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Ian Callum wants to bring back artistry to car design

“Beauty is more difficult to create than creating something that’s different”

Anyone who knows Ian Callum will also know that his exit from Jaguar last month—Jexit?—after almost two decades of steering its design wasn’t the end, more a new beginning. “Liberating, that’s how it feels,” he says as his new design and engineering business CALLUM (upper case) is unveiled. “I’ve been very fortunate, don’t get me wrong, but I now have a choice what to do on a daily basis. I’ll be the designer of my own future.”

That and many other things. Callum, based in a 1,858sqm facility in Warwickshire, will be channeling its boss’s world-class design smarts into travel, audio, and furniture as well as automotive. After 40-plus years in the business, it’s time for the man whose contribution to our world earned him a CBE to stretch out in ways that the corporate strictures of Big Auto rarely allow.

Says Callum: “It’s important to me that I’m creative; that’s the stimulus of life. It was essential that I continue with that, although the unfortunate thing is that my medium is very expensive. But I’m going to have a go at this. I could have taken up painting, but I’m a 3D kind of person, so whatever I do had to have a dynamism and real purpose.”

Backed by a still-secret investor, Callum will be joined by three others: program director David Fairbairn, who developed a fearsome reputation both for lateral thinking and an ability to get things done while at Jaguar; engineering director Adam Donfrancesco, who has cars like the Noble M600, the Aston Martin GT8 and GT12, and the F-Type GT4 to his name; and commercial director Tom Bird, who has worked for PWC, Barclays, and JLR. This is a formidable array of talent.


“My name’s above the door, but if I want to be successful, I need to surround myself with good people,” Callum freely admits. “There are four directors; we all have an equal play to make sure it happens, there’s no hierarchy. You need friends and people you can trust. You can’t do something like this on your own, and it’s not an ego thing. We all go through phases of that, where you have to prove something to yourself, then to other people, and then back to yourself again. I’m getting the acoustic guitar out again and hoping I can still play some good tunes.”

Callum is also pragmatic enough to know that the creative impulse can’t go totally unfettered: “It’s important to understand the calibration of being creative and actually making it happen.” But the strong romantic streak and innate appreciation of what makes something beautiful—something that has always marked out this most fascinating of automotive figures—is still going to be given full rein.

“The focus will be on the things we enjoy. My mantra is the ‘journey to destinations,’” he shares. “I don’t want to get into corporate train interiors or kettles. I want to get into things that are born of artistry rather than pure practicality. Because I’ve done all that. This might be contentious, but I also believe that once you’ve designed a car, and all the various components involved as well as navigating all the legislation, you can probably design most things. People talk about someone ‘penning’ a design, and it’s a word I loathe. The real strength in car design is in understanding how to get that notion into reality. It’s a very, very complicated process.”

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It’s also an opportunity for him to rediscover one aspect of contemporary car design that many—Callum included—think has gone AWOL.

“I’d like us to be in charge of what we’re creating—see it through to the end to the level we want to see it through to,” he says. “It’s a tall order, I know. Metrics and processes are amazing, but I want to bring some artistry back into it. Beauty is missing, and it’s more difficult to create than creating something that’s different. There’s a lot of stuff out there that’s brutal and different for the sake of it.”

Though not ready to reveal his plans, Top Gear knows what’s coming, and it’s very good news indeed.

“It will be a car,” Callum confirms. “It’s a nice story, and a story I have the right to tell. It’s also a controlled project, and one we can do without getting too ambitious—although any 3D project on this scale is inherently ambitious. It’s a stepping stone for me. Chassis, powertrain, exterior, and interior—we’ll be working on all of it. One day, I want to do a whole car, but this is a good place to start.”

Watch this space.

NOTE: This article first appeared on Minor edits have been made.

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