The Art of Departure

Ian Callum is leaving his ‘dream job’. We examine the possible motives.

Change of guard: Ian Callum (left). Julian Thomson (right). (c) leblogauto

There many qualities one requires in public life, but the apprehension of the correct moment to leave the stage is perhaps the trickiest to navigate successfully. Five years ago, Ian Callum told an enthusiast publication that he would stay on in his role at Whitley to “set up the next generation of aesthetics” before stepping down as Jaguar’s Director of Design.

Of course it is neither correct nor entirely fair to hold individuals to the letter of their pronouncements; events after all can lead to all manner of undesired outcomes, even if to these eyes at least, his remains a somewhat incomplete mission.

But upon learning of the Scotsman’s decision to step down as Jaguar’s design leader – a position he has held for two decades – I was reminded again of this 2014 statement. Over those twenty years he has overseen a transformation in Jaguar’s visual perception, although one might be forced to insert the caveat that it has been at the expense of quantities of spilt milk along the way.

But I do not intend to present a critique of Mr. Callum’s tenure as keeper of the leaping cat’s creative flame – not today at least. What interests me is the nature and timing of his parting and what this might possibly signify.

The news came as something of a bolt from the blue, and from what can be ascertained, was neither widely telegraphed nor stage managed. Callum’s announcement stated “I feel that now is the right time to move on, both personally and professionally, and explore other design projects.” Which on the face of things suggests a measured decision on the Scotsman’s part. However, its abrupt nature does lend itself to further scrutiny.

Certainly, all is not well at Jaguar, or indeed its JLR mothership – the West Midlands-based carmaker currently having to drastically slash costs under severe commercial constraint. Brand-Jaguar has proven something of a drag upon the JLR business since its 2008 inception, the storied luxury carmaker perennially touted as being on the cusp of a breakthrough, yet never quite delivering upon that potential.

Latterly, sales of Jaguar’s saloon models have not simply plateaued, but by current appearances appear in freefall – a matter which is to no small extent linked to their design, which is either perceived by the wider market as being ungainly [XJ] or somewhat bland [XE/XF]. It wouldn’t be the first time a design director was held accountable for the commercial fate of a model line, and while it’s hardly impossible that responsibility has been laid at the incumbent design chief’s door, on balance this is unlikely to have been a significant factor.

Nice but dull (c) : Motor Trend

Part of a design director’s remit is of course to both defend his team’s work and to agitate for what he deems the most appropriate creative proposals at the highest level. This comes with no small quantum of heated disagreement and it takes a forceful character to navigate such a frequently adversarial environment.

Over the years, Callum has needed to dig his heels in over a sizeable number of Jaguar design proposals against a senior management (both Ford and JLR) who favoured what may have been safer options – a struggle, if some of Jaguar’s current products are anything to go by, he didn’t always necessarily win. Therefore it’s entirely within reason that he has simply become battle-weary from what is likely to have been an especially bruising period in Jaguar-product terms, and has chosen a less strenuous career path.

But to return to his 2014 statement, given the critical success the I-Pace model has garnered – European and World Car of the Year, to name but two high-profile awards – it’s possible the Dumfries native feels he has ‘set up the next generation of aesthetics‘ and is choosing to go out on a relative high. Or equally, that he had agreed a Gordon Brown/Tony Blair Granita-style pact with his second in command for a scheduled hand-over.

Parting gesture? (c) Car Magazine

We may never establish exactly why Ian Callum has chosen to step away now – after all, if we apply the Sherlock Holmes principle of deduction, the most plausible rationale is almost always the most likely. Either way, an era (his retention as design consultant notwithstanding), is drawing to a close.

His replacement comes with a notable pedigree, having headed Whitley’s advanced design studio for 18 of the 20 years Callum his been in charge. Julian Thomson has keen eye for aesthetics, and fully grasps Jaguar from a semiotic perspective. But timing is everything in life and notwithstanding his design credentials or the fact that he inherits arguably the toughest job in automotive design, his ascent could hardly come at a less troubled and transitory moment for the leaping cat.

Quote attribution: Jaguar World magazine/ Autocar.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

12 thoughts on “The Art of Departure”

  1. Eoin, you might be able to shed some light on the matter, but one tends not to be believe in coincidences. Of course, it may not be anything at all, and you can say so one way or the other.

    Callum left JLR and not a few days later, a certain David Woodhouse quit a very high post at Ford where he was overseeing design at Lincoln among other high-falutin’ sounding duties. His profile has been magically erased from the Ford Media Center, and it was only last week he left.

    Woodhouse began working for Ford’s PAG group 20 years ago, and I presume Callum was already there. One can read this and that and not have any idea what’s true, but the implication I get is that Woodhouse was design boss over the PAG Group. He did well enough to be promoted to have some duties in both the US as well as the UK by 2005. He stayed with Ford when Tata bought JLR, and seems to have had a fair few designs under his belt.

    When the baleen whale grille approach at Lincoln was going nowhere, Woodhouse replaced the former designer in 2014, and has since turned out some fairly graceful designs especially in the last two years. Yes, SUVs that don’t look contrived, amazing, I know.

    Why would anyone who has been steadily employed at one firm for two decades and whose recent output has been praised suddenly depart? He wasn’t pushed. He has turned up at Nissan of all places, whose generally dowdy stuff certainly could do with a general sprucing up.

    Woodhouse is also supposed to have a few personal cars in the UK which he trots out for Goodwood, and presumably spends a fair amount of time in England. Any connection between Callum and Woodhouse on a personal level you know about? Or am I reaching?

  2. I don’t think Jaguar’s problems can be laid solely at the door of their exterior design(ers). The XE and XF may be rather bland, but look at the competition from the German premium trio, where bland would be a welcome improvement over some of their more ersatz recent designs. Most non-car enthusiasts I know like (or at least, don’t dislike) the look of Jaguar’s saloon cars and crossovers, and simply love the F-Type, even if it’s not practical for them.

    Jaguar’s interiors, however, are simply not good enough. Whether or not you like the style, Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz have lifted material quality and richness to a level that’s way above Jaguar’s offering. In showroom appeal terms, Jaguar is left for dead. Add to that some packaging issues (aluminium architecture related?), engine deficiencies (range and quality) and reliability concerns, and you have Jaguar’s problems in a nutshell.

    The original XF sold well because of its strikingly handsome “four-door coupé” design. It was a competitor for the CLS and A7, rather than E-Class and A6. The replacement model tried to compete with those more mainstream models, and has failed.

    I would love to see Jaguar succeed, not least because of the large number of UK manufacturing jobs that it supports directly and indirectly, but I’m worried that Tata will simply run out of patience with its “English Patient” before much longer.

    1. Daniel, this topic was discussed here recently.

      The original XF also appealed to customers because of its cabin, which was cosy and made great play of its ‘surprise and delight’ elements (or Easter Eggs, as Tesla would call them). Callum’s XJ was also praised for its lavish and bold cabin. For Jaguar to drop the ball in this regard was crazy.

      My guess (and it is only a guess) is that JLR’s problems run much deeper, and are related to big strategy mistakes in two areas: platform and drivetrain.

      JLR bet the company on an aluminium architecture, presumably hoping that this would give its products a decisive advantage and premium allure. It has proved to be a very expensive decision – rivals have shown that a mixed-material architecture is no heavier, is more adaptable and is more space efficient. It is also more cost effective.

      As costs escalated, did Jaguar order cost-cutting to come from other areas, such as interior quality and sophistication? This might explain why the current generation of models have such dreary cabins.

      I like the XE but it is a compromised product: too cramped and too expensive. It is also saddled with sub-par engines, of JLR’s own design… why did they abandon their previous strategy of sharing engine familes with other car makers?

      JLR are so committed to this aluminium architecture that the next Defender will use it, too, despite the fact that it seems eminently unsuited to this purpose.

    2. Thank you for confirming my suspicion that I am a non-car enthusiast. This was my assumption already for quite some time but now it’s official because I actually like the XE.
      For me it’s easily the most attractive car of its class just because it is free of optical nonsense like unneccessary bulges and creases (wasn’t this called ‘flame surfacing’?) all over the place. I just can’t get over the dubious quality of its materials and the rather random build quality with shocking lack of attention to detail. Just look around inside the boot and see two old Cortina choke pulls used to unlock the foldable reat seat rest dangling from the parcel shelf’s underside. Then see the AdBlue filler neck protruding from a wobbly felt boot liner with a cut out that isn’t even remotely aligned with the filler neck.
      These (and many more) glitches and the eye watering prices put me off the XE in the end.

    3. Hi Dave. Perhaps I might have chosen my words better! By non-car enthusiast, I meant the vast majority of the motoring public who like cars, but do not obsess about the finer points of automotive design, the stuff that draws me, at least, to DTW.

      I like the XE and XF, but they need to be in the right colour with some brightwork, otherwise they can look very dull and nondescript. A neighbour of ours has a dark blue (non-metallic) XE with black wheels and no brightwork, and I think it looks awful.

  3. From my experience, most ‘non-car’ people I have spoken to (when the subject has very occasionally arisen) appear to take the inverse view to that which Daniel has experienced – insofar as they suggest the latter-day Jaguars (saloons mostly) don’t look as a Jaguar ought. This isn’t something they seem to be able to articulate in a more coherent fashion, but it does appear to suggest that Mr. Callum’s new Jag generation hasn’t proven an entirely convincing proposition. Is that his fault? Probably not.

    I would also like to say that I would include cabin ambience in my critique – (XJ excepted, as this is a superb interior, even now). Like Dave, I appreciate the current cars’ calm surfacing, but they (again XJ excepted) just appear so tentative – the current XF in particular. I have yet to see one, but I would hope the facelifted XE will have addressed some of this – interior ambience in particular.

    Jags have always been colour and wheel sensitive, but the current fashion for dark or black wheels do them no favours whatsoever. A Jag without brightwork? Missing the point, I’d say.

    It does appear that with XE/XF, JLR tried to do too much too soon and simply couldn’t afford to execute both sufficiently well – the very same basic error that Ford made with X200/X400 a generation before. They compounded this by saddling the otherwise competent F-Pace with the same lacklustre cabins and powertrains. Folly. But this is for another conversation.

    As to Mr Woodhouse. There is (a little like the subject of today’s article) probably rather more than meets the eye about his departure from the Dearborn Glasshouse. It speaks poorly of his former employer that he should wish to jump ship so precipitously (Nissan hardly being a plum role) and were I a Lincoln aficionado, I would be concerned about the direction Uncle Henry may be pursuing.

    1. I had a look at the facelifted XE today and it’t not good news, at lest not for me.
      I definitely don’t like the new look (front bumper with gaping holes at the corners) and the interior looks like a combination of a touch screen and two round dials for HVAC controls – nothing for me. And you have to buy the base specification to get proper instruments as S and SE versions come with a nasty TFT screen instead of tacho and speedo. But now leather seats are standard across the range and all versions get LED front lights.
      But even the base model sits on 18″ wheels (with 17″ being no cost optionals).
      No, sorry, still not for me.

    2. Coincidentally I too had a quick once-over at a Jaguar dealer this afternoon – the family XF was in being serviced. I’m agnostic about the frontal changes – they had to do something after all, but the tail lamps – which were a deal-breaker for me in the past – are a good deal better integrated. The cabin, from a nose though the open side glass looked a lot nicer from a materials and use of colour perspective. I didn’t get a sense that this was anything but an upmarket interior. (I have no idea what model) However I didn’t have time to touch or prod anything, so don’t take my word.

      I did also have a decent look over a well specced I-Pace and came away impressed. But by heavens, it needs the larger diameter wheels to carry it off. Black paintwork should also be banned. But on the subject of wheel diameters, ‘our’ XF is on standard 17-inchers and still the ride is unacceptably harsh. This being the case (I’ve never driven an XE), there is to my eyes no rationale to specify the smaller rims.

    3. Hi Eóin. Might those “non-car” people be the same people who didn’t buy the X-Type, S-Type or X350 generation XJ because they looked too “old-fashioned”? You have to feel a bit sorry for Jaguar, trying to move on when so many seem to want them to be pickled in aspic, as part of an “Olde England” theme park.

  4. Is Jaguar still involved at all with racing? It used to be so important to the development of their road cars, and of their marketing and image. And who remembers the Camel Trophy? Not JLR, apparently.

    I do feel sorry for them, they threw out the baby with the bathwater, even assuming they did return to the “Olde England” aesthetic which still works for Bentley, Rolls and MINI, they’d still be like a stool with only two legs.

  5. Forbes has a story on the Moody debt downgrade. It’s the old story we already know: the cost of electrification is driving JLR to the brink of financial extinction.

    Just another variation on the “Get Woke, Go Broke” financial model that so many of these “progressive” companies are working towards.

    The embedded picture in the Forbes article is of the old Defender. For most Forbes readers, that is what they recognize as a “Landrover”.

    And that is one of the major problems with both Jag and LR. Twenty five years ago, their vehicles were easily indentified, even by non car owners.

    Now, everything they produce is indistinguishable by most people (not DTR readers) from everything else on the road.

    And that is the real disastrous design legacy of both Callum and McGovern. It’s not all their fault, but you can’t expect to sell vehicles that are scraping bottom in powertrain, reliability, and quality when they don’t even look like anything special !

    https://www.forbes.com/sites/neilwinton/2019/06/20/jaguar-land-rover-ratings-cut-by-moodys-citing-china-electrification/#4984a6a06edd

    1. Unfortunately, that Forbes story confirms that Anglo-American turbocharged finance doesn’t really understand the car industry.

      These are people who describe a three year business plan as ‘long term strategy’. No wonder that UK doesn’t own much of its manufacturing base any more, and US automotive companies continue to struggle.

      Undoubtedly, the need for investment is massive given the pace of change right now, but JLR’s biggest problems come from writing off $3bn plus of investment in its XE, XF and F Pace.

      The I Pace is a rare and welcome good news story – without it, JLR would be in even bigger trouble.

      Genuine winners in this industry are well advanced with their move away from fossil fuels. America is the land of Tesla but Motown is still struggling to understand what it all means.

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