Robbo

SHOW BUSINESS

“HE SET ABOUT CREATING A CAR AS CLOSE AS POSSIBLE TO A MOTORCYCLE IN SIMPLICITY AND MINIMALISM”

IN 1989, THE ONLY practicable way from Tokyo to the motor show was by train. Which is how I meet Julian Thomson and Simon Cox, both designers at Lotus. What I didn’t appreciate, until we talked later in the day on the Isuzu stand, was that the two Brits were responsible for the star of what was recognised as one of the great motor shows.

Lotus and Isuzu were then both under the General Motors umbrella. Working under Shiro Nakamura, who ran Isuzu’s Brussels design studio and would go on to a stellar career as boss of Nissan design, the two Poms were asked to create what became the Isuzu 4200R, a mid-engined supercar powered by a Lotus 4.2-litre V8. Thomson was responsible for the exterior design; Cox the interior.

Such a car from Isuzu is impossible to imagine today with the Japanese manufacturer now the maker of SUVs and utes. Not so in the 1980s, when Isuzu cars were sold worldwide under various badges.

Of the gorgeous 4200R, Julian told me, “I only did a car like this because I can’t do futuristic ones like the Mitsubishi HSR. I’m not very good at coming up with radically new shapes. I leave that to Simon. What I like doing is classic shapes; wellproportioned with modern touches. I just hope people think it’s beautiful.”

So positive was the reaction to the concept car that Isuzu faced immense pressure to push it into production. Only then did management realise it was a step way too far for the financially troubled car maker.

Following the departure of Peter Stephens from Lotus, the two young designers formed part of what was a revitalised Lotus ‘Brat Pack’. In May 1990, Thomson and a few of his mates at Lotus, along with Ghia designers Moray Callum and Sally Wilson, stayed at my home in Italy. The Lotus Espritdriving Brits then joined a group of Porsche designers, who fashioned fake press passes for their 911s, to run the Mille Miglia course with the competing cars. Thirty years ago the MM was a highly competitive, if unofficial, road race from Brescia to Rome and back. The designers, having found car paradise, couldn’t resist joining in.

In 1993, when GM finally accepted tiny Lotus was outside its understanding, Romano Artioli (who also owned Bugatti) bought the UK-based sports car brand. Immediately, Artioli set Thomson to work on proposals for an all-new Lotus. The brief from Artioli was to “realise a car that would revive Lotus with the true ideals of the company’s founder Colin Chapman”.

Thomson’s in-house design won the competition. For his Elise, inspired by a Dino 246 (Julian bought a Dino in 1985), he set about creating a car that was as close as possible to a motorcycle in terms of simplicity and minimalism. Thomson still owns the Dino, and he taught his son to drive in the car.

Julian stayed with Lotus for 11 years, but when it became obvious that Proton, who bought the company from a bankrupt Artioli in 1996, didn’t have the money to develop models beyond evolutions of the Elise, he moved to the VW Group Design studios near Barcelona. Established in 1994, Design Centre Europe did concept proposal and production design work for VW, Audi, Skoda and Seat. He survived as head of exterior design from September 1998 to December the following year, but was unhappy with the internal company politics and started to look for an alternative position.

Wanting to return to England, Thomson asked if I could help organise an interview with Ian Callum, who’d recently become head of design at Jaguar. Door opened, Thomson quickly made the move, and in 2018 replaced Callum as Jaguar’s Director of Design. Some months after his appointment at Jaguar, Julian sent me the drawing – dated November 2000 – reproduced here. No badges, just a discreet Jaguar tag on the huge alloy wheel of what remains a lovely car.