In the wake of Ian Callum’s sudden departure from Jaguar, we document the circumstances of his arrival in 1999, with an overview of his predecessor’s legacy.
The immediate period following Ford’s takeover of the Jaguar marque was a pretty febrile time – for a whole host of reasons, but primarily for the schisms which took place as Blue Oval management took stock of what it had purchased. As the stark realisation dawned that $ billions would be required to drag the Browns Lane production facilities into the modern era, a price had to be exacted.
The axe, when it fell, did most damage at Jaguar’s Whitley engineering and design centre. Having been formally opened in 1988 and housing both Jim Randle’s engineering staff and Geoff Lawson’s design team, both were ruthlessly culled by Ford appointee, Bill Hayden in a heedless and damaging effort to save money.
For Lawson, it was a disaster, with the prospect of almost the entire Jaguar styling team facing redundancy, leaving a mere four staff in the West Midlands. Only desperate rearguard action saw this rescinded, but interference in Jaguar’s design independence would nevertheless run high. Lawson was aware that the continued pursuit of stylistic past glories was a creative cul-de-sac and lobbied throughout the decade for funding to create an advanced studio to test out new concepts and subtly shift the aesthetic forward, but change was slow in coming.
However by the decade’s close, Lawson’s appeals finally won through. But as the new studio was in progress and with its lead designer about to be announced, Lawson was taken seriously ill – he passed away shortly after. The untimely death of Jaguar’s well-liked and highly regarded design chief in June 1999 resulted in considerable upheaval and in the ensuing vacuum, it was deemed appropriate to offer the role to the newly appointed advanced studio head.
Hence Ian Callum assumed the role of Jaguar Design Director later that year. Callum had been Lawson’s choice, having already worked with the Jaguar styling team on the XX/NPX project for TWR, which ultimately became the Aston Martin DB7. For a time he juggled his responsibilities between Aston and Jaguar, completing the design oversight for the Aston DB9 alongside exterior designer, Wayne Burgess in a small ‘skunk’ studio at Whitley and a significant portion of work on the more compact Vantage model, before handing over both cars and full responsibility in 2001 to his Gaydon-based replacement, Henrik Fisker.
Once installed as Jaguar’s stylistic leader, Callum embarked on a process of archaeological rediscovery, attempting to recreate the spirit of modernity and progression which characterised the stylistic work of Jaguar founder, Sir William Lyons, while remaining cognisant and respectful of the past.
A key appointment was that of Julian Thomson, to head the now vacant advanced studio role. Thomson was part of what is known as the ‘Norfolk Mafia’, having cut his teeth at Lotus in Hethel. Best known for his work on the highly regarded and shapely 1996 Elise model, Thomson not only had the talent but in Callum the support to move the dial at a Whitley studio where the existing design team had become stultified by a decade of restrictions and interference.
Over the following decade, Callum oversaw not only a new generation of Jaguar production designs – most of which arrived towards the latter end of the ‘oughties’ – but also a number of highly significant conceptual studies, which were shown as a means of resetting the public’s expectations and perceptions of brand-Jaguar. Some of these were to prove more of a creative success than others, but this would be both a brave and necessary move.
Sadly for Geoff Lawson, the best work he oversaw never saw the light of day – in particular the shapely XJ41/42 Coupé and the XJ80 and 90 saloons, which had been initiated prior to Ford’s takeover, but were culled in the ensuing melee. His legacy therefore remains a series of rather unsatisfactory designs which were compromised by carry-over platforms and an over-reliance upon the design cues of the past.
Perhaps a more fitting legacy however is the advanced design studio which bears his name at Whitley and a spirit of professionalism, not to mention of series of progressive Jaguar designs, helmed by his successor which spoke to the future.