Imagine you’re a fly on the wall at the 1988 British Motor Show. On Jaguar’s stand, basking under the flashbulbs of the world’s press is a very low, very long and very wide concept supercar. Jaguar calls it the XJ220, the number relating to its projected top speed. It is to be powered by a V12 engine, coupled with a high-tech four-wheel drive system. The market for exotic cars is booming and wealthy show-goers clamour to put down deposits as the ’88 show was the first time anyone saw a Jaguar XJ220 for sale. James Taylor looks into the development of this fascinating supercar.
The Jaguar XJ220 For Sale….
Fast-forward to 1992 and that same supercar is now production-ready. But the western world is now in the grip of an economic recession and by the time the world saw the Jaguar XJ220 for sale, the price has swollen to over £400k. Changes have been made too. The V12 is gone, substituted for a twin-turbo V6, and so too is the four-wheel drive. Embittered customers argue the car is not the one they were promised. Just over a year ahead the McLaren F1 will arrive, moving the supercar goalposts forever and making the Jaguar’s reign as the fastest car in the world sadly and frustratingly short-lived.
For many years, that’s how the XJ220 seemed to be remembered. A Cinderella car that was too late, too expensive and aimed at a market that just didn’t exist anymore. Somehow its towering performance, and the incredible achievements of the small group of people who created it, aren’t remembered quite so often as they should be. In 2012, the XJ220 blew out 20 candles on its birthday cake and to this date is an incredibly rare sight out in the wild and a Jaguar XJ220 for sale is a rare thing. Perhaps it’s time for a fresh look at the fastest car Jaguar has ever made, so we talk to the design team that created the car and talk about it’s journey from concept car to production supercar.
“There were really two XJ220s,” explains Nick Hull, one of the car’s primary designers. “The first was what became the concept car in 1988. That started off in 1984 as a project for a Group B racer with the chief engineer, Jim Randle – it was sort of a pet project of his.”
Jaguar’s Le Mans programme then took over, but the idea for an in-house designed racer-cum-road car remained. Work on the car continued as an unofficial, out-of-hours project – what became known as ‘The Saturday Club.’
“It was on the backburner, never an official project within Jaguar,” says Nick. “It was purely on Saturday mornings and not during the week. Over 18 months myself and another designer, Mark Lloyd, developed interior and exterior ideas and scale models with design manager Keith Helfet, who was looking after the project. By 1987 the decision was taken to make one full-size running car, using a folded aluminium tub and hand-rolled body panels. But even then, it was still an unofficial project; there were just small pockets of money that were around.”
Things became more official in early 1988 when the decision was taken to show the full size car at that year’s Motor Show. Famously Jaguar’s chairman, Sir John Egan, didn’t see the car until a week before the show.
“It’s absolutely true, there was a meeting late one night where the board members viewed the car and took the final decision to show it,” describes Nick. “The car had been sprayed but the glass wasn’t fully in, the interior was roughly assembled into it. This was at midnight on Monday. There was one week until the show so we were literally working round the clock, doing 20-hour shifts to get it finished in time.”
Of course the XJ220 did make it to the show and created, as Nick puts it, “a bit of a sensation.”
“There was an unbelievable reaction. People were saying, ‘You have to build it. We’ll buy one,’ at almost any price. It actually caused a lot of difficulties politically, because there was no real plan of how or where to build it, how long it would take to be developed, could it be homologated and so on.”
“Jaguar was then sold to Ford, and the first decision they took was to make the production car. It was seen as a low-risk opportunity to get something into production and make some headlines. In that period there were no other production cars being developed for sale and they wanted something that could capture a few magazine covers and keep momentum going. The project was essentially self-financing through the customers’ deposits.”
The production XJ220 was developed and built under the ‘JaguarSport’ banner by Tom Walkinshaw’s TWR operation, which had developed Jaguar’s Le Mans-winning cars. Getting the XJ220 into production meant a controversial decision. The show car’s V12 had to be sacrificed. Hull explains: “The big difficulty came because the original car was too big and needed a lot of weight taking out. So the four-wheel drive system and the V12 were ditched for a version of the Metro 6R4 rally car’s V6, which had been developed by TWR. It was a much lighter and more compact engine with a phenomenal power to weight ratio. Unfortunately from the customers’ side they saw that as a big change from the original concept – it didn’t have the sound or glamour of the V12, and that was one of the major marketing problems with the car.”
Walk round an XJ220 and the enormity of its proportions are startling. But it’s important not to confuse size with weight; advanced bonded aluminium construction means the car weighs just 1,470kg. Hull was tasked with translating the concept car’s eye-catching styling onto the smaller production car without losing its character.
“The exterior styling was preserved quite faithfully – that was what had attracted people to it and so it was sacrosanct. However, every surface changed – even the ones that look the same. Eight inches were taken out of the middle of the car and the rear overhang became shorter. The tail had to get a lot higher for aerodynamic reasons and the front had to have more intake area for cooling.”
“The interior wasn’t quite so sacrosanct, although I had a personal interest in that I’d done the concept car’s interior and I was quite keen that it should be in the production car. The instruments are swept round so that some of the minor dials are mounted in the door. We wanted something in the interior that related to the historic XJ13 racing car and the idea of sweeping, banked gauges was influenced by that car.”
Jaguar’s sale to Ford meant it was a year before work on the production car could start. Once development got underway it was ready for the road within 18 months. Its timing, however, was desperately unfortunate. Many of those who put down deposits on the car had done so simply as speculators. In the heady days of the late ’80s it was possible to sell supercars on immediately at a vast profit just by having a place in the queue. But at the dawn of the ’90s, a housing market crash sunk the western world into a deep recession and “all that frothy money just dried up overnight,” as Hull describes. “By the time the car was launched that speculative market had completely dried up and this was going to be a car that depreciated like any other. So at that point a lot of the speculators wanted to get out of their £50k deposit.”
In the end 275 cars were produced of a projected 350 car run and around 100 cars hung around unsold at Browns Lane for some years afterwards. However, the XJ220 really did achieve its ambitious top speed target – theoretically, at least. At the Nardo test circuit in South Italy, a circular speed bowl eight miles across, Martin Brundle reached 217mph in an XJ220 (minus catalytic converters). Nardo’s banking is calculated to scrub off three per cent of maximum speed; the XJ220 had lived up to its name and was comfortably the fastest production car in the world. Then, in 1993, the 240mph McLaren F1 arrived and the supercar world changed forever.
“The F1 took a completely different approach to what a supercar should be,” Hull comments. “It was smaller, lighter, had three seats and was carbon fibre. I think you see in retrospect that the XJ220 is the last of the late ’80s supercar dinosaurs in many ways. Looking at it now there are bits I would have done differently; it was quite excessive. It was slightly too wide and long – it could have been more compact and more like a McLaren, that would have been another way to have taken it.”
Maybe the XJ220 is a monument to excess, but it’s also the performance benchmark of its generation. Perhaps if the McLaren had not arrived to steal its thunder quite so soon it would be more revered today – who knows? Certainly it leaves behind an impressive legacy. It smashed the production car record at the Nurburgring by a massive 30 seconds and its cutting-edge aluminium honeycomb structure influenced the construction of Jaguars today. In lightly modified form it even won its class at Le Mans, only to be disqualified over an obscure technical irregularity. In their original road test, Autocar magazine described it as ‘the most accomplished supercar ever made.’
It may have been born into a difficult climate, but the ‘Saturday Club’ car’s amazing abilities should be celebrated. After all, it’s a car created by enthusiasts, for enthusiasts.
“It’s funny seeing the car in retrospect now. I think it’s still a nice looking car – it’s quite sentimental, not as brutal as some supercars. It was great to be involved in as a young guy – I couldn’t believe my luck in some ways. It was quite self-indulgent as supercars are really – you don’t need to worry about the last 10mm of space and you can make things look nice and beautiful rather than functional. It was really good to be involved with.”
Words, James Taylor
Photography – Jaguar Cars