Interview: Jaguar Chief Designer Ian Callum
Few aspects of the automobile are as examined, analyzed and obsessed upon as styling. Ask most people about cars and they won’t talk about engine displacement or suspension setup; it’s the physical presence of cars that captures interest and sparks passion. For a niche luxury brand like Jaguar, which survives on the margins of major markets without the backing of a full-line automaker, the art and science of auto styling is of supreme importance. Unable to match its rivals in the technological arms race of the upper-echelon luxury segment, Jaguar’s relevance is perhaps more tied to its ability to create compelling designs than any other modern brand. Were this the only challenge facing Jaguar’s chief designer Ian Callum, his job would be one of the most interesting in the business. Thanks to Jaguar’s nearly 40-year stylistic stasis however, Callum’s tenure is nothing less than one of the most significant in the history of automotive design.
Callum’s brief begins with a deceptively simple question: what is a Jaguar? The lack of easy answers indicates the enormity of the challenge. Is the brand a last bastion of old-world throwback luxury, as evidenced by an XJ flagship which went without a significant restyle for nearly 40 years? Is it a purveyor of retro-styled, also-ran sports sedans like the recently departed S-Type? Or is it a quasi-volume, entry-luxury brand, destined to do battle with the Buicks of the world with such models as the late, unlamented X-Type? Or is Jaguar a low-volume sportscar maker, battling with Aston Martin for the hearts and minds of Anglophile speed freaks?
Ask the average consumer, and you might receive any one of those answers. Indeed, the Ford managers which guided Jaguar’s fate for nearly 20 years seem to have run with each of these visions at one time or another. Had Jaguar been blessed with a deep development budget, lending its every model with the kind of technological halo enjoyed by brands like Mercedes and Lexus, it might have gotten away with such a diffuse identity. Stylistically though, there’s little middle ground between a classic XJ (let alone its mini-me, the X-Type) and a modern XK. Creating a modern, relevant Jaguar brand had to start with a single decision.
In light of the new models introduced under Callum’s supervision, the sleek new XK, XF and XJ, the remaking of Jaguar might seem as simple as moving the brand away from a decades-long overindulgence in heritage and retro. But, explains Callum with a hint of a smile, Jaguar isn’t torn between heritage and modernity for the simple reason that they are one and the same. “Most people of the world see Jaguars as traditional looking cars,” he admits, “and the XJ was certainly part of that. But what people have forgotten is how radical that design was when it first came out. Jaguar had always made sleek, sexy sportscars, but even the Mk II owners thought it was ‘too much’ for a Jaguar sedan.”
For Callum, everything comes back to 1968 and the release of the XJ. That year a 13-year old Callum submitted his first-ever car design to Jaguar, inspired by the XJ. But where Sir William Lyons’ timeless design gave Callum an icon to strive towards, Jaguar fell victim to the XJ’s brand-eclipsing success. “The sixties was where it stopped,” says Callum of Jaguar’s Lyons-era styling heyday. “I always ask myself ‘what would Sir William have done?'”
But don’t confuse Callum’s mission to recapture the spirit of Jaguar’s golden moment with anything retro. “When Lyons was designing cars, heritage would only have referred to racing,” he explains. Jaguar is fundamentally “a sexy car company,” which meant rebirth required “throwing away the rulebook.” The only rules for designing Jaguars are proportions, he says. Purity of line and a sense of length were the only givens in designing the new XK, XF and XJ.
This open-ended opportunity to imagine where Jaguar would be if it had stayed on the cutting edge of design for the last 40 years required immense discipline. “Cars are dictated by generic dimensions,” says Callum. “Good design is about pushing the boundaries of physics and legislation, going for a milimeter every day.”
Appropriately, Callum’s first Jaguar was the XK sportscar. With echoes of Callum’s most influential design, the Aston-Martin DB7, the XK marked a distinct shift from his previous Jaguar concepts, the curvaceous R-Coupe and segment-busting R-D6. From there, a far greater challenge came in the form of the XF, Callum’s first sedan for Jaguar. “XF was a hurdle,” he admits.
“We can’t do an E class and a CLS,” he says, referring to Mercedes’ approach to luxury market segmentation. A true CLS-style four-door coupe “was too much of a package compromise, so we had to get both.” The result was a car that convincingly translated the XK’s aesthetic to the four-door format, and created a blueprint for the car that would bring Callum’s experience with Jaguar full circle: the first major restyling of the XJ since 1968.
According to Callum,the new XJ started with the profile of a mk. 1 XJ coupe (a body style he says he’d love to reimagine as a modern Jaguar). Like the original, the new XJ’s design had to be low and long, anchored by the coupe-inspired stretched side window profile. The interior would exhibit the kind of “cheekiness and indulgence” Sir William appreciated. “He might have found it too assertive or overly bold,” concedes Callum, “but you have to put it into context. You have to stand out in today’s world. It’s an agressive, assertive world.”
And in this world, Jaguar won’t be able to sit still, a reality Callum embraces with gusto. “if someone came along and said we’re going to make my XJ for the next 40 years, I’d be pissed,” he says with a grin. “We have to keep changing.” Although there is a sense that the core of Jaguar’s rebirth is complete with the new XJ, Callum can barely restrain his enthusiasm for new models that may or may not be under development. Besides mentioning his desire to create a new XJ Coupe, Callum refuses to deny that an XF wagon might be under development. He even admits that, as a trustee of the independent Jaguar Heritage Trust, he has heard- and approves of- rumblings that modernized C- and D-Type Jags might be developed outside of the Jaguar brand.
But ask Callum what car he’d most like to design, and he’ll tell you that “for purely selfish reasons,” nothing would make him happier than to design a mid-engine supercar. He’s a huge fan of Chevrolet’s Stingray concept, freely admitting that he wishes he’d designed it. Which might come as a bit of a surprise until Callum reveals himself to be an incurable American car fanatic, with a ’32 Ford and ’57 Chevy in his personal collection. During a three-hour visit to GM’s Heritage Center, Callum positively swooned over everything from Chevy Nomads to the Buick Y-Job, and it was impossible to not see parallels between GM’s attempt to reverse a decades-long malaise and Callum’s personal challenge at Jaguar. Both firms reached a zenith of style and prestige in the late sixties that overshadow everything they have accomplished since, and both are desperate to recapture that lost magic.
Whether Jaguar’s masters approve a mid-engine supercar project remains to be seen, but Callum is convinced that Jaguar “has a right” to play in the rareified air of the supercar market. “Not every company has the right to be there,” he says, “but for Jaguar it’s a natural evolution.” Having revived Jaguar’s natural evolution after 40 years in the deep freeze, Callum knows what he’s talking about. The only question left is whether the magic of the late 1960s is a portable phenomenon: something that can be reanimated outside of its specific historical moment. As Callum wanders through the relics of GM’s glorious past, you can almost see him capturing the elements of that magical period, and translating them to the modern context of plastic grilles and shared-architecture hardpoints. If these, and the thousand other mundanities which separate us from the lost glory of the late sixties can be overcome, Callum’s the guy to do it.
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