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Ian Callum on Jaguar

Mon, 23 Dec 2013

Ian Callum never grew up a rich boy, but his friends did. His father worked as a lawyer in Dumfries, a market town of 43,000 in the lower corner of Scotland, where the Solway Firth narrows to a point. When you travel, Callum reminisced, you forget how beautiful it is.

Vauxhalls and Fords defined Callum's life; his father was "too nice," he said, to be wealthy. But when his clients came to visit, they would darken the driveway with Jaguar Mark IIs. One friend had a Ferrari Dino. Another had an Aston Martin DBS. The exotic car around town, the home team the Doonhamers rooted for, was the Jaguar.

Callum has a Mark II Jaguar today, though he's planning to "trick it up a bit." (What does a car designer drive? A 1932 Ford, a 1993 Mini Cooper, a 1956 Chevrolet 210 on 20-inch wheels and a veritable Summit Racing catalog buried underhood.) Incidentally, for someone who once pressed his nose up against the only Jaguar-Vauxhall garage in town, the Mk II is his first Jaguar.

And the F-Type, whose striking coupe guise was unveiled at the Los Angeles Auto Show recently, is his latest.

For the F-Type, Callum assembled a team that included Julian Thompson, who like Callum also graduated from the Royal College of Art in London, and Wayne Burgess, who professed that he misses his Ferrari 512BB. "I nurtured the team to a point where we speak as one. I didn't indoctrinate them, but I made it clear -- no politics. Two things you leave behind at Jaguar: politics and ego. It's the team that you give credit."

Unlike Jaguars past, the F-Type was conceived as convertible first -- but there was always a plan for a coupe. Callum has always been smitten by coupes. It's much harder to design a convertible than a coupe, even though his team -- and remember, anyone at Jaguar is a team player by default -- relished the challenge. With a convertible, it's very easy to make it look quite ordinary, he explained; you get a good convertible, and the coupe falls perfectly into place. It's never the other way around.

"The one frustration was that the F-Type's taken too long. I wish we'd got to do it sooner. It's as significant for Jaguar as the E-Type was in the '60s." It would have been more difficult under Ford, but not impossible, he noted.

Fortunately, Callum found a visionary in Ratan Tata. After purchasing Jaguar in 2008, Tata asked bluntly: "You're a sports car company. Where's the sports car?"

"Well," Callum confessed, "I've been trying!"

And yes, he informed, in full view of his PR handlers and product managers -- there will be an F-Type RS. 550 supercharged, screaming horsepower on the R, it seems, just isn't enough grace, space, and pace for some. The mind reels at such violence yet untapped.

A sketch from Jaguar's design team shows an even sleeker roofline, rendered null by the intricacies of production.

Jaguar designers hold to themselves the unenviable burden of history. How can contemporary designs secure their legacy in the shadow of Malcolm Sayer and Sir William Lyons? "You're the second person to ask that! I'm 60 next year. That's a scary thought."

Callum paused.

"I don't think about it," he said, simply. "I feel an obligation toward it, towards making it work."

A celebrity in the business? Perish the thought. "I've got a good PR team," Callum noted. "But a lot of it comes from being in a company as high-profile as Jaguar."

Callum has been at Jaguar 15 years -- last September was his anniversary. But when he started at the company he most admired he had intended on staying for just 10 years. "Don't tell my boss," he smiled. "In my own mind, my plan was 10 years I would do the job. Ten years wasn't enough. Now, I'm just kicking into something bigger than me."

He's got so much more to do, to create: a boat, perhaps, as a tribute to the Jaguar D-Type; a handbag and a few watches for the Sunday Times. The Sportbrake -- "one of the most handsome cars we make," and if only they could bring it to the States, he lamented. (Enthusiasts will be glad to know that Callum has a not-entirely-unusual fondness for shooting brakes, a love best embodied by the Lynx Eventer.) There's so much design in the world, and not enough at just one car company.

Another pause, this one more thoughtful. "Jaguar, specifically, was always my first love in the car business, "he said. "And I would like to leave the business in a good state."

We'd argue that goal has already been accomplished.

By Blake Z. Rong