Like all great car designers, and quite a few who aren’t, Julian Thomson drew cars constantly when he was young.
But instead of drawing other people’s designs – Ferraris and Porsches, like the other kids – he always drew his own. “My father, who worked in the National Gallery, wasn’t especially into cars but he loved the creative process,” says 58-year-old Thomson, who succeeded Ian Callum last July as Jaguar’s design director after 20 action-packed years as his closest associate. “He always encouraged us kids to do our own thing. If we made an Airfix kit, we’d immediately cut it up and make it into something of our own. I suppose I was designing from the very beginning without realising it.”
Thomson was always the natural successor to Callum, having been right there during the re-founding of Jaguar’s design values via the XK, XF, XE and all the other new Jags of the past decade. But it would be quite wrong to suggest he spent much time in Callum’s shadow. After a spell at the Royal College of Art’s postgrad car design course, he created the original Lotus Elise, which brilliantly set a new design direction for Lotus without harming its best-loved values. And during a busy couple of years as Land Rover’s advanced design chief, under the direction of chief design officer Gerry McGovern, Thomson led a tiny team that created the original Land Rover LRX concept that soon appeared, little changed, in production as the Range Rover Evoque. That model became a car industry phenomenon, quadrupling predicted sales for a decade and moving Land Rover to a whole new commercial footing.
No one who’s ever seen Thomson at work would ever cast him as a yes-man. “Ian and I had a yin and yang thing going,” he explains. “He was the curator of Jaguar’s design values. I was the maverick who always wanted to push. The cars were, in a sense, the average of that.
“We disagreed almost out of habit and the design team came to expect us to haggle things out. It’s vital in our job to be able to sound off, to throw ideas back and forth but to do it comfortably. We could do that. My task now is to keep that questioning spirit going.”
Thomson has always been very close to his two most senior designers, Alister Whelan and Adam Hatton, and says he’ll depend on them – and others – to sustain that maverick spirit. Meanwhile, despite two decades of creative disagreement, he’s extremely positive about the achievements of the Callum years.
“Ian and I arrived at Jaguar within a few months of one another with exactly the same intentions,” Thomson says. “We had both led the reinvention of British sports car brands that had lost their way – Aston Martin for him, Lotus for me – and we did that by grabbing them by the scruff of the neck and moving them into the future.
“That was the job to be done at Jaguar, on a much bigger scale and with a wider product line-up. We had to take the crown jewels of the British motor industry and make the cars more innovative and more forward looking. It took time but I believe we’ve achieved it.”