The abrupt departure of Julian Thomson from Jaguar’s biggest design job is both surprising and predictable.
When in 2019 he finally took the design director’s appointment, succeeding Ian Callum with whom he had served for two decades as a loyal, willing and slightly maverick lieutenant, Thomson seemed at last to be getting his just deserts – the chance to accelerate and even to radicalise the great work the pair had been doing together.
But at the turn of the year, that plan abruptly changed when former Land Rover design director Gerry McGovern was promoted to a group design role, with jurisdiction over both Jaguar and Land Rover design. The clear authority Callum had enjoyed at Jaguar just wasn’t there any more.
As McGovern himself explained at the time, former Jaguar Land Rover CEO Sir Ralf Speth had wanted the two marques’ design functions to be separate. But his replacement, Thierry Bolloré, prefers to have an overarching design boss, in effect to stop the two wings of his empire wanting to do the same thing.
Although Jaguar’s most successful recent models have been SUVs, Bolloré believes Land Rover is the sole SUV specialist, not Jaguar. And it’s possible to see the validity of such an argument, too, if Jaguar is allowed to be even more different and even more special
However, it’s also easy to see how Thomson (and we have no guidance on this) might have felt that a large part of his challenge had been unceremoniously removed – he was, after all, heavily involved with the XJ electric luxury saloon that will now never appear – and that much of his freedom to operate had departed at the same time.
One thing’s for sure: Thomson’s departure is likely to put new pressure on the McGovern-Bolloré design structure. If they don’t succeed with Jaguar’s daring EV mission, to create a much smaller range of more upmarket electric-only Jags by 2025 – and to make them profitable – then creating conditions that have forced a good man out will look like a big, brand-threatening mistake.
The fascination now will be to see where Thomson turns up. He is an excellent team leader and a radical thinker. He remains a hot property as a designer. Apart from his input into a lot of progressive 1990s and 2000s Jaguars, he has two more remarkable car designs to his name: the Lotus Elise and the Land Rover LRX concept, which would go into production as the Range Rover Evoque.
Both were produced by small teams led in the most hands-on way possible by Thomson himself. Both changed their companies’ fortunes. Both are turning into great classics. In the Evoque’s case, people still find it remarkable that a model could be so successfully created to fill a 'white space' that few people even knew was there.
Given all this, it strikes us as vital, for the sake of car progress as much as for the designer’s own fulfilment, that Thomson very soon finds a powerful design gig where he will again have true, 24-carat freedom to operate.