x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The XJ220 outpaces the Jag jinx

Rare, completely unique and devastatingly fast, the Jaguar XJ220 should be seen for what it actually is: the car that hastened the arrival of the hypercar.

Outside the workshops of Don Law Racing in the UK, the XJ220 looks mean and graceful. The huge air ducts feed cooling air to the mid-mounted V6 engine, which was the first turbocharged unit used in a Jaguar. Photos by Luke Gilbertson
Outside the workshops of Don Law Racing in the UK, the XJ220 looks mean and graceful. The huge air ducts feed cooling air to the mid-mounted V6 engine, which was the first turbocharged unit used in a Jaguar. Photos by Luke Gilbertson

Very few Jaguars throughout history can claim to have changed the motoring landscape. Most get forgotten, disappearing into the mists of time, with a hard-core following of enthusiasts refusing to see them for what they really have been: quite nice looking, more often than not shoddily built cars, that end up seeing out their days in the lower reaches of the classified sections.

The small number of Jaguars that make a mark, however, really do. Put aside any memories of XJ40s, S-Types, X-Types, XJ-Ses and the like, and consider the truly great Jags. E-Type, D-Type, C-Type, Mark II, early XJ6; classics one and all that showed the world what the boys and girls at Coventry could do when they put their minds to it.

But there's another, epoch-making big cat that many have forgotten, and now its time in the limelight seems to finally be here. Twenty years ago, Jaguar launched its only supercar - the much-maligned XJ220.

Rare, completely unique and devastatingly fast, the XJ220 should be obsessed over, dissected and seen for what it actually is: the car that changed everything, moved the game on and hastened the arrival of the hypercar. That number in its moniker? It stands for 220mph. That's 354kph in new money and, two decades ago, there was simply no other production car that could keep up with it - at least in a straight line. That in itself should have had customers looking for lost cash underneath the sofa before beating a path to the dealerships, but this groundbreaking machine was a classic example of right car, wrong time.

As the 1980s were drawing to a close, Jaguar was an independent manufacturer. Finally free from the damaging shackles of the shambolic, nationalised motor industry in the UK, otherwise known as British Leyland, it was nevertheless on its knees financially. The XJ40 saloon was a PR disaster, with reliability issues that would be enough to make you weep, even now, and the XJ-S was in its death throws. Jaguar desperately needed people to be speaking about it for the right reasons, for once, but it didn't have the money to do anything about it.

Not content to sit back and let something as simple as a lack of cash get in the way of forward progress, a small band of Jaguar engineers used to convene at weekends, to work on a project without being paid. This group, known as "The Saturday Club", included Jaguar's chief engineer, Jim Randle, and he desperately wanted to put his beloved company back where he saw it belonging: on the world's racetracks, snatching victories from the jaws of Ferrari, Porsche and all the rest.

There was one race series above all others getting worldwide exposure at the time: Group B. And this is where Randle wanted to compete, for Porsche had its 959 and Ferrari had its F40, which were out-and-out supercars, the first to break the magic 200mph (322kph) barrier. Group B rallying was outlawed after one too many untimely deaths, but the track racing element still had potential. He didn't know it when plans for a new Jaguar started to be drawn up, but that, too, was to prove a non-starter. Group B was over and done with.

Jaguar has always had an annoying habit of unveiling astonishing concept cars at motor shows and then failing to deliver anything like as exciting to the world's showrooms, and it seemed as though the XJ220 was to be yet another one in a long, distinguished line of Jaguars that could have - should have - been. With no race series to compete in, to all intents and purposes the project had been a waste of The Saturday Club's time and talents, but Jaguar still decided to put it on display as a concept at the British Motor Show in 1988. The concept had vertical lifting scissor doors, similar to those on Lamborghini's then current Countach, was specified with a V12 engine and four-wheel drive. And then there was the small matter of its intended 220mph top speed. Understandably everyone went nuts for it and, a year later, Jaguar announced it would, indeed, put this unique supercar into limited series production.

Strapped for cash as it was, Jaguar must have been thrilled when the coffers were topped up with £17 million (Dh97.5m) - in just one day - courtesy of 1,500 orders being placed for the production car. However, having promised that numbers would be strictly limited to just 350 cars, the order book had to be slashed with customers being allocated build slots on a first come, first served basis. It all looked like a magnificent result for Jaguar. The company was in the spotlight for the right reasons for once, people were genuinely excited again by the brand and, with the market for luxury and performance cars in the late 1980s being utterly insatiable, there seemed little or no scope for anything going wrong.

Only things did go wrong - very badly wrong, indeed. When the production version emerged in late 1991, it looked like the concept that had had everyone salivating, but there were changes to its specification that, to say the least, did not go down very well with the people who'd shelled out hefty deposits. Those sexy scissor doors were gone, replaced with conventional items. The four-wheel drive transmission was gone, too, because Jaguar wanted to keep the weight down and give the car some racing dynamism. But the single worst aspect of the production XJ220's specification was the ditching of that V12 engine in favour of a unit half that size; one that had previously seen active duty in the Metro 6R4 rally car.

The market had changed, too, with recession gripping formerly affluent countries and values of classic and collectors' cars dropping like stones. Many of those speculators who'd paid up and been granted cars were suddenly refusing to take delivery of them, no matter that the XJ220 could still attain that magical maximum speed. Litigation and negative press ensued, with Jaguar eventually giving up after building just 281 of the intended 350 road cars.

Motoring journalists, however, raved about the car, seeing past the controversial issues surrounding its gestation, with Autocar magazine pronouncing it "the most accomplished supercar ever made". It wasn't enough to rescue the XJ220's reputation, though, and while everyone raves about the McLaren F1 (which was the only car to beat the Jaguar's top speed when it set a new record in 1998) and the Bugatti Veyron, the XJ220's achievements were actually no less notable. For years it was the fastest production car the world had ever seen and represented a turning point in performance car history.

It's taken two decades, but the tide has turned and interest in the model is on the increase. For too long these amazing vehicles languished in the classifieds, struggling to fetch more money than a new Porsche 911, but values are on the up. I mentioned in a feature on classic car values recently that a good friend of mine has bought one in the UK. It's the green one in these photographs and if he sold it now, just a few months after buying it, he'd see a huge return on his investment. It's amazing what an anniversary can do to a car's residual value.

His car is looked after by the world's leading XJ220 specialists, Don Law Racing, in the UK. When JaguarSport, the division of the company that made and sold the XJ220, was folded by parent company Ford in 1998, Don Law took over development of the model, designing fixes for some of its flaws and rapidly gaining a vast knowledge and customer base. If you have to have an XJ220, these are the guys to turn to.

My fortunate friend, who has hankered after one of these cars since he was a boy, is smitten by it. He finds it usable on normal roads, despite its physical length and girth, and remarkably controllable for such a small capacity, high output engine. "It's superb," he says, "every bit as exciting as a Lamborghini Aventador, and it's fascinating to see how much this car influenced everything that came after it. There's a lot of love out there for it, too, with people flocking around it wherever I go. Many don't know what it is, but those who do are awestruck because they've seen them in magazines, read about them, but never seen one for real."

Just take a long look at that fat rear end. Those tail lamps were taken from the lowly Rover 200 and simply turned upside down - a fairly standard practice in the British car industry back then. But let your eyes fall to the huge, rear venturi, which gives the car massive levels of downforce, allowing the lines to remain clean and uncluttered by unsightly spoilers. At 4.86m long and 2m wide, it's larger than a Veyron and those curvaceous aluminium body panels are both feline and timeless, giving the big cat a gracious appearance while at once looking mean, aggressive and purposeful. No wonder people are being drawn to it once again - there really is nothing else out there like it.

Time can be the great healer when it comes to a car's reputation and the XJ220 is proof of that. As investments go, it could be considered 'blue chip', as values are only going to go one way and that's up. But this car should be viewed as more than just a way of getting a healthy financial return - it's a rare, fascinating piece of automobile history. A weekend project, like the classic Lamborghini Miura, that changed everything that came after it. So what if it has a V6 engine? Even now, after all these years, there aren't many cars on the planet that can catch it in a straight line.