Jaguar XJ220

The XJ220 wasn’t the car that Jaguar had promised its customers – in fact, in a happy twist of fate the end product turned out to be even better
By Richard Heseltine

Oh to have been a fly on the wall when this series was first mooted. Just imagine the pitch: a championship for racing drivers no younger than 50 years of age competing in identical Jaguar XJ220 supercars. Worth the best part of £500K. On a 5/8-mile oval. What’s the worst that could happen? Conceived with television in mind, the ESPN-backed Fastmasters contest was almost satanically brilliant in its idiocy.

The original format called for two races per event at the Indianapolis Raceway Park over four consecutive weekends in June 1993, with 10 drivers racing on the banking and, cough, infield road course. The format came in for a tweak-ette or two after three cars were destroyed in massive high-speed smashes in the opening round. Henceforth, only five cars were allowed on track at any one time. With everyone from Bob Wollek to Hershel McGriff vying for honours, drivers’ tempers generally ran as high as their cholesterol levels, Bobby Unser emerging from the carnage as the series’ first – and only – champion. The real heroes, though, were the post-race broom pushers.

Among the more cynical onlookers (that would be the motor sport hacks), this series existed as a means to an end, the ‘end’ being large stockpiles of unsold XJ220s. Arriving on sale a vastly different car to the one first trumpeted – and with a greatly inflated price – it didn’t help that its introduction coincided with the previous global economic meltdown.

A wantonly destructive one-make series would help get rid of a few cars, or at least some of the initial investment could be recouped via rebuilds and the sale of spares. Cynicism or not, there was an iota of a scintilla of a nuance of truth to this notion.

And this sort of effrontery has trailed the XJ220 ever since the first cars trickled out of Tom Walkinshaw’s JaguarSport facility in Oxfordshire in late ’91. Forgoing the fact that it was briefly the world’s fastest production car, had looks to die for and real-world usability, this extraordinary machine featured a twin-turbocharged V6 instead of the once-envisaged V12 and rear-wheel drive rather than permanent all-wheel drive.

All of which was ammunition for punters wishing to wriggle out of their contracts and recoup their £50,000 deposits, but then most of them were speculators burned when the classic car boom went bust.

All of which lends the impression that it’s a dud, an overpriced irrelevance – the ultimate white elephant. But this is to do the XJ220 a great disservice. It’s far from perfect – heck, it sounds like a toilet mid-flush on start-up – but no supercar in period married otherworldly beauty, brain-battering performance and genuine civility with such uncanny accuracy. Throw into the mix a Le Mans pedigree of sorts and it’s knocking on the door of the supercar aristocracy. It’s about time it was allowed to cross the threshold.

Back-pedal 25 years or so and a supercar wasn’t on Jaguar’s agenda. Free of the shackles of state ownership the marque was rebuilding its reputation after years of neglect and mishandling, culminating in victory at Le Mans in 1988. The XJ220 embodied the reclaimed can-do spirit, but initially it was a strictly off the books, after hours project dreamed up by the firm’s engineering chief Jim Randle. Production wasn’t on the horizon. The Saturday Club was just that, a fellowship of boffins kicking around ideas, one of which was a Ferrari-baiting flagship that would help cement Jaguar’s (pre-Ford takeover) independence and earn back some bragging rights. The results were unveiled to jaw-slackened appreciation at the 1988 British Motor Show. Problem was, Jaguar was now obliged to make replicas.

Here was pure kinetic sculpture, an achingly curvaceous and seemingly enormous projectile that enraptured some 1500 would-be customers enough to stump up deposits. Never mind that it had been conceived and built with a budget that wouldn’t keep Porsche’s canteen operational for a week, everyone was willing it to succeed. British from end to end, it was a true flag-waver.

Fast-forward three years and it was a different story. Gone was the promised quad-cam V12. Its length and longitudinal placement, not to mention the size of the fuel tanks, meant that the concept car’s signature side scoops would have to go. It would have been a mite heavy, too. In its place came a V6 borrowed from TWR’s Jaguar XJR-10 IMSA sports-prototype, itself based on the MG Metro 6R4 unit. The end result bore little commonality parts-wise: the prototype’s four-wheel-drive set-up was abandoned on cost grounds, with Ricardo devising the five-speed manual transaxle that had to cope with loads of 500lb ft of torque.

Yet, however you sugar-coat it, this wasn’t the car Jaguar promised. No, it was better. The XJ220 was the quickest car then on sale with an independently verified top speed of 211.9mph and it could lap the Nürburgring faster than most purpose-built racers. And while it may have lacked for cylinders, the 90deg 3.5-litre six-pot was more powerful than the planned V12, while the 8ins lost from the original car’s wheelbase rendered the Keith Helfet-penned outline even lovelier. Nonetheless, Jaguar was forced to slim down its sales projections to just 350 units. As it transpired, 283 (plus 10 pre-production cars) were made, some remaining unsold until the late ’90s. That its price had ballooned to £415,544 by ’92 didn’t exactly aid its cause.

But the XJ220 has its cheerleaders, touring car legend Win Percy being chief among their number. “I think it’s a very underrated car,” he says. “Tom [Walkinshaw] wanted to make a motor car that could be driven every day, and I think he succeeded. I was in Australia in the early ’90s establishing HRT [Holden Racing Team] and whenever I came back to England Tom’s idea of a debrief was to blast around the Oxfordshire countryside with me trying to give him a progress report from under the dashboard. Tom had a pre-production test car which he would drive until it broke. He didn’t want a delicate supercar; it had to be a proper Jaguar.

“The racing side came about after David Leslie had been to Snetterton with a prototype of the XJ220C [for Competition]. It didn’t look good, not very stable. I was asked if I would do half a day at Mallory and then drive it [in a May ’93 BRDC GT race] at Silverstone the next weekend. Tom reckoned that if we put on a good show we might get the money to do Le Mans. Well, I lapped everyone up to third place. I think I set a time of about 1min 58sec and a few days later in testing I got down to 1min 51.9sec! We did Le Mans that year with three cars and David Brabham, John Nielsen and David Coulthard won their class only to be disqualified [for ‘irregularities’ concerning catalytic converters]. I’m sure with further development by TWR, the XJ220C could have been successful in GT racing, but instead it was left to privateers. I went back to Le Mans with Richard Piper’s PC Automotive team in 1995 and drove Hugh Chamberlain’s car in BPR events and really enjoyed racing the XJ220s, but since then Don Law has been the one to keep things moving. He invited me to race a car belonging to a Scottish customer in the Intermarque series and later a car he’d built in-house. We won pretty much every race we started in the late ’90s.”

As the only factory-sanctioned XJ220 specialist, Don Law Racing has seen the model from all sides, from rebuilds to competition preparation. Company founder Law is almost evangelical about its virtues. “It’s only now that people are waking up to just how good a car the XJ220 is,” he claims. “Prices have been on the floor for so long and now they’re going for £160,000 left and right. But to put a bad car right can cost £30-40,000 and you have to remember that quite a few were bought originally by speculators and never serviced or even used. A car that has been sitting for years is naturally going to need a thorough going over. But for a car that is the best part of 20 years old, the XJ220 is immensely strong and no other supercar offers equivalent levels of performance, styling and build quality for the same outlay. It’s such a usable car. You can potter along without any fuss and it’ll look after you when you’re driving hard. Also, we’ve identified many of the original car’s flaws and have rectified them. We’re manufacturing obsolete parts and, honestly, there’s little to fear so long as you go in with your eyes open.”

A former XJ220 owner himself, Percy mirrors Law’s attitude. “A lot of people are intimidated by it. They say it’s too big, but I remember feeling the same about the Porsche 928, which I raced in the early ’80s [to victory in the 1983 Willhire 24 Hours]. I remember thinking, ‘Blimey, it’s a bit big’, but you didn’t notice this when you were at the wheel. The XJ220 is the same – people mistake size for weight [it’s about 150kg lighter than a comparable Lamborghini Diablo]. The Jag seems to shrink around you and it’s rock solid at speed. You can throw them around; they’re just so predictable and effortless. I love them.”

Which, as testimonials go, is pretty emphatic. With the GT90 historic series rumoured to be on the cards as a fully-fledged reality, we may see XJ220s trackside once again before too long. In the meantime, we should celebrate rather than denigrate a supercar that remains toweringly impressive on B-roads and less daunting than you might imagine in urban cityscapes (just be mindful of those width restrictions…). It may not have heaped glory on Jaguar at Le Mans over the long term, but it did beat its class rivals on the road and maintained the marque’s presence in the great race between the Group C glory days and its return for this year’s running with Paul Gentilozzi’s squad (see page 94). Call it journalistic romanticism if you like, call it what you want, but the XJ220 deserves to be celebrated for the car it became rather than the car
it was meant to be.

"I raced one..."
This genial sports car regular rounded out his Le Mans career with an XJ220 run in 1995. It was a plucky effort…

“I got to know [team boss and driver] Richard Piper in FF2000 in 1976 and he invited me to share in his Thundersports campaigns in 1984-86. The first Jaguar I drove for him was a left-hand-drive steel-bodied production car in the Donington 4 Hours in ’95. Hugh Chamberlain had a similar car for Peter Hardman and Richard Dean. Although I out-qualified them, we were eighth and ninth on the grid and a good four seconds off the McLaren F1GTR’s pace. We retired with clutch failure.

“Tony Brooks – not that Tony Brooks – funded the purchase of the two ex-TWR carbon-fibre-bodied machines that Piper took to Le Mans and TWR kept the one that had ‘won’ in 1993. We’d known James Weaver for years so he was an obvious choice [as third driver]. After the Group C machinery I’d raced the Jaguar was a shock. It looked great but it was cumbersome. Mind you, it was a delight when compared to the XJR-15 I’d raced a few years earlier! Having a long wheelbase didn’t help and understeer turning in would turn to snap oversteer on the way out.

“We qualified 22nd but James and I were still up for a fight. We’d spent most of our careers in underdog machinery so were used to battling forwards. Horrible wet conditions probably helped but it was a scary ride. I remember James did a brilliant double stint and just after halfway we were sixth when the crank broke. We never raced the car again. As far as I know both cars were auctioned off and never seen again…”

One to buy

1993 Jaguar XJ220 – £149,000
From: Oakfields 01256 760256 www.oakfields.com

Forgoing the obvious question of why anyone living in Jersey would have need of a 211mph supercar, this ’93 example was nonetheless delivered new to St Helier in December of that year. It wasn’t road-registered for a further six years and in the meantime the car has covered all of 7721 miles. More recently it has returned to the UK mainland and received in excess of £32,000 worth of maintenance work and upgrades including a new head gasket, rear main oil seal, a new lighter clutch and an uprated braking set-up. With the current owner since July ’04, this left-hooker is one of few remaining unused and is keenly priced for a car that in period cost close on three times as much.

Others to consider

Venturi 600LM
Fab French V6 GT was much more than the sum of its humble widgetry and was briefly a winner.

McLaren F1
The daddy of all GT cars with consecutive BPR titles and a Le Mans win to its credit.

Ferrari F40LM
An antique by the time GT racing returned, yet it took the fight to the F1 just as long as it lasted.