Car Designer Ian  Callum on Penning Jaguars and Watches

With six honorary doctorates to add to his earned degree and post-grad in product and automobile design, plus innumerable accolades for creating the look of some of the world’s fastest and most beautiful cars, Ian Callum has become a legend in his own lifetime. Having already dipped a toe into the world of watchmaking, Revolution quizzes him about his journey so far and what is yet to come.

You knew at the age of three that you wanted to design cars. How did you turn the dream into reality?

It became such a focus that other things became less important and, hence, less of a distraction. I was never great at cricket, football or rugby. I was fixated on cars and drawing and, at 18, realised that was all I could do, so thought I’d better stick to it. And that was the hard bit.

At school, I wanted to study engineering and art, but in those days sciences and the arts did not cross. When I was 17, there wasn’t a lot around in terms of industrial design courses – the discipline was just starting to find its place in the UK around then. I found a course at Glasgow School of Art, which is one of the most creative places ever – I had some amazing times there. I was holding back the tears when I read about the recent fire there, it broke my heart.

After Glasgow I wanted to specialise, but there were only two car design courses in the world – one in London and one in LA. I wanted to go to LA and got an endorsement from the chief of Vauxhall Design, Wayne Cherry, who has since become a good friend, but my local education authority grant wouldn’t cover the costs involved in studying abroad. I did, however, manage to get sponsored by Ford to go to the Royal College of Art in London.

What was it like studying at the RCA?

I was right in the middle of London – Hyde Park was my back garden – it was a fabulous time. Glasgow was really hard work; I had to prove myself and I pulled many all-nighters to finish projects. The Royal College was more about socialising and we were given the freedom to explore design. It was a huge privilege to be sponsored by Ford and in the holidays, I would drive out to Essex in my old Mini to work there. I got a true understanding of how the design studio operated.

I went into Ford thinking I would change the world, but what happened was that only as people got promoted did they get the chance to be more creative, so it was the senior guys doing all the creative work and the younger ones doing all the mainstream work. That was what happened to me – if you drive a 1970s or early-1980s Ford, chances are I did the steering wheel in it.

The first full car I worked on was the Ford Escort Cosworth, but that was after 10 years with the company. It’s funny, you know you are getting old when your cars become classics and people are rebuilding the cars you designed.

I promised that if I ever ran a studio, I would give the guys in my team a better shot than I had and I hope that’s what I do – I do direct them, but I try not to interfere too much. I offload my desire for creativity on to the team, rather than keep it all for myself.

Did you enjoy your time at Ford?

I first went to Ford during Christmas of 1977 as a student and started full-time in July 1979. I remember it all so clearly. I thought I’d stick around for six months then go and work at Ferrari. Eleven years later, I left. I worked in the interiors design studio, which was in keeping with my training as a product designer, but I wanted to do exterior design as well, and the only way to do that was to move to other studios. I went to work at Ghia in Italy as the studio manager and, by sheer coincidence, the chief designer was my brother. We were not particularly close up until this point, but it was here that we became really good friends. He is an incredibly brilliant man and there is really no competition between us. Today he is VP of Design at Ford Motor Company – a job that was beyond my wildest dreams.

That’s amazing for two brothers to be so successful in the same field. Is it something genetic do you think?

It’s weird, right?  Our father was a solicitor and our mother worked in a library and we didn’t even own a car until I was seven. I think my grandfather was the major influence for me. He died when I was nine and I have just been back to where he lived outside of Edinburgh for the first time since then. I also visited the garage where I saw my first E-Type. That was the trigger for my car obsession, a red E-Type coupe. I went in and got a brochure that I kept until my brother’s 40th birthday, when I gave it to him because he owns an E-Type Jag. That’s love for you.

So, you don’t have an E-Type, but what is your ultimate car?

Crikey! The one I’d love to own, but probably never will because it’s so expensive, is the Ferrari 250 GT SWB. I love that car and I think it’s OK to admit it, because it is such a beautiful classic. Designed by Carrozzeria Scaglietti in 1960, it’s not the obvious choice because most people would go for the GTO, but I love it. Apart from that, I am fortunate to drive the cars that I work on. The F-Type is up there with my dream cars, as is the I-Pace.

Interesting that you choose an electric car.

Yep, I’ve joined the electric club. It’s a different sort of car and I think we’ve overtaken our competitors. Jaguar is a very innovative company – it built the fastest sports cars in the world for 10 years, yet it also made the 1968 XJ, which is refined, quiet, svelte. There are two sides to Jaguar: the luxurious, silk-carpet side and the racier side, and the I-Pace fits both. Performance-wise, it is fantastic, but it’s also very quiet and smooth.

This was the most freedom I have had on any car. We were given a brief: it needed four wheels, a battery in the middle and it had to be a certain length, but after that we could do anything because there was nothing to package – no drive shaft or gearbox, just wires. I had always wanted to design a sporty family car but that was never possible before because a sports car has its engine in the back. This platform gave us the possibility to create something unique.

What was the idea behind an electric car for Jaguar?

It was a genuine desire to create something that had zero emissions. There was a realisation within the company that it was the right thing to do. I think we will see every car company producing electric cars soon, because when you drive one you realise the performance is quite extreme and for mechanical cars to keep up is going to be quite difficult. Eventually the world will go electric and I think the tipping point will be in the next decade.

You have been with Jaguar for 18 years. What was your route to the company that started your career aspirations?

I’d loved Jaguar since seeing that first E-Type, but in the 1980s, Jaguar had lost its way a little. It wasn’t until Ford bought the company that I started to take an interest again. In 1990, I left Ford to help set up TWR Design and worked with Aston Martin on the designs for the DB7, DB9, Vanquish and Project Vantage, as well as collaborating with other clients including Volvo, Mazda and Nissan.

Working on Aston Martins – especially the DB7 – meant that I was very much on Jaguar’s radar and there was talk of me going there as Geoff Lawson’s No.2. I went to work in the US for a short time and while I was away, Geoff died. I got a phone call offering me the job of Design Director but I wasn’t sure I could cope with such a huge challenge. But, of course, there was an adventure there and I had to take it. That was in 1999 and I am still here.

How do you keep your designs fresh?

You have to be disruptive. Disruptive is good; it means you are making something different. Design is about creating order out of chaos, but first of all you have to create the chaos. You turn it all upside down and pare it back and create a solution that has to work on so many levels – aesthetic, functional, cost. I imagine it’s the same with a wristwatch. But a car is extremely complicated. The electrical system alone has three or four times more processing power than an Airbus. It’s mind-blowing. That’s how complicated a car is and people just don’t know. I’m not responsible for all that processing, but I have to deal with it in terms of how I display it to a customer.

Brand heritage is a big thing in the watch industry today. Is it something the car world is aware of?

Jaguar has an incredible history and it is often misunderstood. A lot of people see us as traditionalists, but if you look at the heyday, the brand was revolutionary. Perhaps there was a period when Jaguar did look too much to the past and it became a heritage car company, but the founder William Lyons was not a traditionalist or sentimentalist, he was always moving forward.

We go around the houses constantly, trying to analyse what Jaguar means, but to me it is obvious: beauty and performance. Beauty speaks for itself and, by performance, I don’t just mean speed but also agility, drivability and enjoyment. Lyons designed sports cars because they were the ultimate style statement and style drove the whole thing. What I see is purity and exaggeration and a Jaguar should always be exaggerated in some way. That’s what Lyons wanted – to make people look twice. Beauty is OK, but you need to have that slight discord to keep people interested. That is the heritage I understand and try to impart.

So, it is about taking the ethos not the specifics. That was the problem for many years, people looked at the specifics of Lyons’ last car the 1968 XJ and repeated the same car in different size and shapes. I turned it all on its head – for better or worse. If Lyons was still here, he would be way ahead of all of us. He was a true visionary.

How did your partnership with Bremont come about?

A guy in our design department discovered that Bremont was a British watchmaker and we were making the C-X75 concept car. We only ever made five, but we wanted a watch for the dashboard. I loved the Bremont story and became fascinated with the English brothers. I met them and built up a relationship and love the story even more now – it’s the stuff of movies! The C-X75 clock was special and convertible, so it became a pocket watch.

When we made the new Lightweight E-Types, I suggested we made watches for the owners. These were £1.2 million cars. So, a luxury watch was the perfect way to record the chassis and engine numbers. We sat down and designed the watch together and then we created a collection of production pieces based on the E-Type graphics. We will definitely do more together – I am not sure exactly what yet, but we are working on something for the future.

You mentioned your love of storytelling, so Bremont was a perfect partner for you.

They are brilliant at it – from how they started the company to every watch they make. The EP120, the Endurance and so on, but the one that gets me is the Wright Flyer. Everyone now sees the importance of a narrative, but I think Nick and Giles were pioneers. Storytelling is a wonderful thing, it gives a new sense of depth. I try to build it into the cars and make it that every one has a story and talks about the history of the company, and with our watch there are small touches like the rotor taking the form of a steering wheel, the leather in the strap is the same as we use for our seats, the metal is the same aluminium we use to make the cars and so on. Engraving the chassis and engine numbers on the back means the watch becomes the owner document – they are tied together forever.

The stories are more available today because of social media, which allows the story to be told in a new way. I grew up watching BBC News and that was as much of a story as we got. There were no shows on how watches or cars were made. Backstories are so much more accessible today and long may that prevail. I have high faith in the human spirit and confidence that quality will survive. There is a business in the art of classic craftsmanship, whether that is in watchmaking or cars. People love old cars but we were losing the skills to work on them; now there are apprenticeships in classic car building and there will be a new generation to keep it going.

Have you always been interested in watches?

Yes. I’m not an aficionado and I’m not into labels or expensive watches just because they shout money. I buy a watch because I like the look of it, because it is designed in an interesting way, that’s my priority. I have a few pieces and my Bremont is probably the most high-end one.

Getting involved with the Jaguar watch has definitely deepened my interest. The craft is remarkable – and craft is so important. It helps us fall in love with objects in a digital world. It seems that we have gone full circle and young people today yearn for craftsmanship and to know about the people and the stories behind the things they are buying.

Any chance we’ll see an Ian Callum watch in the future?

Designers are all a little obsessed with timepieces because they are jewellery with purpose and, at the same time, there aren’t really any rules. They are just beautiful objects. I designed a watch at college. I don’t remember all the details, but it was funky and influenced by the Memphis Group – an Italian design movement from the 1970s.

I would love to design one for myself with Bremont in the future. I do know that I won’t work full-time for any other company – Jaguar is my home – but I do want to design other things, and that includes watches.

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