By on January 4, 2010

Callum, center, at the GM Heritage Center (copyright: TTAC)

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?

callum3Ask 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?'”callum4

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.

Callum's first Jag: The XK“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.Jaguar XJ (TTAC/Alex Dykes)

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.

Jaguar XJ (TTAC/Alex Dykes)

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23 Comments on “Interview: Jaguar Chief Designer Ian Callum...”

  • avatar
    Brian E

    Fantastic stuff! Every time I see the new XJ in pictures I’m overcome by the beauty of it. I can’t wait to see what it looks like in person. And unlike most other luxury competitors it’s just as beautiful on the inside. I can’t remember the last time I saw an interior that rich in a car in this segment. It makes the 7er, S-class, and A8 look like they were designed with cookie cutters.
    All the best to Ian as he takes on the next few Jaguar designs.

  • avatar

    I have always thought British design has been beautiful for years.  Land Rovers, Jag’s, Lotus, etc.   Sometimes as a BMW fan I wish secretly wish they had BMW drive train and driving engineering mated to British aesthetics

  • avatar

    an interview usually involves Q&A from the subject.  this reads more like a bit of a feature with some quotes.

    it’s perhaps an over-asked question, but you make no mention of the controversial C-pillar blackout treatment on the XJ either.   the rest of the car looks fine, but the C-pillar manages to Renault-ize the look in a bad way.

    I would also argue that while not (at this point) able to point to HEVs and lots of fancy powertrain choices, Jag has been in the forefront of Aluminum vehicle architecture for a number of years and with Land Rover has been first to market (AFAIK) with dual-view nav/infotainment screens and full-glass clusters on the XJ and Ranger Rover.

  • avatar

    I know this article is about design but man, they’ve gotta do something about reliability!

  • avatar

    Vision without resources is hallucination.

  • avatar

    Jaguar is fundamentally “a sexy car company,”
    I saw a new XJ on the road last week. While I’d call the XK “Taylor Swift” sexy (cute with beautiful lines) and the XF is “Beyonce” sexy (elegant and athletic), I’d only rate the XJ as “Cher” sexy (a hodgepodge of different pieces that is unlikely to attract a younger audience).

  • avatar


    I’m with you, I still hate that blacked out C/D pillar. I might not have a “designer’s eye” but it just doesn’t work for me. It visually breaks up the beautiful flow of the metal from the roofline to the fender with a big chunk of tacky looking black plastic.  I could understand it if the glass itself wrapped around, but to use a piece of black plastic filler to try to achieve that effect is simply disturbing.

    Also, to my non-designer eye, the front and rear of the car, while each appealing in their own way, look like they belong on two different cars. The grill has lots of detailing and chrome “jewelry”, while the rear is extremely stark, devoid of any detail and chrome. It’s like they had two different design proposals and used the front from one and the rear from another.

  • avatar

    What is a Jaguar? The William Lyons formula was “Grace, Pace, Space”. With other words an elegant, roomy and comfortable car with sporting performance.

  • avatar

    I love the XF. The new XJ, well, I need to see one in the flesh to confirm my fear and loathing.

  • avatar

    I know this article is about design but man, they’ve gotta do something about reliability!
    Ya afterall u not buying a Ming Vase, can sit beautifully on your living room, every few years its going to appreciate.  After ponying up so much money u want something u can turn the ignition key and hear her purr.
    Circa late 70’s they did a survey of Jag owners. Is totally hillarious, it could supply very useful material to the sequel of ” Those crazy men in their Magnificient driving machine”
    One car caught fire right across the Dealership, as the power steering pump hose burst cause oil hit the hot exhaust manifold!
    One owner was asked about how to deal with un-reliability issues, he said owning multiple jags would solve the problems.
    Their desings were totally out of this world , whether it was 40yrs ago or even now.

  • avatar

    I’m really dissapointed. These are the first close ups of the rear I have seen, and those blacked out C-pillars are simply awful. Blacked out anything is such a cheap bag of tricks, it’s utterly demeaning. Imagine the dis-colorisation of sun-shaded black plastic, in ten fifteen years it will look awful. That Callum would have fallen for such a cheap trick is not only disappointing, it’s counter-intuitive to everything he said in the interview. What he says and what he does is to different things.

  • avatar

    Wow, if I had the money … the side is so beautiful I didn’t even notice the C-pillar!  Love the stubby front end and the long flowing, almost smeared, roofline to the back is seductive … front, by the photos, seems boring, and the back reminds of, also boring, Lancia (but better executed by bringing them up over the rr fenders.)

  • avatar
    John Horner

    Where did this interview take place? The photos look like they are from an auto show. Enquiring minds want to know :).

  • avatar

    Saw the XJ at its introduction at Pebble Beach and the car is so much better in person than pictures can convey. Although the XJ does bear a resemblance to the Citroen C6 (especially the rear view)  Callum has done a good job transitioning the Jaguar style into the 21st Century. The interior is strikingly beautiful perhaps one of the best we have seen on  a production car in a long while. Here are few pictures :

  • avatar

    This post has a side view of the car :

  • avatar

    Ed, great write up, i met the man a couple of weeks back and had a similar conversation with him… I think what he is doing to Jaguar is great.
    About the XJ, if you take it in its own context away from the XF, it’s a good looking car, with a properly aristocratic rear look. the blacked out pillar is my only questionable point, and i did put that Across Ian, and he shyly admitted that on some colors it might do without the black inserts…and i suspect that design bit will be altered within the first year or two of commercialization…

    • 0 avatar

      If I am to be totally honest, from the pictures I had seen before, I really thought there was a peculiar window insert in the C-pillar. Knowing up close that those are blacked are almost making me cringe. It’s style over substance. It’s not even style. It’s looking good from afar, without looking good up close. It’s like a beautiful broad who put a ton of pancake to hide all the blemishes. Jaguars are supposed to be sexy in a tactile sense, they are supposed to be grabbed and felt up. I feel cheated. What’s more intriguing, is that the C-pillar in no way have to be covered up. It makes a beautful and muscular strong arc on its own, it could do better without that blacked out trim. Actually, I haven’t felt this cheated since the Ferrari California and its quad stacked tailpipes.

  • avatar

    There is so much about the car that Im totally at odds with.

    The dash and hidden panels are gimmicky.
    The sheer fact that he wanted to design a “Like the original, the new XJ’s design had to be low and long, anchored by the coupe-inspired stretched side window profile.” Somehow.. I dont look at this car and think LOW and LONG. I look at a Vigor or Legend.. and think low and long. Heck, compare the XJ from 10yrs ago against this.. and its a whole diff picture.

    Largest load of crap Ive heard yet, “A true CLS-style four-door coupe “was too much of a package compromise, so we had to get both”.
    The CLS… is derivative., ntm just another way to seperate a Benz buyer from their money.. and for 80g.. MBUSA will gladly seperate you from 80g for a restyled E-class.
    There is no true CLS style!
    If the Panamera can be produced for the sheer sake of making money off of a trend i.e  CLS… then he could have done it.

    I do find it interesting.. (I dont have it on authority) that i dont see a rear hatch on this car.. like I do on the Aston Martin Rapide.

  • avatar
    Mark MacInnis

    Jags day is over.   Cars are utilitarian appliances now.   As Roland Deschain would say, “The world has moved on.”   I doubt Jaguar will ever be relevant again…..

  • avatar

    The previous XJ stood out because it was one of the last cars that had some delicacy of line along with a low height so that sensibly sized wheels filled out the arches and the body appeared to tautly drape over the mechanicals.  This new XJ has none of that athleticism, it looks like all the other chunky, broad shouldered, GS300 style  sedans and adds a fussy C-pillar and gimmicky rear end.  Maybe I”ll eat my words when I see it in person.  I think the old XJ was so out of fashion it was about to come back in, I certainly enjoyed seeing one more than its overwrought German and Japanese competition.

  • avatar
    blue adidas

    Jags are beautiful. The XJ, not so much. I hope this is not an indication of the new owners.

  • avatar

    It looks like they realized the night before the show that the car had no interior center air vents and stuck on some frightful frog eyes in desperation.
    What is a Jaguar? Another unloved luxury brand that has gotten passed around like a red-headed foster child? Why? Because luxury = electronic gadgets = No-Can-Do for non-Japanese companies.

  • avatar

    Uh, “incureable”? Methinks that has at least one ‘e’ too much — and I don’t mean “incureabl”.
    Vich von you guz iz vich, again — if zis vas Der Alte, I take it back, but I suspect Ed is the Ed, sozuspieken…

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