Something funny happened on the drive to the golf club. Once the sexiest and most glamorous of marques, with some of the most seductive designs of all time – such as the E-type – in its back catalogue, Jaguar had become staid and conservative. And not always with a small ‘c’. It had begun wearing its underpants on the outside.
Currently basking in praise for his new XK sports coupé and recognition in the shape of becoming a Royal Designer, Ian Callum, design director for Jaguar, puts it slightly more tactfully. ‘It became a heritage brand,’ he says. A lifelong fan who doodled Jaguars as a kid, he should know. The current S-type is a case in point – its overly retro design has been widely panned. Is the vogue for retro styling over? ‘Very much so,’ says Callum, adding that great Jags were very modern in their time, particularly the graceful and advanced XJ6 saloon, launched in 1968, until its progressive image was tarnished by characters such as Arthur Daley and Margaret Thatcher.
With an openness that is refreshing and unusual in today’s corporate culture, Callum winces at Jaguar’s current saloon designs (‘Take a couple of inches off the height of the XJ and it looks good,’ he says.) He is very quick to confirm that these automotive shapes are not of his pen, even though he joined Jaguar in 1999. A weary roll of the eyes attests to the frustration of the long lead times that automotive designers have to endure.
Callum’s grand plan is to reintroduce the bold design ethos that made Jaguar so emotive to so many – to ‘recapture its modernity’, as he puts it. We chat while we wait for the unveiling of a new concept car, the C-XF (which stands for concept and XF – the new name for the S-type successor), at a plush, central London venue. Unusually, Jaguar is wooing the design and fashion crowd rather than the world of anorak and petrol-head. Callum is brimming with confidence about his new blueprint for Jaguar’s sporting saloons. ‘You will like it,’ he says intently. But is this event a cross between consumer clinic and marketing? ‘No, this is showing off’ is Callum’s robust response.
He becomes animated discussing the new design language he has created, talking about how taut the bodywork is, wrapping the innards with the very minimum of excess, while always maintaining ‘discipline, purity and simplicity’. ‘It takes a lot of hard work to get these very pure and sophisticated surfaces,’ Callum explains, suggesting he works with his engineering colleagues earlier in the model evolution than his rivals would.
Of those rivals, BMW began a similar process of aesthetic renewal some years ago, somewhat controversially under the stewardship of its design director Chris Bangle. Callum is keen, however, to differentiate his own project; he clearly has little regard for the ‘superficial graphics’ involved in rival projects. Likewise, the banana-shaped Mercedes CLS is dismissed as a ‘poorly executed’ attempt to duplicate the characteristics of a Jaguar.
Knowing more than anyone how delicately Jaguar’s future hangs in the balance, Jaguar managing director Bibiana Boerio looks nervous. She hopes we will like the car, and looks to have little stomach for the kind of backlash that BMW’s design revolution triggered.
But Callum’s approach is different. ‘I want to please, not to shock, though there should be an element of surprise,’ he says. The question of whether we will like the new design too soon perturbs him more. Pausing for thought, he says that doesn’t matter if the design is truly beautiful.
Jaguar has had a torrid year. It has been roundly criticised by its owner Ford and has endured continuing press speculation about its sale, with Korean manufacturer Hyundai one of the suitors mentioned. Does taking a more radical design approach become easier when a company is in difficulty? ‘At the beginning it was hard, but now it is like pushing at an open door. Jaguar knew it was time for change. I am being pushed, not pushing [the company],’ he says.
Has Callum looked at other design transformations? ‘Yes, of course,’ he says, mentioning ‘the quirkiness inherent in great British brands’ such as Burberry, which allows them to be ‘turned on their head’. But Callum shows little interest in design case studies – for him the task is quite simply to produce beautiful cars, something he generously concedes that Alfa Romeo has managed. ‘I shocked a German interviewer who asked me about form and function by replying that the function is to be beautiful,’ he recalls.
Is the C-XF beautiful? A lot rides on a global audience thinking so when it is unveiled at the Detroit Motor Show next week. Some of the detailing may not be cutting edge, but the architecture is surprisingly dynamic, while remaining distinctly Jaguar. Hopefully, it’s enough to save the Jaguar from extinction.