Talking Group B Fords, pretty Astons and why he hates the XJ220 – an interview with Ian Callum
The prettiest cars when I was growing up were the Aston Martin DB9, the Jaguar XK and the F-Type – and all three were designed by one extremely creative Scotsman.
Ian Callum has had a career intertwined with pivotal British brands, starting with the creation of interior trinkets at Ford, progressing to the lofty heights of Tom Walkinshaw Racing and then gaining real notoriety through his time at Aston Martin and his current home of Jaguar.
I grabbed him for a chat at the London Classic Car Show to dig deeper into the designs that have inspired an entire generation of petrolheads.
Where did the car design journey start for you?
"I got started as I worked in Dunton design in Essex, that’s where the Ford design studio was. My first few years at Ford I was designing steering wheels for Transit vans and Ford Escorts. That’s what I did for a long time. It was very frustrating. And then the RS200 came along and really this was my first car that I worked on. I look at it now and it’s pretty crude, but it has a history."
"We were asked if anybody wanted to do it and of course I stuck my hand up. So we developed the car through a number of months for aero and cooling and I kind of just went with the flow of learning about aerodynamics, it just had to function.
"I like the idea of aerodynamics working with the design. I learnt a lot about aero with the RS200."
"Round cars like the E-Type and DB7 aren’t actually that great for aero but I was so determined that shape was more important than aero – but I did understand it."
How did you get the Tom Walkinshaw Racing gig?
"I was at Ford, I had travelled the world. I came back to Dunton and discovered that I was designing steering wheels again, having just come back from managing an entire design team at Ghia in Italy.
"The opportunity came to go to TWR because Peter Stevens was going joining and Tom Walkinshaw wanted a design studio produced because he realised that that was a good shop window for engineering. However, Stevens had to go off and design the McLaren F1 so he basically said 'bye Tom, but I’ve got somebody here and by the way he’s Scottish so you’ll like him'. And we got on very well, Tom and I. I liked him, he was a tough guy."
What was Tom Walkinshaw like to work for?
"He was a bit of a battle-axe. He was a tough manager but he was very loyal to his team, he would support you to the nth degree.
"He said 'We’ve got a job from Aston to do, I want you to produce the most beautiful car you possibly can'. This became the DB7."
Ian remembers the design process of the DB7 fondly, albeit down to how much pressure he was under at the time
"And of course when I started this car I’d never done a car before in totality. I’d done the RS200 with a team but I was now on my own in a studio in the middle of Oxfordshire with this clay model thinking ‘god, I need to get this right’. It was quite daunting.
"Tom was dipping in and out of the design, he’d say 'tell me when it’s finished', and he wouldn’t make judgement or push you to get the answer because he respected the fact that on this subject, I knew better than he did. Of course I wasn’t going to tell Tom that I was still very much learning at this point, which I definitely was."
Ian's first job at TWR was to fix the front end of the Jaguar XJR-15, as Peter Stevens had designed it with a chin that created lift
Did you touch XJ220?
The XJR-15 and XJ220 are both road car products of the Tom Walkinshaw Racing era, although Callum doesn't think too much of the 212mph Jag
"No. I’m not a fan of the XJ220. I think it looks like it has eaten too much. I would just want to deflate it a little bit. I think its mass over the wheels was just a little bit too much, while the XJR-15 is beautifully lean.
"I think the ‘220 is fundamentally a very beautiful car but it denies its agility. The ‘220 is a brilliant car to drive – very quick – it just looks a little overweight. It seems big; it’s a purely personal thing but I prefer cars to be tight and efficient and when we’re designing sportscars – for me – it’s about wrapping the sheet metal around them, like the F-Type and C-X75."
We move swiftly onto my favourite of his designs – the Vanquish
"The front end on the Vanquish is powerful, isn’t it? It’s deliberately softer when we went to the DB9 as that was the gentleman’s car, the Vanquish was the tough car. This was the Aston Martin Vantage replacement, which itself was a very macho-looking car.
"There’s a line that goes straight through the door and up to the rear haunch, it gives the car that sense of muscle."
Is it safe to call the Jaguar RD-6 an ’S-Type hatchback’ or is that a bit rude?
"I love small cars, we had to design a car to show off our new V6. It is actually an XJ platform underneath and showed the management what we could do. They still remember this car and say retrospectively that we should have built it but they didn’t listen to me at the time, they just didn’t get it."
"It’s the same with I-Pace; when you do something that is so different to everybody else, you can price it where you want because they can’t define it. I love doing that with the marketing guys, producing something that they can’t define, they can’t pigeon-hole it.
"The moment they can specify it as a 3 Series competitor, an A6 competitor or whatever it might be, then you suddenly get stuck with the dimensions, the packaging and the pricing of that car. But the moment you go off piste and do something different… I get great joy out of that."
With the potential for a new XK and F-Type in the works and with the I-Pace selling quicker than Jaguar can possibly keep up with, Callum's designs will hopefully be gracing the British car industry for many years to come.
He's now working on the new XJ which he has already dubbed ‘the best car in the world’. Big words, but from a legendary man.