Jaguar goes back to future
In 1968, Ian Callum, 14, saw Jaguar's newest sedan, the XJ6. He went to his closest dealer in his native Scotland and nabbed two brochures. Then he wrote a letter to Jaguar, expressing his intention of designing cars for the company.
Today, Callum is Jaguar's director of design, and the car remains an important one for him.
“When it came out, people my father's age said, ‘That's not a Jaguar.' And as a teenager, I thought, ‘Well, that's a Jag, and I love it, so you can all go to hell.' ”
The same criticism has been leveled at Callum, who has dramatically changed Jaguar's design in an attempt to harness the rebellious spirit that propelled Jaguar through its peak years in the 1950s and 1960s and is typified by cars like the XJ6.
“It was a cool brand for quite radical people, actually,” Callum said during a recent interview in Richmond. “Rock stars drove Jags. It was a quite radical brand. That's what I remember Jaguars as being.”
But when Callum arrived at Jaguar in 1999, after a stint as director of design at Aston Martin, it was anything but that. Styling was stuck in the past, something Callum said started in the 1970s, when Jaguar's founder, Sir William Lyons, retired from the company.
“The progression stopped,” Callum said. “The people who were left holding the brand didn't know what to do with it. So they replicated the past.”
“Ironically, Lyons had no respect for the past. He was quite frivolous about it,” Callum said, saying Lyons disregarded consistency, whether in styling, model lineup or product names. That, Callum explained, is how Jaguar made such great leaps in design: from the XK-120, unveiled in 1948, to the E-Type, released in 1961. The 1959 Mark II, a traditional British sedan body plopped atop an XK-150 platform and arguably the world's first sports sedan, looked nothing like the long-lived XJ6, introduced in 1968 and the car that stoked Callum's desire to become a car designer.
“At the time the XJ6 came out, it wasn't considered a proper Jag,” said Callum. “And yet it became the quintessential design for years.”
But after Jaguar's last gasp of progress, the 1976 XJS coupe, the company was happy to recycle the XJ6 and other past styling cues. That changed with the 2005 XK, followed by the 2007 XF, 2010 XJ and now, the 2014 F-Type, all designed under Callum. The new designs brought protests from customers who were no longer used to the radical departures that had once been a hallmark of the marque. But Callum stuck to his guns.
“I knew I was right,” he said. “I knew that no matter what I did, we couldn't continue with what we were doing. It was a death knell.”
Ironically, in trying to figure out what a modern day Jaguar should be, Callum, like his predecessors, looked backward. However, he took a different tack. “It's not about specifics. It's not about, ‘that's a nice shape to do because that's what they did in 1963.' That's not what makes a brand. What makes a brand are values.”
And so Jaguar would attempt to find its inner rock star and once more become the rebel of the luxury car world. “We use the term ‘rebellion' a lot. Our job in design is to disrupt, and I love to disrupt the status quo.”
And so he has with the current XJ, a sedan whose design is a radical departure when viewed alongside the conservatively styled Audi A8, BMW 7 Series or Mercedes-Benz S-Class. “That's our raison d'etre, and it always has been in the past,” said Callum.
Those design cues saw their way onto the new F-Type, Jaguar's first sports car in decades. They marry well with newer styling cues that took their inspiration, but not their look, from the E-Type.
Beyond the alluring looks and expected handling characteristics, Jaguars must feel British.
“The thing about the Brits is that we can have a little smile at ourselves. We don't take life too seriously. If anybody can invent Monty Python and things like that, I think we have the right to a little bit of a smile.”
This explains why the F-Type's air-conditioning vents rise out of the center console in a manner not unlike eyes opening. Or why the XJ's backlit starter button light throbs like a heartbeat. It's also why the glove box of the XJ, when ordered with the black interior, is lined in fluorescent purple velvet. “Eat your heart out, Paul Smith,” Callum said with a smile.
It's that sense of brand awareness and vibrant design that has been revived under the benevolent eye of Jaguar's corporate parent, Tata. While Jaguar's former owner, Ford Motor Co., saved the brand from extinction, Callum and others in the company admit that they are now free to rediscover what made Jaguar the brand great.
“We haven't reinvented ourselves,” he said. “We've just gotten back to where we should be.”
Larry Printz is automotive editor at The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.