Jan 26, 2023

Ian Callum is one of those legends in the car industry whose very name instantly recalls some of the utterly iconic cars he has designed during a 40-year career working around the world.

Despite his globetrotting Callum somehow he never made it to New Zealand, something he recently rectified when he came here to both visit his son and speak at a Jaguar Owner’s Club event. Steve Vermeulen spoke with the man behind some of Britain’s most iconic automotive designs.

The story of how Scottish car designer Ian Callum got into the profession is one of legend: at 14 he wrote to Jaguar boss, Bill Heynes, asking for a job after falling in love with Jaguars when his grandfather took him to see the then-new E-Type sports car when he was six.

Heynes replied to the teenager, suggesting that he should study design first, which is exactly what Callum did. Thirty-one years later, Callum would land the the job he originally wanted and was appointed head designer for Jaguar in 1999.

Before Jaguar though, Callum cut his teeth in car design at Ford.

“Ford was a great place to work, it was a great starting place to learn,” said Callum of his time at the Blue Oval. “It’s not just about ‘shape’, it’s about doing it for a price - the cost, the weight and other constraints - it was a serious bit of learning.” said Callum of his time at the Blue Oval where he penned two of his most beloved designs, the RS200 and Escort RS Cosworth.

“I was very fortunate that I could volunteer to design these cars because, for some reason, the other designers felt [competition cars] weren’t really their thing. I’m very proud of the Escort Cosworth, you had to be very pragmatic with these cars because they were designed in a wind tunnel. They had to be done in such a way that was aesthetically pleasing, but the metrics and the demands for the car came from aerodynamics. But that's what design is all about; it’s not just making something beautiful, it has to be something that does the job and these were competition cars.”

Callum left Ford in 1990 for Tom Walkinshaw Racing Design where he was responsible for even more acclaimed models including Aston Martin’s DB7, Vantage and Vanquish, as well as designs for Volvo (the C70 coupe), Nissan (the R390 LMGT1 racing car) and, of course, HSV, Walkinshaw’s collaboration with Holden in Australia.

When it comes to designing cars, Callum says they’re shaped substantially by two factors.

“People - and we’re getting bigger by the way - and aerodynamics. Designers do tend to design cars in a slight bubble of isolation. They want to do the best job possible to make the cars look good and work well. Of course, other constraints come into play fairly early on in the programme.

“There’s a sense of responsibility. You have to be aware of it when you’re designing cars because if you design stuff that’s totally off the wall, it's going to cost more money. So you have to be clever in that way.”

Callum’s ability to balance aesthetic and commercial outcomes were what made him the perfect candidate to lead Jaguar’s design revolution in the early 2000’s and he is responsible for modernising the brand with his elegant and flowing designs for the current range, from the Jaguar XF and XJ through to the brand’s first SUV and i-Pace electric vehicle.

To say Callum reinvigorated Jaguar during his 20 year tenure is a gross understatement, his designs have propelled Jaguar to a new heights with a broader audience than ever before and his influence will be long lasting for the British Marque.

Now, as Director of his own design company simply called, Callum, he has revealed his own passion project. A modern ‘rethinking’ of his original Vanquish design, the Callum Vanquish 25, of which one (of just 25 worldwide) has been secured for New Zealand.

“I love cars and I was determined this wasn’t going to be just a cosmetic job, so we sorted out the handling, suspension, steering and brakes with more modern componentry. It’s much better to drive - it’s still a GT car, but it certainly handles a lot better than the original. And on the interior we could use LED lights and all the technology and modern materials I wish I had access to in 1998!”

While the Callum Vanquish 25 revive a past design, I’m curious to get Ian’s take on the future of design, so what exactly does a design legend think will happen to car design in our electric future?

“The thing that determines a car's shape is people,” he says without pause. “You design a car around them, so I don’t think things will radically change.”

“I think we’ll see detail changes, I think we’ll see a shift to taller cars because of the batteries, and also a shift to less bonnet length, but I don’t think they’ll change that much. Clearly fashions will come and go though.”

While in all his years travelling the world Callum never made it to New Zealand before, he is absolutely determined that his recent trip here will not be a one-off.

“I have travelled the world all my life and worked in a great many places, but I actually feel most comfortable in New Zealand, I can see why my son wants to live here. I’ll definitely be back. Absolutely”.