The Lotus Elise S1 is over two decades old, but it still looks great.
News broke today Ian Callum, longtime Jaguar head of design, is leaving the company effective July 1. It has been a good run for Callum, to put it mildly; his replacement, Julian Thomson, will have big shoes to fill. Fortunately, Thomson — currently the British marque’s no. 2 designer — seems well positioned to step up and into them. He’s been at Jaguar since 2000, almost as long as Callum, and helped guide the marque through a period of massive change in terms of both design and corporate ownership.
Safe to say, Thomson was an important part of the team that gave Jaguar its current identity. Working alongside Callum, one of the first projects to emerge during Thomson’s tenure as Jaguar advanced design director was the R-Coupe, a two-door styling exercise that debuted in 2001. Despite the nod to Jag heritage, visible especially in its old-school front fascia, we deemed the R-Coupe “perhaps the first truly modern concept car to emerge from the company since Ford took ownership more than a decade ago.”
There were no plans to build the four-seat coupe, but it was a significant car: It served as a styling bridge from the automaker’s retro past to its present design language, signaling that the Callum Era had begun. And Thomson was there for it.
Another pivotal Thomson-adjacent concept was the Jaguar C-X75, a wild turbine-powered hybrid supercar; we’re still seeing elements from the C-X75 appearing on, for example, the I-Pace. Like the R-Coupe, C-X75 design credit went to Callum; giving top billing to the top designer is typical in the automotive industry, and we wouldn’t want to attempt to delineate where his influence ended and Thomson’s began. But we will point you to the wild Isuzu 4200R, a crazy Japanese supercar concept that Thomson also played a role in designing. There’s more than a little resemblance to the cab-forward C-X75 in its Bubble Era lines.
If you want to get a clear idea of what Thomson is capable of, however, look to the Lotus Elise. Before his time at Jaguar, Thomson headed up design at Lotus (with a brief stint as exterior design director at the Volkswagen Group Design Center Europe, from late 1998 to late 1999, between the two roles). In addition to putting his spin on the Esprit for its penultimate Series 4 refresh, Thomson gets credit for the design of the 1996 Lotus Elise — perhaps the most significant, successful Lotus in recent history.
In a 2017 interview, Thomson told Petrolicious that in terms of configuration, proportion and overall feel, the Elise was inspired in part by his Ferrari Dino. There’s nothing about the Elise that screams “retro,” though. In fact, when compared to the historical Lotus stables — filled with a curious mix of open-seat motorcycle-fendered purist roadsters, dainty convertibles and coupes and funky wedges — it was a mind-blowing visual step forward — yet it still felt like a Lotus. That sort of stylistic feat is nothing to scoff at. As we wrote back in 1996,
“Even if you wanted to, and God knows why you would, it would be difficult to block the Lotus Elise’s pathway to your heart. When you see it smothered in road grime, as you usually will, it actually looks better than it does under the harsh light of the studio, because the dirt says something about how much it’s being enjoyed. It’s not classically beautiful, but it is unfailingly endearing from almost every angle. It looks delicate, even a little fragile.
With the top down, climbing aboard is surprisingly easy for anyone who has crawled into a Caterham. And once you have dropped into the cabin, the Caterham leaps to mind. This is no coincidence. The engineers at Caterham should be proud that their Seven has been singled out as the target for the Elise. Proud, because what was already a 15-year-old design in 1973 when it was bought from Lotus has been developed so well that now, nearly a quarter of a century later, its originator is the challenger.”
What’s more, despite a series of updates since the first cars emerged in over two decades ago, the Series 1 Elise still looks fresh.
If the Elise is an indication of Thomson’s ability to capture the spirit of a marque’s past without overtly copying classic shapes, we’re eager to see what he can do with Jaguar — especially as Jag seems poised to make a dramatic, if risky, leap into the electrified future.
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