Retrofuturism didn’t necessarily arrive at Ford with J. Mays. It’s more likely to have started with a man named Callum. No, the other one…
As the Ford Motor Company grew its upmarket brand portfolio during the late 1980s, it became a matter of increasing importance to ensure each marque could carve out a coherent stylistic identity, one which not only honoured tradition, but that ensured no genetic traces were misplaced or appropriated.
Complicating matters during this period was the fact that Aston Martin had been gifted an Ian Callum-penned version of Jaguar’s cancelled XJ41 two-seater, which would eventually see production in 1994 as the DB7 model. This car, (dubbed Double cross at Jaguar), while understandably lauded for its elegance of line, carried with it the knock-on effect of applying Whitley styling cues to those of Newport Pagnell, resulting in a generation of cars bearing both marque names which could be said to have distantly resembled one another. So much for coherence.
Around this time, Ford’s Italian styling studios were tasked with producing a luxury flagship for Aston’s dormant Lagonda brand. Having ceased production of the radical razor-edged William Town’s designed saloon in 1990, Ford management sought a fresh creative direction for the storied marque, with carrozzeria Ghia enlisted to create a contemporary styling theme.
Lead designer at Ghia at the time was Moray Callum, who is largely credited with the resultant Vignale concept’s body shape. First shown at the same 1993 Geneva Motor Show which saw the DB7 and Ford’s European Mondeo make their World debuts, the Lagonda Vignale concept created something of a minor sensation with its retrofuturist aesthetic and striking proportions.
Somewhat unusual at the time in harking back to the elegant streamlined styling of the 1930s, the Lagonda’s high waistline, smooth uncluttered flanks and dramatically tapered, sloping tail was about a reactionary departure both from its predecessor or indeed to contemporary styling themes of the time. So much for modernity.
Inside, the 1930s theme was continued, with Art Deco styling touches and acres of aniline leather, polished beechwood and nickel plated fittings. While very competently executed, it was however, something of a curate’s egg – a curious blend of modernism and tradition – in retrospect perhaps too uneasy an amalgam for comfort, if somewhat in the vanguard of where car styling was travelling.
There was speculation as to whether Ford would sanction the car as a sybaritic rival to Rolls Royce and it does appear that the design had a number of champions within the organisation. Ultimately, it appears that a viable business case could not be found, so apart from a single fully engineered car, believed to have been commissioned by the Sultan of Brunei, the Lagonda Vignale remained a show queen.
Nevertheless, its influence was strongly felt within the Ford organisation, especially as carrozzeria Ghia were commissioned to produce competing styling studies for a number of Jaguar model programmes then in consideration, many of which (from Ghia, Ford’s Dearborn studios, or Whitley itself) carried varying degrees of Lagonda-esque influences.
And while it is stretching credibility to suggest that it was pivotal to Jaguar’s embrace of its own stylistic past, it certainly could be said to have hardened the thinking at the time. Even more likely is its likely presence upon Jaguar stylist’s moodboards while studies for what would become the X200 S-Type of 1998 were being readied.
So when a certain J. Mays arrived at Dearborn’s Glasshouse to replace Design Veep, Jack Telnack the following year, the principle of retrofuturism could already be said to have been embedded. Moray Callum currently enjoys Mays’ role at Ford today, while brother Ian has meanwhile forged a high-profile position as architect of Jaguar’s styling reinvention – leading it away from the failed creative aesthetic his sibling’s 1993 Lagonda helped pioneer. So much for retrofuturism.