Bob Tullius believed he could win Le Mans for Jaguar. He got his chance, but he was told right from the outset that the project would soon be taken away from his Group 44 team. Gary Watkins tells the story of a cat who only got two lives

The pinstripe-suited captain of British industry and the grizzled American racing veteran met in the boardroom at Brown’s Lane, and these unlikely bedfellows shook hands on a deal that would take Jaguar back into international sportscar racing for the first time in 20 years.

But as they bade their farewells, new Jaguar boss John Egan had some more news for Bob Tullius, the man he’d just charged with building a sports-prototype for the North American IMSA GTP series. “I want you to know two things,” Egan told him. “First, you are going to take us back to the Le Mans 24 Hours. Second, one day we are going do this ourselves from the factory.”

It was January 1981, and Jaguar had just been set on a course that would restore the Coventry marque to its rightful place in motorsport, though the route was not quite as Egan envisaged. The luxury car maker, still part of the government-owned British Leyland conglomerate, did go back to Le Mans. But the idea of building a car in-house had long been forgotten by the time Tullius’ Group 44 squad made the second of two appearances at the 24 Hours over four years later.

An IMSA programme with an all-new coupé was the brainchild ofJaguar Cars USA executive vice president, Mike Dale. The expat Briton, a keen amateur racer and one-time on-track rival of Tullius, came up with the idea as a means of reviving the company’s fortunes in the US.

“Jaguar was in its death throes in this county,” explains Tullius. “Mike devised the racing programme as a means of reinvigorating the dealer network.”

The plan to use this campaign as a springboard for a Le Mans campaign appears to have been Egan’s. “Returning there was part and parcel of putting the Jaguar story back together,” says Sir John. “Motor racing in general, and Le Mans in particular, was very important in rebuilding the company’s image.”

The Virginia-based Group 44 squad of Tullius was the obvious choice to front-up Jaguar’s return to the track. Its boss had a close working relationship with Dale that went beyond their rivalry in SCCA events a decade before. Tullius had made the move from drag strips to road courses at the wheel of his wife’s Triumph TR3 and secured a toehold as BL’s forerunner when given a TR4 to race.

Group 44 Inc was set up in 1964, running Triumphs until obtaining its first Jag 10 years later. Tullius won the SCCA National title with an E-type at his second attempt, then stepped up to Trans-Am with the new XJ-S and won back-to-back drivers’ championships in 77-78. “That car was almost unbeatable,” he recalls. “We won seven out of 10 races in 1978.”

A switch to a Triumph TR8 yielded more Trans-Am glory and, after being handed a weight penalty, in IMSA’s GTO category. Then it was announced that BL (Jaguar excepted) would be withdrawing from the US market.

Group 44’s future was in doubt until Tullius made his transatlantic hop to Coventry. The plan called for Jaguar to go racing and, clearly, a GTP couldn’t be designed and built for the forthcoming season. Apparently, on the insistence of Graham Whitehead, Dale’s boss at Jaguar in the US, it was decided that Group 44 must return to Trans-Am with the XJ-S in 1981. It wasn’t the way Tullius would have done it.

“We knew doing Trans-Am would dilute the GTP effort,” he explains. “It meant I had to set up separate teams to race the XJ-S and develop the GTP car.”

Tullius needed to bolster his operation for the new project, and the idea of bringing in man of the moment Patrick Head was mooted. “I nipped that in the bud,” remembers Tullius. “Trying to design a car for the US in England would have been a disaster.”

Instead, Group 44 turned to Lee Dykstra, an up-and-coming designer whose CAC cars were winning Can-Am races with Al Holbert. His brief was to design a racer for the rough-and-tumble of US tracks, but which could also stretch its legs at Le Mans. “The result,” Tullius admits, “was always going to be a compromise.”

Tullius claims that the original idea had been to go to Le Mans in 1983, but a difficult first part-season the previous year scuppered that plan. The XJR-5 (there had been four previous Group 44 Jags) wasn’t ready to race until August. A third place on its debut at Road America only flattered to deceive in a year punctuated by two big accidents, both with Tullius at the wheel.

The nearest the car got to France in 1983 was a one-off test in England. Jaguar hatched a plan to get Derek Bell, who’d won Le Mans with Porsche the year before, to track-test an XJR-5 at Silverstone straight after the circuit’s traditional enduro in May.

The XJR-5 was already a winner in IMSA — Tullius and regular team-mate Bill Adam had won in the wet at Road Atlanta — when a car was flown to Europe. With no input from Group 44, Bell completed 25 laps in what seemed more like a media frenzy than a serious evaluation.

“They wanted to get a handle on how competitive the car would be,” recalls Bell, who had no trouble securing permission from Porsche to do the test. “There was a big fuss when the car arrived in the UK — it even got on the ITV evening news. I don’t know what they were trying to prove. To this day I don’t know what times I did. It wasn’t as quick as my 956, quite naturally, because it had less power and too much downforce.”

Group 44 was a regular IMSA winner by the time the team fulfilled Egan’s dream of taking Jaguar back to Le Mans in 1984. The XJR-5 may have notched up a total of four IMSA victories, but 24 hours pounding around La Sarthe was an entirely different proposition to what was essentially a sprint series, bar the early-season enduros at Daytona and Sebring. The two Jags were not in the ballpark. The best of the pair, the car Tullius shared with Brian Redman and Harry Doc’ Bundy, ended up 14th on the grid, 18sec shy of Bob Wollek’s pole time for Lancia.

The XJR-5 clearly wasn’t competitive, though Tullius did have his moment of glory in the first hour. His car was fuelled light for the start and an early top-up meant he emerged in the lead when faster runners made their first stops. Group 44 tried to play to its strengths — reliability and frugal fuel consumption — and had both cars in and around the top six when they ran into engine and gearbox problems. It was not the kind of performance that Jaguar’s top brass had been hoping for.

“It was a very brave effort, but after 1984 I realised Bob wasn’t going to win Le Mans for us,” says Egan. “I don’t think Group 44 brought with it the level of engineering expertise required.”

Tom Walkinshaw was already waiting in the wings. The Scot had given Jaguar success in the European Touring Car series and there is evidence to suggest that he was being lined up for sportscars as early as the end of 1983.

Bill Adam was the first man to drive the XJR-5 in public and was still on Group 44’s books, despite being dropped by Tullius after winning at Mosport that year, when the team went testing at Daytona in December 1983. Egan and Walkinshaw were both present at dinner when the Jaguar boss suggested Walkinshaw test the car the following day. Tullius’ response was firmly in the negative.

“Egan explained he only wanted Tom to try it for a few laps,” remembers Adam. “At that point Bob dabbed off his mouth and said, ‘This matter is not open for discussion’. He turned to Lee [Dykstra] and me, and just said: ‘Gentlemen, we are leaving.”

Less than a year later, Walkinshaw Racing’s sportscar plans were taking shape. In October, the specialist press reported that the team would be undertaking a limited World Endurance Championship campaign with the XJR-5 in 1985, at least until its own design was ready. According to those involved in the project, Walkinshaw had no intention of racing the car.

“I don’t believe there was ever a plan to run the Group 44 chassis,” says Rod Benoist, who joined the Jaguar project in April ’85. “We tested it once or twice, but only for back-to-backing against our own car.”

Tony Southgate, who had joined TWR in December ’84, backs up that statement: “You can’t really imagine Tom running someone else’s car, can you?”

TWR’s carbon-chassis XJR-6 wouldn’t be ready to race until August, and so Group 44 carried the Jag flag alone at Le Mans in 1985.

XJR-5, another year older, qualified even further off the pace — although contaminated fuel didn’t help its cause.

“Our problem was that we’d filled up with two-star,” says Tullius, “and that blew the engines into oblivion. We didn’t know the gas was bad, so we cranked the ignition timing back. That really hurt us.”

Group 44 went into the race with one hand tied behind its back, and the two Jaguars made no impact on the leaderboard. One car went out in the small hours with a broken CV joint, while Tullius’ own hit engine problems. A piston ring was damaged, so the team blanked one cylinder off, a repair which allowed him to limp home 13th for Jaguar’s first Le Mans finish since 1963.

Tullius maintains that he wasn’t given a fair crack of the whip at Le Mans: “I’m egotistical enough to believe that we could have won the 24 Hours at Le Mans,” he says. “It was clearly going to take some time for us to become competitive because we came from a different environment.

“It would be like sending the New York Yankees over to play England at cricket. We just needed time.”

And that he didn’t get.