Currently reading: My life in 12 cars: British design hero Ian Callum
The cars that tell the former Jaguar design chief's life story may surprise you – as will the tales behind them
Steve Cropley Autocar
News
13 mins read
13 September 2020

Plenty of stories about great car heroes turn out to be based on sand, but the one about Ian Callum finding his future career with his six-year-old nose pressed against the showroom window of the Edinburgh Jaguar dealership, Rossleighs, most definitely isn’t. His indulgent grandfather had taken him 80 miles from home in Dumfries just to see the extraordinary new E-Type sports car – and the rest is history.

That experience famously encouraged 14-year-old Callum to write to Jaguar boss Bill Heynes, who politely and correctly suggested he study design. Callum still has the letters and eventually followed the advice, finding a variety of car design jobs after graduation and eventually progressing to the top design job at Jaguar – where he not only redesigned every model, some several times, but also created a portfolio of new ones.

Then last year, he left Jaguar to launch a Warwick-based design studio with three partners but under his own name, promising to tackle car and non-car work. The studio’s first big job is a hugely detailed design upgrade, just launched, of the original Aston Martin Vanquish, a Callum original from the late 1990s.

Jaguar E-Type Coupe

“My grandfather used to get Life magazine, and it was my reaction to the famous photograph of Sir William Lyons and a grey metallic E-Type coupé on the back cover that encouraged him to take me to see the car in that Edinburgh showroom. If I hadn’t seen that E-Type in that magazine on that day, I’m not sure my life would have been the same.

“When I saw the E-Type in the flesh, it seemed to me that the future had arrived. It was so different and perfect and so utterly beautiful. I’d never seen beauty like that before. It was the exaggerated proportions that affected me, long before I realised that this was what the car’s designers, Malcolm Sayer and Sir William Lyons, were playing on. Little old British sports cars – and even the Porsche 356, which I also loved – all had more normal proportions. But the E-Type seemed so special, and it’s still special today.”

Standard Flying Ten

Callum’s father, a solicitor, wasn’t a car man, but it was still a big day in 1960 when the family acquired its first car, a pre-war Standard Flying Ten, although it didn’t last that long.

“Its arrival was a source of fascination for me,” Callum recalls. “I was already drawing lots of cars, and I can remember being fascinated by the curves of the Standard’s front wings. I used to climb on top and slide down them, which my father didn’t like. And I was fascinated by what I saw as the sporty rake of the rear. It wasn’t a sporty car, but it looked good to me.”

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The family used the Standard for regular trips to Edinburgh from home in Dumfries, but it was already an old car and it didn’t last; Callum remembers his dad arriving home from work on foot one day, saying the car wouldn’t be back because its engine had fallen out. “He became a Vauxhall Victor man after that.”

Ford Zephyr Mk4

When he was about 11, Callum went away to boarding school and soon noticed that other kids’ parents drove Rovers and Jaguars, not a battered old Victor like his own. His often-expressed wish that the family had something more interesting must have been partly responsible for their acquiring a Ford Zephyr Mk4, the 2.0-litre V4 model.

“It was quite a novel car,” says Callum, “with that long, aircraft-carrier bonnet and short boot. The engine was so tiny they could mount the spare wheel in front of it, behind the radiator. I loved that car. We had it for years and it eventually got pretty beaten up. It taught me to drive and I used to tear around Dumfries in it, loaded up with mates. It had a big, wide front bench seat and a column gearchange, so we could go six up.”

It was perfectly apparent by then that Callum was heading for a car design career, and the family used the Zephyr to drive to Coventry’s Lanchester Polytechnic (now Coventry University), where a course in Transport Design had just begun and young Callum had organised an interview. “I drove the Zephyr into the front of a bus and totalled it,” he recalls. “We had to drive home in a hired Morris Marina.”

Coventry didn’t work for Callum the first time around. A combination of illness and a general dislike of the city’s forbidding 1971 ambience meant he eventually trained at what he calls “an eclectic mix of colleges”: a reluctant year at Lanchester, then Aberdeen, Glasgow and finally postgraduate studies at the Royal College of Art in London, where he was sponsored by Ford.

Volvo PV544 Hot Rod

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“It wasn’t the usual trip through university,” he says, “but it was great. I never went through the agonies of kids today. The whole seven years of my education was paid for by someone else. And towards the end I was sponsored by Ford, where I could work in the holidays and get paid as well.

“My most significant car at that time was a Volvo PV544 bought from Peter Stevens, a fellow student and to this day a tutor at the RCA. The car had been hot-rodded and rode on big American mag wheels. We dropped an 1800cc MG B engine into it, which made it go pretty well, but the fuel consumption was a disaster, and I couldn’t really afford that as a student, so it had to go. Still, I reckoned I was the bee’s knees while I had it.”

VW Beetle Convertible

Once he’d graduated and was in full-time work at Ford, Callum wanted some more capable wheels. Drop-top Volkswagen Beetles were considered pretty chic around London, so he bought one: black with a cream top.

“I got the valve timing wrong, which made it overheat and run rich, and that’s death to a horizontally opposed engine – the excess fuel washes oil out of the bores – so the engine blew and I had to fit a new one,” says Callum. “But when it was fixed, I went everywhere in that car – umpteen trips to Scotland, to the south of France – and never thought anything of it.”

Ford Sierra RS Cosworth

Few car designers enjoy getting the spanners out as much as Callum (“I still love it’), but after two and a half Beetle years, he did the obvious thing and started running Fords on the company scheme, at first Fiesta XR2s, because they were small, funky and fun to drive. Then a Sierra Cosworth came into his life, the bold original one with a massive tea-tray spoiler – or “picnic tray”, as he calls it, having used it that way for outings with the young family he now had.

“That car taught me to drive properly,” he says. “It was close to perfect in so many ways. It had a great engine, and I used to change gears without the clutch, because you could. Its 0-60mph time probably wasn’t all that great in today’s terms, but it felt really quick. My brother Moray was working as a designer at Peugeot in France at that time, so we took it over there all the time and beat up the French around the Paris Périphérique.”

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The Cossie was Callum’s first proper company car and the priciest thing you could choose on the company scheme. “Guys my age in Escort diesel estates wanted to know how come I was running it, and I’d always say I was prepared to pay a ransom, because I wanted the car. It brings tears to my eyes when I remember how much I loved that car. I should have kept it.

“You’re supposed to give them back after 6000 miles, maximum 10,000, but I kept ignoring the letters and gave it back after 18 months with 36,000 miles on the clock. The fleet bloke went ballistic.”

Aston Martin DB7

Callum worked happily at Ford for 11 years in various roles, travelling to Ford outposts around the globe and ending up with an absorbing year as design manager at the Ghia studio in Turin, Italy, where he produced notable concepts such as Ford’s Zig and Zag and the Ghia Via, at one stage employing (and briefly firing) his brother Moray – another story.

Back at Ford’s Dunton facility in Essex, he found himself designing steering wheels again, a job he’d had a decade earlier, so he started looking around for something better. He chatted with his friend Peter Stevens, who was working for Tom Walkinshaw at TWR between jobs at Lotus. Walkinshaw wanted Stevens to open a TWR design studio, but he already had an offer from McLaren (to do the F1) and reckoned Callum might be the right man for TWR.

“Peter introduced me to Tom and at the same time told him he was heading off to McLaren. What an interview that was! Luckily, I got on really well with Tom from the earliest times. The Scottish connection was always good, and he trusted me. It was always the same with Tom: as long as you delivered, he was your best mate.”

The first project was the Aston Martin DB7, truly a make-or-break product for the beleaguered firm. “You couldn’t be more lucky than that,” says Callum, “but I was terrified – and naïve as well. I didn’t realise the company’s whole future rested on that car. Ford [Aston’s owner] needed to be impressed by the initial work to hand over the money we’d need to build it. The risk was enormous. But that car taught me to be rigorous with my own judgements – to question my own conclusions all the time – and it came out pretty well.”

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The Fords bigwigs were expecting Callum and Walkinshaw to show a clay model at a specially arranged London meeting of the big board, but they actually drove to it in a running car – a truly staggering achievement. The car was supposed to be based on the Jaguar XJS, but Walkinshaw had his engineers modify the structure enormously, change the cowl height and position, rear overhang, rear suspension layout and engine position (twice) so the DB7 would look right. And it did. There were early quality problems, but the DB7 became far and away the best-selling Aston in history. And it saved the company.

Aston Martin Vanquish

Callum cherishes his work on the Vanquish enough to want to work on it some more, but he especially rates it because it was his first chance to work with consummate engineer Bob Dover, now a close friend, who became Aston’s big boss at just the right time, having made a towering success of DB7 production.

The mission was to make a new Aston flagship – and to move on from using old XJS underbits – and by now the project had the invaluable support of Ford’s dynamic big chief, Jac Nasser, who owned a DBS himself, so he “knew what an Aston was”. Along the way, Nasser had managed to get Aston back into the James Bond films, a big coup. Even now, Callum – always more self-critical than most designers – likes the work he did with that car. “I’d do a few things differently if I were to reskin it,” he says, “but not many.”

Callum worked at TWR for nine years, insisting when big-company designer friends came calling that he was happier in his “tin shed” than they were in their luxurious, climate-controlled studios, designing door handles. Then Geoff Lawson, a Callum contemporary and Jaguar’s design chief, tragically and unexpectedly died, and as the best-qualified and obvious choice, Callum was offered the job. Everyone knew it was a no-brainer and he went for it with Walkinshaw’s blessing.

Much important work followed: first the Jaguar XK coupé, which strongly indicated how Jaguar’s face might change, and then the XF saloon, which changed it for good, leaping two generations at once. Then came the XE, which aimed to play in the same pool as the BMW 3 Series. Callum doesn’t say so, but this saloon pair were exhilarating but fraught projects that might have been better had there been less management interference.

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Even so, Callum’s influence and reputation rose rapidly. Outsiders could see what a heroic task it had been to drag Jaguar styling 15 years forward in an adverse environment. Callum became one of the nation’s favourite designers, quoted everywhere and collecting honours personally and for the cars. Inside, he was the same modest and uncomplicated car lover as ever.

Ferrari 250 GT SWB

From early years, Callum had always cited the Pininfarina-styled Ferrari 250 GT short-wheelbase as his idea of the most beautiful car, and in 2012 he had a chance to sample its excellence, taking part in several days of hard and fast driving in the most famous example going with owner Clive Beacham on the roads around Ullapool (whose magnificence he remembered from holidays with his parents). The exercise also featured a lightweight E-Type. Callum calls those days “the biggest box tick ever” and “one of the greatest drives of my life”. The Ferrari felt every bit as fabulous as it looked…

1932 Ford Model B Hot Rod

Callum has never been able to resist the urge to collect cars. Today, he has a Beetle convertible (a different one), a couple of Mini Coopers, a Jaguar XJ-C, an Aston Vanquish, a modified 993-gen Porsche 911, a Triumph TR6 and several more.

The star of his private car collection is undoubtedly his Ford Model B Coupé hot rod, powered by a Windsor 351cu in V8. He was introduced to US car culture at age 13 and his brother bought him some magazines on the subject. Then about 20 years ago he met John Golding, one of Britain’s finest builders of custom cars, who brought his own 1932 Ford coupé to Callum’s Gaydon headquarters for a meeting that turned into a friendship.

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The upshot was that Golding agreed to build a 1932 coupé for Callum, who has owned it in various guises ever since. In fact, he’s due to collect the Model B from Golding this very week, although not for the first time. The car is now in its third guise; having started its hot-rodding life with a 2.5in roof chop, it has now had another inch removed. The latest colour is Porsche grey, and it’s now on new five-spoke mags, not steel wheels as before. “This is what happens with hot rods,” says Callum. “You change them.”

Jaguar F-Type

Callum says he never expected to be as prominent as he has become in the design world. Even when the attention-getting DB7 job came along, he assumed it would make him a one-hit wonder. Instead, over successive decades, he has acquired a worldwide reputation as the man who created Jaguar’s new face, who brought Jaguar up to date and who can speak up in any forum for modern British design.

Callum has two favourites from his Jag years, the first of which is the F-Type sports car. “To be involved in producing ‘the next E-Type’ is a privilege I’d never have imagined for myself in a million years,” he says. “What an honour!

“I think the car works pretty well, and I say that with a true heart. But things are changing at JLR [Jaguar Land Rover] and I just hope the people who count there won’t be tempted to underestimate the value of a car like this in the line-up. It’s worth much more than money. At times, it did strike me that the car wasn’t discussed internally with the same passion as, say, Porsche people would discuss the 911.

Jaguar I-Pace

The other favourite is the much-honoured I-Pace electric SUV. “I’m proud of that car and what it stands for,” says Callum. “It shows you can junk a lot of traditional Jaguar rules – long bonnet, small rear-mounted cockpit, low, tapered tail – and still have a car that’s obviously a Jaguar. When I see it today, I still believe it’s ahead of the competition, and I take pride in that. Especially since it has been very successful. “I took the I-Pace project as an opportunity to demonstrate that you could still do something pretty creative but not give up on beauty. I’ve had some great drives in that car. I probably should get another one. But I guess you’d say the I-Pace was my Jaguar swansong. There are still a couple of other cars in the pipeline but, as I say, things are changing at JLR. Best to let it go.”

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The cars that Callum owns

Ian Callum brought six cars from his own collection to the recent London Concours and kindly took the time to talk us through them…

1932 Ford Model B: “It’s good for 400bhp, and with only around 1200kg, you have to treat it with respect. I’ve taken it to 120mph on tracks, but I reckon it could do a fair bit more than that!”

1976 Jaguar XJ-C 4.2: “The pillarless design is exquisite. I gave mine fatter, 225 tyres; with a smaller, 14in steering wheel, they communicate a surprising amount, but it still keeps that classic XJ experience of effortless driving.”

1995 Mini Cooper: “This is the car I’ve had for longest. It’s a brilliant design. The shape derived out of efficiency is perfect. Wearing the right wheels, it has one of the best stances of any car.”

1974 Triumph TR6: “Of all my cars, I use this one most. It’s perfect for a sunny Sunday. I’ve only driven it once with the roof up, when I got caught out in the rain.”

1995 Porsche 911: “I love the 911 shape, and the 993 is my favourite. Perfect modifications from Roock Racing chopped a fair bit of weight out. It’s lowered, with a track set-up that gives it just the right handling.”

2005 Aston Vanquish S: “Of the cars I designed, this is my favourite. It was a concise, precise process. When I drove it again, I was frankly surprised by how good it was, and it didn’t feel old.”

His favourite of all?

“I don’t like that question! But if I were forced, I would have to go for the 911. Oops: I guess I was supposed to say the Vanquish!”

READ MORE

First drive: Aston Martin Callum Vanquish 25 by R-Reforged 

On a charge: Driving the Jaguar I-Pace from London to Frankfurt 

From ink to I-Pace: How Jaguar designs an electric car

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Comments
14

13 September 2020

No prize for guessing who wrote the above. One who never fails to bring the nationalist narrative into any article at all. 

Here the headline says "British designer hero". Why not simply describe Callum as a designer or even a designer hero if you like his work so much?

13 September 2020

His designs saved Aston Martin and set the tone for the next decade (now being ruined by the hack Reichman).

 

His designs saved Jaguar after they got stuck in the past. A modern, fresh, look for Jaguar.

 

Name another designer with that track record.   He is a genius.

13 September 2020
Symanski wrote:

Name another designer with that track record.   He is a genius.

My preferred designers are Giugaro for VW & Fiat, Paul Bracq for Mercedes & BMW, Bruno Sacco for Mercedes, Flaminio Bertoni for Citroen, Peter Schreyer for Audi ...

... One could easily say that Giugaro saved VW with the Golf. 

13 September 2020
abkq wrote:

My preferred designers are Giugaro for VW & Fiat, Paul Bracq for Mercedes & BMW, Bruno Sacco for Mercedes, Flaminio Bertoni for Citroen, Peter Schreyer for Audi ...

... One could easily say that Giugaro saved VW with the Golf. 

 

Some of those are before my time, sorry. Looking them up, yes, impressive body of work.

 

Some did more evolutionary designs rather than revolutionary that Callum did. To have completely change the design direction of a company, not once but twice. That's why I think Callum stands out even amongst these designers.

13 September 2020

In general I like Callum's clean minimalist approach to car design when other designers go bonkers on crease lines and unsightly bulges. 

But it's hard to make a case for the very bland-looking XF

However my biggest problem is with the Jaguar interior. Here Callum's design team decided to throw away all Jaguar-ness and replaced it with ... nothing. No inspiration, no delightful details. No cabin ambiance.

If you break away with tradition, make sure you replace it with something worthwhile. This is not the case with Jaguar, and it is Jaguar's biggest failure. Of course Cropley's piece does not ask hard questions. 

13 September 2020
Symanski wrote:

His designs saved Aston Martin and set the tone for the next decade (now being ruined by the hack Reichman).

 

His designs saved Jaguar after they got stuck in the past. A modern, fresh, look for Jaguar.

 

Name another designer with that track record.   He is a genius.

Yeah the XE and XF are a phenomenal sales success, the F-Type is selling like hotcakes, and dont even get me started on the E-Pace..  Then of course he bastardised the Jaguar mk2 and his latest vanity projuct is a very expnsive rehash of a car that want exactly that good first time round, and he failed to address the serious problem that makes the doors look odd.  He basically ruined Jaguar design in my opinion, far more misses than hits.  As for Aston Martin, he took a Jaguar design, turned it into an Aston, and then fiddled with it a bit to make range that are virtually impossile to tell apart, if it wasnt for the very deep pockets Ford had at the time Jaguar and Aston Martin would have failed miserably, the only former PAG brand that has actually gone on and made a real impact is Volvo, which thankfully he never had a hand in, apart from nicking parts from them. 

13 September 2020

What's wrong with being a "British Design Hero"??? Are we now saying it's politically correct not to mention "British"??? 

13 September 2020
jagdavey wrote:

What's wrong with being a "British Design Hero"??? Are we now saying it's politically correct not to mention "British"??? 

It suggests there is a set of British characteristics in car design. I disagree. One might describe Aston-Martin-ness, Jaguar-ness etc. or even Callum-ness if one cared to analysis Callum's designs, but to speak of Britishness is too vague and unspecific.

In any case no nation has the right to claim an individual's achievements. The most a nation can lay claim to is as an enabler (by providing funding, the right social conditions etc.), but the achievement is an individual's.

Used as description, 'British' designer could be substituted by vegetarian designer, or dog-loving designer etc., that is, it contributes nothing to the content of this article.

13 September 2020
I don't often feel the need to comment on every article I read on here, but witnessing Steve Cropley's continued journey up Ian Callum's rectum is surreal. It's not even journalism anymore, it's myopic PR guff.

13 September 2020
If Autocar wants to give further exposure to Callum then why not send another from the writing staff instead of Cropley, time and again? It may bring a little more balance and a different perspective to these kind of articles.

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