Keeping the British end up...

These are not the most famous racing Jaguars, but a V12 quartet maintained the company’s competition heritage between headline Le Mans victories of the 1950s and 1980s
Writer Andrew Frankel | photographer James Lipman

Blyton Park may not be the most historic of circuits, nor is it the easiest to access. But where else can you affordably run four cars with 48 cylinders, more than 20 litres and not a silencer box between them? And on a track good enough to do them some justice? And without bringing every law enforcement agency and noise abatement society in the county down upon your head?

Between them and using only a little licence, these four span the gap between Jaguar’s great racing eras. Popularly, Jaguar’s competition history is regarded as the 1950s and 1980s with little worthy of mention in between. But as we shall see, this quartet is happy to speak of a time when, while Jaguar may not have been winning Le Mans, it was far from lacking in competition success. For the E-type took over pretty much where the D-type left off. It raced in 1961, a single year after the last D appeared at Le Mans, yet really only dominated its chosen form of racing just once, and right at the end of its career in 1975. Along with the amusing diversion that is the XJ12 coupé, the E-type begat the XJS while over in the US an IMSA prototype named XJR-5 was being prepared. This would, in time, take Jaguar back to Le Mans and provide the perfect curtain-raiser for its Group C triumphs to come.

And we have them all here: the unsung heroes of these only apparently dark days, the cars that kept the pilot light flickering, ready to be turned into roaring flames of success when the time was right.

1974-75 Group 44 Jaguar E-type

Looks scary, doesn’t IT? Sounds scary, too. As in ‘throw yourself flat on the floor when it starts’ scary. The noise is that of a 12-bore shotgun at the point of discharge, sampled and repeated ad infinitum into one continuous sound. And that’s just at idle. If someone gives it a blip, some primal instinct will tell you to run away.

But it’s not scary at all. In fact the Group 44 E-type is one of the easiest racing cars you could imagine driving.

It is the work of one Bob Tullius, who’ll be resurfacing later on in these pages. By the time Jaguar USA’s British-born marketing director Mike Dale approached him, Tullius’s Group 44 race team had campaigned Triumphs and MGs with some success in the US. This was 1974, the world was in the middle of an oil crisis, the E-type was out of date and Dale had a staggering 6000 of them without homes to go to.

The idea was that Tullius would make a car to compete in the SCCA championship on the East Coast while another team, Huffaker Engineering, would do the same in the west.

At the end of the season there was a combined run-off to see who’d be the outright winner. The cars needed to stay production-based, but Tullius managed to extract about 440bhp from its 5.3-litre V12, up from the standard 270bhp.

The opposition was provided by Corvettes, which had failed to win the national title only three times in the previous 17 years; there seemed little about the under-developed Jaguar that was likely to disturb the status quo. Until, that is, they made their debuts on either side of the country on August 10 1974. The Huffaker car won in Seattle while Tullius was cruising around Watkins Glen, having annihilated the entire field, when the gearlever came off in his hand. The two cars continued almost unchallenged for the rest of the season until the run-off at Road Atlanta. At first it was business as usual, with two Jaguars out in front and Tullius smashing the lap record, but the Huffaker car went out of contention while Bob’s tyres wilted, allowing a Corvette to sneak through to win by less than a second.

There’d be no such slip-ups in 1975. Up and down their respective coasts, both E-types cleaned up and at the run-off Tullius won outright to claim the national crown.

“I was only an OK driver,” he says, “but I had a great team. And an OK driver with a great team was good enough to get the job done.” By the time his E-type’s career was concluded, it had entered 17 races and won 12 of them. And yes, that was all done by this very car, now owned by Jaguar Heritage. It may not have been Le Mans, but Jaguar was racing again. And winning.

The door is welded shut, so you hop over the side and slide down into a tiny seat, whereupon you are confronted by an even tinier steering wheel. The dash is sparse and randomly laid out but the car is simple to operate. Flick a switch, press a button, take cover and it’s ready to go. There’s a simple four-speed Jaguar gearbox (sourced from the 4.2-litre E-type for its closer ratios) and a kind clutch.

The steering is so light that at first you think it’s broken. There’s no feel through the wheel’s fat rim, either. It is very intimidating.

But the engine is fabulous. Despite the racket, it doesn’t feel like a race unit because the power comes in so evenly and strongly from such low revs. It pulls from just 2500rpm and at 3500rpm it’s entirely on song. Given that Tullius used 7000rpm, it gives you some idea of the powerband available.

I chose not to exceed 5500rpm and it never fell off the cam. It feels fast, too, and I’m not sure why I should find that surprising: it weighs the same as a Ford Focus and has far more power than a new Porsche 911 GTS.

With its narrow track, long wheelbase and crazy steering, it should feel worse than it does in the corners. I don’t think apex speeds would be that high, even on fresh slicks, but it turns in very cleanly given the weight in its nose and understeers just a little unless you choose to break the back loose with your right foot.

You might expect the E-type to be the poor relation of this crowd, but it’s not. Its only real deficiency is its braking, which wilts after a few laps of Blyton just as it did on the tighter American tracks 40 years ago. Otherwise, and as the only one of the four you can just get in and drive quickly without having to think too hard about it, the Group 44 E-type is a pure and simple delight.

1976-77 Broadspeed XJ12 Coupé

If you were to go looking for an allegory for all that was wrong with the British motor industry in the 1970s, a near-500bhp V12 racing car might not be the first place you’d look. But the story of the Broadspeed Jaguar XJ12 Coupés has all the elements: there’s the management that appeared almost wilfully to misunderstand its workforce, a car with ultimately insuperable quality control issues and an almost comical flair for underestimating the opposition. And yes, there’s even the genuine talent whose light was all but obscured beneath such incompetence.

Possibly inspired by the success of the Group 44 E-type on the other side of the pond, in 1976 the board of Leyland decided Jaguar would go racing again in Europe, charged Ralph Broad with the task and gave a good impression of thinking it was as simple as that.

In fact the problems could not have been more fundamental: the car that should have raced – the new XJS – wasn’t homologated, which is why Broad ended up instead with the old, floppy, heavy XJ12. Really, you couldn’t make it up. I spoke to Broad about it before he died in 2010 and he described it as, “really a bloody awful car. It’s structural rigidity was notable only by its absence and as for the aero…” – I had to wait until he’d stopped laughing – “well, you can see for yourself.”

Indeed I can. The reputation of the Broadspeed XJ12s holds that they were total disasters, and if you look at their results – 11 retirements from 14 starts and one scant podium finish as consolation – it’s not hard to see why. When hubs weren’t failing and wheels falling off, the engines were blowing up.

But while it is true that they never won a race, didn’t cause the BMW steamroller to falter and that Broad retired to Portugal in ill health after the programme was cancelled in 1977, the car had a talent that deserves to be recalled.

Looking at this spectacularly misconceived car it seems astonishing to say so, but despite all its excess weight, structural issues and the aerodynamic profile of Downton Abbey, in period the Broadspeed XJ12C was the fastest touring car in the world. By far.

At its very first race, at Silverstone in 1976, the car took pole position and, with Derek Bell at the wheel, led the early laps. “It was the wrong car, it wasn’t even nearly ready and we should never have been racing it,” says Bell, “but it was certainly quick.” It was also totally undeveloped and fell back down the order with various maladies before hub failure and the first of many detached wheels ended the car’s run for good.

That was the only race it did that year, but 1977 followed a similar pattern. There were poles at Monza and the Salzburgring, but no finishes. At Brno two XJ12Cs locked out the front row, the second car six seconds clear of the next fastest, but while Bell and Andy Rouse retired as usual, the car of Tim Schenken and John Fitzpatrick at least finished, albeit down in 16th place after tyre failure.

At the Nürburgring, Fitzpatrick took pole, broke the lap record from a standing start and blew up. But Bell and Rouse took a different approach, nursing the big bus around the Nordschleife, stressing it as little as possible and brought her home in second place. The rest of the season played out at Zandvoort, Silverstone and Zolder, with one fourth place at home. Thwarted by wet qualifying, the Zandvoort race was the only one for which the car was entered and did not start from pole.

So despite its shortcomings, it was not unloved. On the contrary, John Fitzpatrick adored it. “It was the quickest thing out there. And by a mile. Of course the big engine had lots of power, but at the ’Ring we were dropping the BMWs by more than 10 seconds a lap and you don’t do that just by being quick down the straights. It really handled, too.”

It’s a malevolent presence on the apron at Blyton. It’s big, brutal and exquisitely ugly. And if you needed any further reminder that this was never intended to be a racing car, the standard dials and walnut dash provide it.

It sounds even ruder than the E-type, because the noise rockets around the interior, bouncing off its walls. And unlike its forebear, the steering is determinedly unassisted and its engine uncooperative. For my first few laps it feels like I am carrying it around the track rather than the other way around. But as it warms through it livens up, enough to provide occasionally savage thrust from the motor and feel at least fluent through the corners. To be honest it feels a little too much like a museum- piece for it to be appropriate to start hustling it, but it affords just a glimpse of what Fitz was saying. Even so, I cannot help but think how much better an XJS would have been. Happily one is on hand…

1982-84 Jaguar TWR XJS

“Now that was a great car,” says Win Percy – and he should know. He used the TWR XJS to win three European Touring Car Championship races in 1984, when Tom Walkinshaw claimed the first globally recognised title for a Jaguar works team since the 1950s. Perhaps oddly, Walkinshaw always believed the XJ12C could have been a winner and that it was the approach rather than any fundamental flaw with the car that was at fault.

When John Egan gave him the go-ahead to prepare the XJS for racing in 1982, Walkinshaw went about it a rather different way. There was no fanfare, no celebrations of Jaguar’s racing return, no stated expectations of victories to come. In short there was no pressure – it wasn’t even confirmed as a factory-sanctioned effort until 1983, by which time the car had already proven more successful by winning three times. The car suited the new Group A regulations far more than the XJ12 did the old Group 2, but there was more to it than that.

“Tom kept much of the car as standard as possible,” Percy says, “because those components were already tried and tested. And he wouldn’t have power steering or power brakes, because without them there were two fewer things to go wrong.”

Driving it, however, required care. “It was odd really because if you drove it at 85-90 per cent effort, it wasn’t nice at all. Wanted to catch you out, throw you off the track. It was a car you really had to grab hold of and wrestle. But at 100 per cent it was something else. At Brno there was a 150mph curve before the hairpin and I could place the car so accurately I was stripping paint off the wheel arch on the Armco without realising.”

The following season proved a blend of occasional brilliance and far too much bad luck. Even so, with wins at Enna, Brno, Zeltweg and Salzburg, Jaguar was still within a shot of the title at the season’s final round at Zolder. It was not to be: Dieter Quester had to keep his BMW ahead of Win’s Jaguar and did so, claiming the title for BMW.

But there were to be no such mistakes in 1984: with a much modified car, the Jaguars were the class of the field and won nine of 12 ETCC rounds, even taking the Spa 24 Hours to record Jaguar’s first ‘twice around the clock’ victory since that of Ecurie Ecosse at Le Mans in 1957. Point proven, Walkinshaw adjusted his focus and allowed it to fall on an ever bigger prize: outright victory at Le Mans. But that is another story, altogether better known.

Although related both by engine and suspension design, the XJS feels so different to the XJ12 at times it is hard to believe they are kin. If the Broadspeed car can be likened to a snoozing Labrador that could show a considerable turn of speed if only it could be bothered to get out of bed, the TWR XJS is a slathering wolf on the hunt for its dinner.

It’s still a heavy car, but only feels it as you warm it through. The moment you’re ready to go, it is too. The engine seems far more peaky than the unit in the E-type: this one needs revs, and when you supply them the XJS responds in kind, firing itself up the track, demanding gear after gear from its five-speed racing Getrag transmission. Its pace is incredible.

Quickly you establish a rhythm, helped by perfectly matched control weights, pedal positioning and the precision of everything touched by your hands and feet. It seems barely believable that the donor vehicle was a contemporary of the XJ12, for in truth it feels a dozen years younger. Thirty years after it finally claimed the title, this XJS feels taut, lithe and eager for more. It didn’t seem either to need or want to be mollycoddled, so I took it at its word and drove accordingly. And while I probably wasn’t even in Win’s 85 per cent zone, it felt superb: quick, balanced, allergic to understeer and never happier than under full power, tail almost imperceptibly out of line.

To be honest I’d have been happy to drive the XJS all day, chipping away at it until I felt I’d done it some kind of justice. But waiting for me was another kind of Jaguar, the first of its type in the world. It would not be the last.

1982-85 Jaguar XJR-5

This was the one I looked forward to most, not because it was the fastest or most scary, but because it was the one about which I knew least.

The XJR-5 is the missing link. It was probably a more successful car in its own right than it receives credit for today, but its significance in the lineage makes it so important, for this was Jaguar’s first pure prototype that actually raced. And, yes, it is a Jaguar in as much as any of the TWR-designed Group C cars that followed were Jaguars.

Less overtly perhaps, Jaguar funded Bob Tullius’s Group 44 outfit – with Mike Dale making the running in the same way he had with the Group 44 E-type a few years earlier. Tullius contracted the job out to Lee Dykstra, who produced a conventional aluminium honeycomb tub, bolted the V12 to the back of it as a fully stressed member and designed a car around it, with full ground effect, to comply with new IMSA GTP rules introduced in the US at the same time Group C regs came into force elsewhere. The idea was to run the car in IMSA and, if it went well, be the first works-supported Jaguar to race at Le Mans since 1956.

The car made its debut at Road America in 1982 and dropped jaws right around IMSA when Tullius and Bill Adam brought it home in third place, conventional wisdom saying it would have no chance of staying the pace of the turbocharged opposition. But the next season Tullius won outright at Road Atlanta, came second at Laguna Seca, and took third at Charlotte before winning again at Lime Rock, Mosport and Pocono.

In many ways 1984 was more impressive still, because while there was just one win – a dominant 1-2 in Miami – the car was a regular visitor to the podium all season, despite now being up against the IMSA-eligible Porsche 962.

“Sadly, we just couldn’t get near the Porsche,” says Brian Redman, the man responsible for that sole 1984 victory and most of the podiums that followed. “The XJR-5 was a good car, but we were up against the most successful sports-racer ever built.

“The Group 44 team was very impressive. The cars were the best turned out on the grid and immaculately prepared, but really taking on a car designed by Porsche and doing so with a normally aspirated road car engine was never going to be an equal fight.”

That year Tullius took two to Le Mans, where their power deficit to the turbo cars was further exposed. Sharing with Redman he qualified 14th, some 18sec slower than the pole-sitting Lancia. While pitstops meant it actually led for a lap, it reached a little over 210mph on the straight, perhaps 20mph down on the quickest turbocharged Group C cars. Both cars eventually retired with gearbox failure.

Back in the US, even in 1985 the car remained competitive; indeed it was usually the very next best thing to a 962, which is not to be sniffed at. Again, however, and despite frequent visits to the podium, the XJR-5 won just once, Redman triumphing at Road Atlanta with Hurley Haywood, with Tullius and Chip Robinson second. And finally it finished

Le Mans, Tullius and Robinson coming home 50 laps down in 13th place, the only finisher in, and therefore winner of, the GTP category.

I’m not going to pretend I got under its skin at Blyton. The car has been restored to running condition, but while Jaguar Heritage was happy and indeed keen for me to give its other charges a proper workout because such exercise is actually good for them, it was made clear that I was not to ask too much of the XJR-5.

Even so, I was able to do enough laps to put some heat in its tyres and feel some of the titanic thrust that would have been available from the ultimate 650bhp version of the expanded 6-litre V12 motor. Even taking its snake-belly driving position into account, it felt like a racing car in a way the others never did, and there should be no surprise in that. The steering is reasonably light and I was just able to feel it start to dart into corners like the mid-engined, purpose-built prototype it is. But so too could I feel a gearbox whose operation felt more like changing the points on a railway line than swapping one ratio for another. The interior is spartan and disorganised and feels very old-fashioned with its folded aluminium tub.

And of course it is. “You can see why Jaguar chose Walkinshaw for the Group C car,” says Redman, who raced a Group 44 XJR-5 at Le Mans in 1985 and also a TWR XJR-6 in 1986. “Tom’s car felt like it was from a different generation. It had a carbon-fibre tub, more power, better brakes and far superior downforce. It was lighter, quicker, stiffer, better in every way you could measure.”

So it should have been, for it was conceived in a different era for a different purpose.

What is less clear is whether there would have even been an XJR-6, let alone a title-winning XJR-8 or a Le Mans-winning XJR-9, had the XJR-5 not first proven the concept of a Jaguar racing prototype.

Which to me gives it significance far beyond its already more than respectable tally of successes. The road to victory at Le Mans may have ended in France with TWR in 1988, but the journey started with Group 44 in America in 1982. Or, you could argue, 1975.