Ian Callum has left Jaguar design. Time to reflect on his achievements.
After years of turmoil, suffering from an ill-fated growth strategy and management oblivious to the marque’s inherent qualities and character, Jaguar all of a sudden found itself with a new chief designer, whose main task was to lend a confused, humiliated brand at least some stylistic sense of direction.
This was in the year 1999, when Ian Callum was unexpectedly promoted to the post of Jaguar chief designer, in the wake of the sudden passing of Geoff Lawson, who had been the company’s stylistic custodian since 1984.
Twenty years later, the situation is both drastically different yet eerily similar. For once again, Jaguar has fallen prey to an ill-fated growth strategy and management oblivious to the marque’s inherent qualities – a state of affairs Ian Callum couldn’t prevent, just like Geoff Lawson before him.
But unlike 1999, when the brand’s most recent product was the unfortunate X-type, Jaguar isn’t kept going on the basis of hope for better times alone, but can rightfully boast about its I-pace EV crossover being among the most interesting and cutting edge designs on the market right now.
So there’s hope that, after a string of highly disappointing models, JLR’s management have come to realise to a somewhat greater extent that Jaguar is no mainstream brand and therefore has no place competing head to head with mainstream models in a crowded market.
Allegedly, Ian Callum himself played a crucial role in bringing I-pace to the market in such relatively undiluted form. And yet I-pace also illustrates the limits of the Scotsman’s efforts. For despite the chief designer’s repeated public declarations that no Jaguar should ever run on small diameter wheels (an obsession of Callum’s similar to Sir William Lyons’ penchant for low canopies), I-pace can be ordered on wheels of a size that aren’t just visually unbecoming, but utterly ruin the visual impact of the car.
Which isn’t merely unfortunate, but can seriously hurt the prospects of an all-new model, whose customers need conquered without exception. Hence it would help of the car was introduced under the most flattering terms possible.
Instead, some people’s first impression of I-pace can be that of a decidedly awkward and hence undesirable car – hardly the ideal association with an all-new selling proposition.
Clearly, one must assume that Jaguar’s senior management wouldn’t listen to their own chief designer, preferring to adhere to what so many of them had learned at BMW years ago (which is that only an expensive optional – and high profit margin – wheel may ever be a truly attractive wheel) instead.
That Jaguar isn’t BMW and that Jaguars have always sold on looks above all else obviously eluded these decision makers. That a brand with something of an image issue also isn’t helped by having unbecoming base model cars on the road seemingly has, too. And Callum, with all due respect, has failed at making them understand this very essence of the marque they all are supposed to nurture.
Obviously, any chief designer is only as good as his superiors allow him to be. And Ian Callum has experienced quite a few different sets of these over the past two decades, some of whom had a firmer grasp on Jaguar brand values than others. However, despite the current state of affairs not being quite as grim as it was at the turn of the century, despite I-pace, his mission to comprehensively reinvent Jaguar for the future remains incomplete.
It will be interesting to see whether his successor (and long-serving Jaguar design second-in-command, Julian Thomson) will be able truly fulfil this ambition. Anyone with even the faintest passion for Sir William Lyons’ creation certainly ought to wish him the best of luck.
Meanwhile, the brand that Ian Callum truly and unreservedly successfully did re-establish isn’t called Jaguar – but is also headquartered in Gaydon, Warwickshire. For just as Jaguar has been struggling with its core values twenty years ago, Aston Martin hit the bullseye with the DB9 and V8 Vantage models unveiled from 2003 onwards.
These incredibly assured and magnificently accomplished car designs were created under the direction of Ian Callum too. There never were any questions asked by either commentators or the public about whether these cars were ‘proper’ Astons. They simply captured, refined and prudently updated the marque’s essence. And they could only ever be ordered with appropriately sized wheels.
Overseeing such a masterful generation of car designs is more than almost any car designer could ever hope to achieve. For that reason alone, Ian Callum ought to be congratulated for a stellar career. And wished the best for a fulfilled retirement.
The author of this piece runs his own motoring website, which you are welcome to visit at