The story behind the Jaguar XJ220 is a fascinating one. A lot has been written about how it was some kind of failed project and a missed opportunity. It was a car that through no fault of its own, was launched at a very tough time!
The Saturday Club
By the late 1980s Jaguar were independent of British Leyland, they had formed the Jaguar car holding company along with Daimler. Free of the bureaucracy of British Leyland (where Jaguar were almost made to precede model names with “BL” and use Rover engines), Jaguar was finally able to focus on its own future.
The Head of Engineering, Jim Randall had drawn up some ambitious plans for a supercar over Christmas in the late 1980s. This may have been inspired by the XJR9 winning Le Mans in 1988. The forthcoming FIA Group B class in the World Endurance Championship inspired cars like the Ferrari 288 GTO and Porsche 959. Randall wanted the XJ220 to compete as well.
“What a lot of people won’t know is that it was meant to be a racing car. In the early 1980s, the FIA announced that there would be a Group B class in the World Endurance Championship, which would complement Group C. Ultimately, only two manufacturers ever built cars – Ferrari, with the 288GTO, and Porsche with the 959. And even then the Ferrari never raced”
Randall’s idea was to combine Jaguar’s excellent V12 with active aero and four wheel drive. Dubbed the “220” after its targeted top speed, The idea was shared with the “Saturday club”. This group of Jaguar employees, so called because they met up on Saturdays to work on unofficial projects.
Keith Helfet was brought in to create aerodynamic bodywork to house the high tech mechanicals. Small scale clay sculptures were used to portray the car in three dimensions. A full scale wooden buck was also used, which was rebuilt when Helfet managed to reduce the length of the design by 2 feet… A rolling version of the car was readied for the motorshow.
Concept Car & Motorshow Speculators
The prototype of the XJ220 appeared at the motor show in Birmingham in 1988. This just a few months after winning Le Mans with the XJR9. Boasting a 6.2 litre 500BHP V12, bonded aluminium chassis, integrated roll cage, four-wheel drive, ABS and four wheel steering, the XJ220 caused an instant sensation. Deposits of £50,000 were placed at the show and many speculators put down deposits, hoping to sell the car for a profit later on. After the debut of the new supercar, Jaguar were confident the XJ220 was a feasible project and could compete with competition from the Ferrari F40 and Porsche 959 (which appeared at the show alongside the new Jaguar). According to those attending, the other stands all cleared once the Jaguar was revealed. The show was a massive success – Jaguar just needed to start production of the XJ220 now.
”It was important to me that the car should continue the strong Jaguar marque identity and I wanted an evolutionary link [Malcolm Sayer/Sir William Lyons]”
Keith Helfet – XJ220 Designer
TWR, Le Mans & The XJR9
TWR and Jaguar formed JaguarSport to take charge of the XJ220 project. Ex racing driver and boss of TWR, Tom Walkinshaw deemed the concept car too heavy, large and complex. As a result the production car differed greatly from the prototype.
JaguarSport decided against the complex four-wheel drive and four-wheel steering mechanics. This cut down the cars weight and complexity significantly.
With increasingly tight emission laws and the big V12 unable to generate more than 500BHP, the less glamorous but more powerful 3.5L V6 was chosen. This was similar to the engine used in Metro 6R4 rally car. The XJ220 was now lighter, shorter and more powerful. Helfet was able to shorten the design further, making the car a more practical thing to drive.
Statistically the V6 was the better engine but the V12 had real motorsport heritage having been fitted to the Le Mans winning XJR9. While the V6 did feature in the later XJR10 race car it didn’t have the success or glamour associated with the V12. The V6 engine was road tested in a Ford Transit van which has become famous in its own right.
During tyre testing in Houston Texas in 1991, XJ220 registration “220 VAN” was driven to a measured 217mph in the hands of Le Mans driver Andy Wallace. The Jaguar XJ220 was the fastest car in the world in 1991. However this wasn’t independently verified so unofficial. Another unofficial time was recorded at the Nurburgring. John Nielsen, a Le Mans winning driver managed a 7:46 lap in a prototype XJ220.
JaguarSport was building another car at the same time as the XJ220. The XJR15 was essentially the XJR9 racing car with road car bodywork. It wasn’t a ground up design like the XJ220, so would be completed sooner and in more limited numbers (53). The XJR15 would be produced in 1990 coming to the end of production in 1992 as the XJ220 started. While an incredibly special car, it complicated the XJ220’s start in life, being such a similar car.
Jaguar XJ220 Production Begins
JaguarSport had finished building the XJR15 and started on the XJ220 with its revised specification. Some customers and speculators had already asked for their deposits back. The recession in the early 1990s may have been partially responsible for this. Perhaps some of these customers found themselves buying the rarer XJR15 instead with its clear motorsport lineage and raw driving experience. Both probably had a bearing on the situation.
The XJ220 sold 282 models during its production run between 1992 and 1994. Occasionally very low mileage cars appear for sale, usually as a result of speculators trying to cash in. One was even hidden in a carpet shop in Wales as a business investment. It was later sold as part of the company liquidation.
“Savage acceleration really is a given here. What’s really incredible about the XJ220 is its ability to provide such performance in a way that never, ever intimidates”
Andrew Frankel – Autocar
There is no doubt the XJ220 is an incredible creation. A series of black swan events conspired against the XJ220 from the outset. Economic turmoil and the launch of legendary competitors from Porsche and Ferrari was just the start.
The change in specification hindered the big Jaguar. It didn’t have the Le Mans motorsport lineage, that was now with the XJR15. The Jaguar was launched at c.£400,000 around double the price of the Ferrari F40. The recession had calmed any speculation on supercar prices which left the XJ220 looking very expensive.
Another black swan event appeared in 1992 when the legendary McLaren F1 debuted. The F1 raised the stakes yet again in the supercar world.
Paul is an automotive aficionado with a passion for cars. His passion for automobiles has only grown over the years, and for the past 11 years, he has been blogging about British sports cars. Readers can expect irreverent content about classic models, interesting car stories and more!