Broadspeed's Jaguar XJ12C would roar through qualifying only to limp out of almost every race. Andrew Frankel Samples the beast and tells British Leyland's cautionary Touring car story

Everything is wrong. The engine won't work below 5500rpm and the red line states 7200rpm. The water temperature already says the massive, 5.4-litre, 560bhp V12 motor is starting to cook and here, on the Goodwood Festival of Speed hillclimb, there is still one car waiting to go before me. It's a green BMW 3.0CSL, the car which stole my motor's moment of glory 23 years ago. And Wit doesn't get a move on, it's going to do it again, leaving a hopelessly boiling Broadspeed Jaguar XJ12C behind it.

His lights turn green and, with one crisp bark from his 3.2-litre straightsix, he is gone. I forgot to mention that my colossal slick tyres are as old as the car, and it's raining.

In those moments before I tried to slither up the hill, my mind was taken back to the two, fraught seasons when this car, against every odd, took on and damn near beat the best.

"Really it was a bloody awful motor car," chirps an indefatigably cheery Ralph Broad from the Portuguese retreat to which he retired on grounds of ill health just after the ill-fated project finally ran out of steam. "For a start, we raced the wrong car. The plan had always been to use the XJS but it proved impossible to homologate for Group 2 racing, so Leyland said, 'We'll use the XJ12 instead."

Ah, the dreaded 'I! word. Leyland Cars was a division of British Leyland responsible for holding the whole sorry business together and what its PR men knew about the harsh realities of international saloon car racing was not worth knowing. But the fact they did understand was that racing sold cars; Jaguar had proved it at Le Mans in the 1950s. Broad had recently performed the unlikely task of turning the Dolomite Sprint into a championship-winner so the task was entrusted to him. The problem was (and Broad knew it), the XJ12 was no basis for building a racing car, even in Coupe form: "You can see what the aerodynamics were like, and as for the torsional rigidity of the shell..."

Peter Darley was the man Broad employed as his Special Projects Manager, and he confirms every word: "Sir William Lyons himself said the car was never designed for racing. If it had, all kind of little trick bits would have been built in in aid homologation.

"You might just as well have been talking Spanish to the Leyland PR people when you talked about homologation. They just thought you could write the cheque and the problem would go away. They did not understand the lengthy process required to get any part homologated — and that the rest of the world doesn't sit around waiting for you."

The car was launched in April 1976. Derek Bell was called upon to drive and to this day he shudders at the memory of the unveiling. "I stood there as the covers came off and could hear this voice saying, 'This is the car with which we will win the European Touring Car Championship round at Salzburgring in three weeks.' I could not believe it. The car was completely undeveloped yet this PR man said we were going to show BMW how it was done. Ludicrous.

The problems were legion. Broad remembers the driveshaft failures most, Darley the tyres rotating on their BBS split rims. Bell's memory is of endless engine failures due to oil surge from its too small, too shallow wet sump while John Fitzpatrick, the quickest by far of all who drove the car according to Broad, remembers a tyre exploding at 180mph during the Brno round in Czechoslovakia. Odd then, that everyone I spoke to, has such happy memories of the car.

Very odd from where I'm sitting. The truth is, the Broadspeed Coupe is now a museum piece and, bolted into its driving seat, looking at the walnut dashboard, I wondered from which century. The engine had an appalling misfire and I sat with the left foot on the clutch, right on both brake and throttle to keep the motor alive and stop the car slipping back. Green light.

Clutch in gently and a little bit of throttle. The Jag limps pathetically forward, more chance of guessing the lottery numbers than how many cylinders are firing at any one time. Suddenly at least 10 chime in and instantly we're sideways on the damp tarmac. Off the throttle, gather it up and we're limping again. Change into second and, inexplicably, the engine starts to pull. At 5000rpm, I hear the 12th cylinder cut in and, for the first time since we left the start line, the Broadspeed is running as it should. V12 music blasts out at huge volume from the four stub exhausts under my door, there's monumental thrust and then we're sideways again.

Round it up, stagger through two corners onto the straight, rocket up to 7000rpm, change into third — and half the cylinders quit again.

It was not always like this. Fitzpatrick's memories of the car, while it ran at least, are universally rosy. "It was a big, heavy car for sure, but when it worked, it really worked. Quickest thing out there by a mile. Of course, it had a lot of power but you don't leave the entire field at 13 seconds a lap around the Nurburgring just by being quick on the straight.

"Really, it was capable of destroying the opposition. The only area where the BMWs were noticeably better than us was under braking." This was no surprise as the highly-developed BMWs sat right on their 1050kg limit while no Broadspeed Jaguar ever saw the sunny side of 1400kg. Yet through the corners, there was nothing in it, as Fitzpatrick confirms.

"We could stay right with them. The car was heavy but it didn't feel that way. Ralph's team came up with excellent suspension geometry and even without power steering, it never felt heavy to chive. You could do things you're not supposed to be able to do with such a big heavy car. You'd think long and hard before really starting to drift and slide such a heavy machine through quick corners, but we soon learned you could with the Jag. It had absolutely no vices at all in that respect and you could lean on it very hard indeed without it ever biting."

So long, of course, as the wheels stayed on. Far from winning at the Salzburgring in May 1976, so plagued were the early days of the car that it did not make its race debut until the Silverstone TT in September.

"It was quite sad, really," Bell remembers. "The press and public had such high hopes for the car but I knew it was never going to last." It won pole position and Derek duly scorched off into the lead, dicing with Gunnar Nilsson's BMW. Brake trouble and a tyre deflation sent Bell down the order before he handed over to David Hobbs, who fought hard until a hub flange failed and a wheel came sailing past. The Broadspeed Coupe did not race again that year. By the time the 1977 season started at Monza, there were two Coupes and a raft of performance-enhancing modifications, including huge 19-inch wheels and commensurately vast Dunlop slicks. If anything the cars, now driven by Bell/Andy Rouse and Fitzpatrick/Tim Schenken, were faster still. But all the extra grip played havoc with a wet sump oil system already taxed well beyond its design, and a lack of spare engines meant Bell and Rouse did not even start. The one surviving car secured pole position but barely completed the first quarter of the four-hour race.

At Salzburg, things looked up — briefly. Pole was again claimed before both cars retired, again with more failed hub flanges. The cars failed to appear for the next two rounds, at Mugello and Enna, but they were back at Bmo in June, the slower of the two cars six clear seconds a lap faster than the swiftest BMW. The Jaguars duly lined up next to each other on the front row. Bell's engine lasted barely more than a lap. Fitzpatrick's race ended effectively with another mighty tyre deflation, though the car did finally finish 16th, its first result.

The Nurburgring was different, though it started the same: despite endless problems in practice, Fitzpatrick claimed pole, and from the standing start, he set a new lap record that would not be approached again during the race. He blew up on the next lap. Bell and Rouse played a different game. "Odd as it may sound," says Derek, "we decided not to try and beat the BMWs. We just sat there, didn't push the car and came second." It was the first and only podium finish the XJ12C would achieve.

The next race at Zandvoort would be the only time the team were not to claim pole, for wet weather handed the qualifying advantage to the CS Ls ; in the race both Jags retired again.

Hopes were raised at Silverstone's TT as the Jaguars returned to their traditional slots on the front two rows of the grid, but yet another hub failure thwarted the Fitzpatrick/ Schenken can The Rouse/Bell machine thundered on, first leading and then running a strong second to Tom Walkinshaw's BMW, but nine laps from home, Andy flew off the track at high speed and beached the XJ12. He was still classified in fourth.

The Jaguars would only race once more, at Zolder where the record went round one more time: pole position claimed, race led, cars retired.

To this day, Bell, Fitzpatrick and Broad believe they were on the brink of huge success and that a winter's

concentrated development would bring the success they all craved. But there were problems. Derek Bell: "The car was considerably lightened as we developed it, but we kept having to add bits which killed any advantage: bigger wheels and tyres, bigger driveshafts top them breaking and bigger brakes which then needed fans to keep them cool."

Broad's perspective is different. "It was the money. Leyland just didn't understand and wouldn't pay for the replacement parts, like the driveshafts that we needed, and I simply was not prepared to endanger my drivers. Then I was told to detune the engine and make the cars last that way." For Broad it was all too much. His health was failing, he lacked the support of his employers and, on 26 September 1977, the project was cancelled.

It was sad end to the dream which started off on the wrong foot, with the wrong car and for the wrong motives.

If you ever wished for a small but illustrative microcosm of all that was wrong with the British car industry in the mid-1970s, this tale has most of the required dements: out-of-touch management, disastrous quality control and a total underestimation of the strength of the competition.

Looking at it now, the only truly startling aspect of the whole sorry affair was that it achieved anything at all. That Ralph Broad and a few good men were able to take a car never designed to be raced and turn it into something instantly and wildly quicker than its competitors is an astonishing achievement.

"We all knew," Bell concludes, "that what was needed was a properly funded three-year programme with the championship only to be considered in the third year. We could have developed the car steadily, there would have been no weight of expectation on us and we had a car which proved from the start that it had winning potential."

Years later, his point was effectively proven when Tom Walkinshaw went racing with the now-homologated XJS the car that Broad had always planned on racing and a very similar design to the XJ12, sharing the same engine and suspension layout. Taking a three-year view and with a decent budget behind him, Walkinshaw duly delivered the European Touring Car Championship to Jaguar, the marque's first real competition success for nearly 30 years.

Sitting at the top of the hill in the Broadspeed XJ12, listening to it cool down, I thought about the driving experience. This car has not rim since 1977 and it feels it. It was wonderful for it to be moving again and for the crowds to see such a heroic failure ever so briefly back on full song again. But this is not what it's meant for. It was built to go hammering through Copse, flying over the Pflanzgarten and powersliding out of Tarzan. And if it had held together while in the lead just once, what a different story I would be telling. I expect it would be of the 1978 European Touring Car Championship and how Jaguar blew the opposition clean off the tack.

As it is, the car was retired before it ever had a chance to show that, despite everything, Ralph Broad had built a winner.

Our thanks to Howard Davis of the Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust for providing the car and to Don Law for keeping it going all weekend.