kia’s car line-up from decent but styleless models into modern, attractive, well-designed machines capable of challenging the best in their classes. And taking the brand upmarket.

To say Schreyer has succeeded in his mission is quite an understatement: Kia’s global sales rocketed from 1.6 million to three million between 2009 and 2016, and much of that upward thrust was attributed to the rapidly elevated design appeal of Schreyer-era models. Even the designer himself, mild-mannered and modest to a fault, admits that the way customers responded to the new models was amazing.

“Those cars weren’t fancy,” he says. “They were just good.”

Schreyer remembers exactly where he was – in Austria on the road to Switzerland to give a presentation – when his car phone rang and a German-speaking Kia colleague asked, entirely out of the blue, if he fancied ‘a conversation’. The subject matter wasn’t specific, but it was clear the approach was serious.

At the time, Schreyer was head of the Volkswagen Group’s Potsdam studio, from which vantage point he could see all of the group’s near- and farterm products. Before that, he had taken charge of a series of big design assignments, the Volkswagen Golf Mk4 and new Volkswagen Beetle, plus the Audi A3, Audi A2 and Audi TT, among them.

It soon emerged that this offer came directly from Chung, Kia’s boss at the time, and that he had wanted to talk to only one person. Schreyer had been singled out for his experience and for his quietly decisive way of working.


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“From the beginning, I was tempted,” he recalls. “I was 53. I could either settle down at VW or do something completely different. I didn’t know much about Kia’s cars, and being German I was pretty arrogant that we were the people who could do the best ones. But I liked the Kia name – it seemed clean and clear – and I had also recently noticed the first Sorento, which looked pretty good. It made me wonder who was behind it.”

After a few meetings in Germany, Schreyer was invited to Korea to meet Chung, and he was subsequently offered the design chief’s job. He accepted “quite quickly” and set about building a bond of trust that both men agree has turned into something special in the intervening years. No formal design brief was ever laid down – beyond a clear wish on Chung’s part to give Kia design a much higher priority.

“We were making good cars,” says Schreyer, “but Kia was a neutral brand. Nothing was actually wrong with what we made, but the cars just weren’t outstanding. Chung wanted that turned upside down and for us to put emphasis on design. The question was how we should do it.”

Early on, Schreyer came up with a design philosophy he called ‘the simplicity of the straight line’, which was in effect a determination to stress clarity, simplicity and good proportions in the Kia cars of the future.

Chung approved and signed up to it. He became an important supporter as Schreyer needed to challenge old styles and practices.

A schedule of priorities already existed in the cycle plan: the Kia Soul was almost finished (though arguments persisted for a while over the use of the name) and the K7 saloon was also well along the pipeline. Schreyer’s contribution was what he calls “refinement”, the kind of finessing he learned with a host of other ‘supergroup’ Audi and VW designers under the tutelage of hugely influential design chief Hartmut Warkuss.

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