The Riffs of Goodbye

As Jaguar’s Wayne Burgess hefts his amp and packs his guitar case, we ask, is his departure part of a broader trend?

Wayne Burgess

Something is afoot within the European motor industry and in particular, amidst the more creative end of the spectrum. What began as a slow drip is becoming a steady flow as more and more senior design staff depart from secure, well remunerated positions at established carmakers in favour of (for the most part), Chinese upstarts or indeed, start-ups.

Two years ago, it was former BMW and MINI design chief, Anders Warming, who for a comparatively short period re-emerged to head Beiqi Foton’s Borgward studios in Stuttgart. Another former BMW talent, BMW-i’s Benoît Jacob since migrated to Byton, former Bentley designer, David Hilton now heads GAC Motor, while Mazda’s Kevin Rice is now Global design head at Chery.

More recently, it was Rolls Royce design chief, Giles Taylor’s turn, departing the well-appointed office he occupied at Goodwood for China’s FAW-Hongqi, following his former (and possibly more talented) report, Andreas Thurner (Karma), former Audi head, Wolfgang Egger (BYD) and Phil Simmons (formerly Land Rover, now Great Wall).

And just last week, former Jaguar Chief Designer and Production Studio Director accepted a role heading Geely Motors new Coventry-based design studio. The new Head of Design and Vice President of Geely Design UK will hold responsibility across all Geely Motor brands, which include brand-Geely, Lynk & Co, Proton Cars, Lotus Cars and the London Electric Vehicle Company (LEVC), who make the capital’s emblematic black taxicabs. In this new role, Burgess will report to Geely Executive Vice-President for Design, Peter Horbury (another notable European industry defector).

A rejected 1997 WB render for the x400 programme, which sired the ‘much-loved’ X-Type (c) Instagram

A graduate of Coventry University, Wayne Burgess began his design career in 1992 at LTI Carbodies, the forerunner of Geely’s LEVC brand, before a stint at Omni Design International, a UK design consultancy, working with clients such as Rolls Royce (Seraph/Arnage) and Rover Group (200 and Discovery facelifts). In 1997, he accepted an offer from Geoff Lawson at Jaguar and two years later, Ian Callum seconded him to join Aston Martin, where he became deeply involved with the design of the DB9 and Vantage models.

Burgess remained at Whitley some twenty years, telling journalists that he intended to end his career at Jaguar having, he hoped, contributed to its success and profitability. So has Mr. Burgess sniffed the prevailing winds from Gaydon and elected to get out while the going was good, or are there other reasons why he and others like him are seeking a life outside the European mainstream?

Say what you will about brand-Jaguar’s latterday stylistic output, but it remains one of the better regarded design gigs out there. So is it simply the ‘cold calculus of money’? Certainly for someone of Mr. Burgess’ career arc, his earning potential had perhaps plateaued at JLR – especially given their current financial situation. But as motivation, money only takes one so far.

Prestige? Well, that’s a bit of a double edged sword. He’s leaving a highly-regarded role for a more nebulous, if more responsible one – albeit with a business which is clearly going places. So maybe it’s a bit of both – after all, successful car designers are not without ego and while it does seem that Mr. Callum runs a fairly happy ship (staff turnover is not notable), he doesn’t appear to be showing signs of departure any time soon. Bad news perhaps for a man with ambition. Julian Thomson (Jaguar’s Advanced Design studio head) appears more of a shoe-in for that role anyway.

Kerrang! Mr. Burgess at his evening job. (c) supercompressor

A further bonus for Mr Burgess appears to be the fact that (unlike a lot of his contemporaries), he will not have to relocate, which might suggest that the UK’s West Midlands suits his temperament. Moreover, it also allows him to continue with his side-project, as guitarist with metal outfit, Scattering Ashes – an endeavour which would have proven a good deal more challenging from say, Beijing.

Intriguingly, both Burgess and Anders Warming are enthusiastic musicians, both of whom maintain a deep-rooted passion for the electric guitar – in the former’s case the emblematic Fender Stratocaster. Mind you, it would appear that given recent reversals in Stuttgart, Mr. Warming currently may have a bit more time on his hands to practice his chord progressions.

So are we witnessing the beginning of a wholesale brain-drain from the established manufacturers, or is it simply (as some uncharitable commentators suggest) the actions of second-division talents who realise the limits to their ambitions? While it’s both tempting and maybe even reassuring to view it that way, it’s also one I might suggest that’s more than a little simplistic.

Because if indeed we are witnessing a mass-defection, what might it mean for the motor industry as we know it? China means business and with these appointments they are gaining vast experience and practical intelligence which will be used to successfully undermine the established big names.

Furthermore, what does it tell us about the calibre of the chief decision makers, or indeed the current working environments at major Western carmakers that so many of their senior creatives appear content to take a leap into the unknown than remain in roles which are, (on the face of things at least) creatively unsatisfying?

There are at present, more questions than answers, but they are serious questions nonetheless – ones that need not only to be asked of our current industry leaders – but addressed as a matter of urgency.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

3 thoughts on “The Riffs of Goodbye”

  1. I have no idea how big the talent pool is in car design. But it strikes me that a lot of the big, established brands have had the same people in charge for a while. At JLR it’s the Ian Callum and Gerry McGovern show. Their underlings must have wondered just how and when an opportunity to go for the top job might arise.

    The opportunities provided by lots of Chinese money plus electrification provide a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do something fresh: new companies and brands building new cars using new technologies. I guess it’s not surprising that senior designers are having their heads turned.

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