Age shall not wither

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Taking a road car racing was the foundation stone of Jaguar’s Le Mans successes during the 1950s. Four decades later,  it decided to revive the principle with the XJ220 – a car that celebrates its silver jubilee this summer

Despite being armed only with the rear-view mirror of a Fiat Punto, I was able to see the bigger picture. On a picturesque Staffordshire B-road, what followed appeared to be part-car, part-spaceship – something from a future century, though its roots lay squarely in the one before. Styled in the late 1980s and delivered to its first customer 25 summers ago, the Jaguar XJ220 is the very definition of timeless.

We were in rural Staffordshire because the village of Hill Chorlton has become the epicentre of global XJ220 maintenance. Well known in historic motor sport circles, Don Law Racing first worked on XJ220s in 1996 and prepared a couple for competition the following year. When Jaguar’s then-owner Ford decided to close the company’s specialised JaguarSport division in 1998, Law accepted an offer to take on the XJ220 business and is now equipped to look after the 281 such cars Jaguar built. They come to him from all around the planet, some with mileages commensurate with their age and others having barely been used since delivery – if, indeed, they have been driven at all. At the time of our visit, there were more than 20 on site, not to mention half a dozen XJR-15s, a Lancia Delta S4, a BMW M1 and, obviously, an Austin A35 pick-up.

Also present were the XJ220’s instigator Jim Randle and his stylist Keith Helfet, there to discuss the car’s genesis as part of the build-up to a 25th anniversary celebration at this year’s Silverstone Classic, when the largest ever gathering of XJ220s – possibly as many as 40 – will take part in commemorative parades.

In a world where manufacturing decisions are driven by teams armed with suits and spreadsheets, the story of the XJ220’s evolution is a refreshing contrast. “I had nothing to do during one Christmas break,” Randle says, “and was feeling bored. I’d long liked the idea of the way Jaguar tackled motor sport in the 1950s, with its C- and D-types that could be driven on the road to Le Mans and then raced. During the 1980s we’d won in the European Touring Car Championship, with the XJ-S, and had been successful in Group C, so I quite fancied doing something that harked back to a previous era. I made a quarter-scale cardboard model and gave it to my stylists so that they could play with it. They came back with two ideas, one that looked like a Porsche Group C car of the day and Keith Helfet’s design, which we chose.”

Initially, though, the project was to be known only to those directly involved. “John Egan [Jaguar CEO and chairman] was aware I was doing something,” Randle says, “but he didn’t see the car until about two weeks before it was unveiled at the 1988 British Motor Show in Birmingham. If I’d put it to the board to do it properly, I’d have had to ask for a couple of million quid. I wasn’t going to get that, so did it in such a way that it wasn’t going to cost the company a penny. 

“I always thought I could pull it off and asked for a number of volunteers, which I got. The rules were simple: you couldn’t work on this in Jaguar time and you wouldn’t be paid, although I promised that they would be recognised in the longer term. They were all given a specific area of the car to work on and entrusted to make their own decisions. They could come to me only if they found a decision too difficult to make. Of course, I know some of them did work on the project in Jaguar time, but I never caught them…”

Helfet remembers this well-intentioned subterfuge very fondly. “Conversations about doing a car like this had been bouncing around for a while, then during the Christmas holidays – I think on Boxing Day – Jim called me at home and said, ‘I’m working on a chassis and want you to put a pretty body on it.’ You don’t turn an opportunity like that down, but Jim underlined that this was unofficial, real skunkworks stuff. He asked me to do some sketches, but I said, ‘Jim, you know I don’t sketch – I make models.’ So I did a few doodles. I’m the only car designer I know who can’t produce beautiful drawings, but I’m quite a good sculptor. What happens in my head is three-dimensional, so I just got on with creating something for a chassis that was supposed to incorporate a V12 and four-wheel drive.

“By the time we started in earnest, Jim had assembled a dozen volunteers and we had the nickname ‘The Saturday Club’ because we’d meet up at the weekend to discuss progress. The rest of the time we all just did our own thing. The project was known only to departments that had some input: the guys in engineering knew a lot about it, but sales and marketing definitely weren’t in the loop. One of the reasons was that they would have taken a ‘grey suit’ approach to the whole thing and Jim definitely didn’t want that. Once we started building the thing it was all done off-site.

“As well as the in-house volunteers we had lots of serious companies providing their services for free. When Connolly sent some hide, our trimmer Callow & Maddock told us it was the finest they’d ever seen – they couldn’t buy leather like that and we were getting it all for free. That rather typified the project. It was such a labour of love, a passion-driven thing, that only the best was good enough. That was the adage for the first concept car.

“It was a real team effort. I love skunkworks…”

Randle: “It was a good time – but the guys worked ridiculous hours. During the week they’d focus on the XJ220 from 6.00-8.30 in the morning, then go and do a full day’s work at Jaguar before going back to do more on the XJ220 until late in the evening. That went on for months and included a lot of weekend work. Once the car had progressed to a certain point, it was very difficult to stop it.”

So well received was the XJ220 at its Birmingham launch that some potential customers famously handed the company blank cheques by way of deposit, so keen were they to acquire the new V12-powered four-wheel-drive supercar. “As soon as we announced it,” Randle says, “people were coming forward with £40,000 deposits and we had enough money to go ahead with the project, so essentially it didn’t cost Jaguar anything. It illustrated that you didn’t need thousands of people – or millions of pounds – to do a job.”

Between then and the XJ220’s formal introduction, however, two things happened. One, the market for performance cars as appreciating assets collapsed; two, Jaguar opted to abandon its complex four-wheel-drive V12 concept in favour of a rear-drive V6 turbo. It would still be the fastest production car of its day – clocked at 212.3mph during factory testing – but the altered spec and wobbly financial climate triggered a spate of cancelled orders. When Law Sr went to look at the XJ220 inventory, more than 100 cars were stored beneath covers at Jaguar’s old Browns Lane factory. “They looked quite ghostly,” he says.

With hindsight, though, the keepers of the XJ220 flame believe the company took the correct decision. “The V12 would have been old-fashioned, too big and had too much weight high up – and with four-wheel drive it just wouldn’t have worked as well,” says Don Law. “They had to use what was available – plus they had the benefit of V6 turbo experience from the XJR-10 and XJR-11 racing cars.”

His son Justin, who has driven XJ220s competitively and has probably covered more miles in an XJ220 than anybody, adds: “The V6 is half the weight of a V12 and half the physical size, so the car doesn’t have to be so long, and the turbo is so tuneable. A full-race V12 would give you 700bhp and that would be about it. We think the V6 can be tuned reliably to about 1000bhp – that’s the magic target.” He regularly drives a car with 800bhp-plus; the one in which he takes me for a spin has “about 630” and slabs of low-end torque that make it as responsive as you’d hope it to be. It doesn’t look like a 25-year-old car, nor does it feel like one.

For Helfet, the visit to Don Law’s workshop heralded the first time he’d seen any XJ220, let alone 20-odd, for about five years. “I think it still gives me the same warm feeling,” he says. “I think it has such presence. Early on during testing, I saw a bunch of schoolboys by the side of the road and was aware that one of them had clocked me. As I went past I noticed them reacting and suddenly they all started clapping – a spontaneous reaction from a bunch of young boys, which was heart-warming for obvious reasons.”

Other early tests were more covert, conducted using bits of XJ220 running gear installed in the back of a Ford Transit van. That eventually broke its (standard!) front suspension after being timed at 172mph around the Millbrook Proving Ground, but the Laws have restored it and fitted a fuller set of XJ220 underpinnings to prevent it shaking itself apart.

“Jaguar’s founding father Sir William Lyons died in 1985 and wasn’t around when I was doing the XJ220,” Helfet says. “He had a fantastic understanding of form – like me I think he was a frustrated sculptor – and I felt his spirit at my shoulder the whole time I was working, wondering whether he’d approve. The earlier Jaguars of Sir William and Malcolm Sayers were all about design language – they were beautiful because of the surface sculptures, the movement within the body form, curves that were always accelerating or decelerating. That’s why people said the E-type looked as though it was doing 100mph while standing still. It was dynamic because of its surfaces and shapes. I wanted to continue that theme with the XJ220. 

“The bodies were done by Park Street Metal, where the guys were taking flat sheets of aluminium on rolling machines and tapping them into shape – I felt so guilty for making their job so tough. I later apologised to them and one replied, ‘You don’t have to apologise, it was hard but this has been the highlight of my career.’ I thought about that. It was difficult, but we were all so proud of it.”

As a postscript, the XJ220 influenced Helfet’s career in a way he could never have imagined. “The XJ220 was important on a personal level,” he says, “because it put me on the car design map. And then, after the launch, a gentleman called and asked me to design an MRI body scanner. I didn’t even know what an MRI was at that stage, but they wanted me to apply the same sculptural principles to an MRI machine and I ended up doing several. Happily, I didn’t have to worry about the clever bits inside…”

Jim Randle, Keith Helfet and other members of the Jaguar XJ220 team will be present for the car’s 25th anniversary celebration at the Silverstone Classic, which takes place from July 28-30. Adult tickets start at £43 and details can be found at www.silverstoneclassic.com

Sweet but short

How the XJ220 conquered Le Mans… briefly

Three XJ220s were set aside for a Le Mans programme with Jaguar’s motor sport partner Tom Walkinshaw Racing – though one was never completed, as the original factory prototype was subsequently procured for competition. That ‘unfinished’ car is now in Don Law Racing’s workshop, being fettled for its original purpose under the watchful guidance of Jeff Wilson – chief mechanic on TWR’s XJ220 programme in 1993.

Two of TWR’s three entries retired with engine problems, but the David Brabham/David Coulthard/John Nielsen car recovered from a lengthy stop to finish a class-winning 10th overall… initially, at least.

“It was all about catalytic converters and whether we should run them or not,” Wilson says. “I felt we shouldn’t – it wasn’t a performance problem, but a cat could have fallen apart and caused an interior blockage, just one more potential problem to avoid. We felt we didn’t have to use them. We’d done an IMSA race at Elkhart Lake beforehand without the cat and officials in the States were happy, so to our minds that was fine. We decided to race in that spec and felt confident we’d be able to win our case if there were any post-race arguments.”

As, indeed, they might have done after the car was excluded, except that the appeal forms were filed too late. “I’m not sure what happened there,” Wilson says, “but I still regard it as a win.

“The XJ220 had a very good chassis for racing – tremendously stiff. We didn’t have to do anything to it and just raced it as it was. We obviously had to make it more serviceable for Le Mans, though, getting out as much weight as we possibly could and making the body parts more easily detachable.”

That was just as well, because the XJ220 required a replacement fuel tank during the night before it recovered to finish first on the road.

“The car was quite difficult at first,” says Brabham, “pretty tail-happy – not to mention slow – but a bigger rear wing was fitted for the race and that brought it to life. Even then, the week was far from straightforward. I remember doing pitstop practice with DC when the air hose holding up the jack popped off and the car dropped to the ground, pinning my right foot beneath it. By the time the race came around, my foot was so purple and swollen that I couldn’t get my boot on – I had to wear a sneaker and heel-and-toe with the side of my foot, which was very painful.

“At one stage during the race, I began to get a headache from fumes creeping into the car and my heels started to slip around due to fuel leaking into the footwell. The team asked me to continue to the end of my stint, which I did, and when I came into the pits the car was wheeled into the garage. It was quite clear that fuel was leaking, so when they asked if I would mind completing another few laps while they figured out what best to do, I think I was pretty unequivocal in my response and they had to fit a whole new fuel tank.

“Still, we fought back and against all odds ended up winning our class. To represent Jaguar at Le Mans was already very cool – and my brother was one of the overall race winners with Peugeot, so it was a particularly special moment for the Brabham family. But then, of course, we were disqualified…”

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