THE XJ220 HAS A COMPLICATED PAST, BUT IT’S STILL ONE OF THE FEW CARS THAT WILL IMPRESS EVERY PERSON WHO SEES IT IN THE FLESH, CAR FAN OR NOT. WE SPENT SOME TIME WITH JAGUAR’S GAME CHANGER AND DISCOVERED THERE’S MORE TO THE JAGUAR THAN SORDID TALES OF LUST AND ANGER
Like other supercars of the time, the XJ220 was a skunkworks project. It was undertaken by a ragtag team of Jaguar engineers who called themselves the ‘Saturday club’. They would spend their nights and weekends on a mission — essentially, to save the ailing brand from the scrapheap following a decade or two of production-car failures and mediocrity — and all for no pay or a guarantee their project car would see the light of day. Fresh out from under the thumb of British Leyland (which was effectively a government department, and was being run as such), the team at Jaguar knew it had an opportunity to rebuild a quintessential British brand from the ground up. No small task.
Where there had been recent success for Jaguar was on the race track. Following a successful partnership with Tom Walkinshaw Racing (TWR) — which had raced the XJS from 1982 to 1986 and topped the podium in the 1984 European Touring Car Championship — Jaguar’s head of engineering approached TWR, which was entrusted with coming up with a an engine capable of powering a marquee car for the brand, something that could be sold to road users, compete against the Ferrari F40 and Porsche 959, and also eventually be used at Le Mans. And so, in an age of excess and flamboyance, the conclusion seemed forgone: spend millions on wind-tunnel development to make aerodynamic advances so ahead of their time that some are still in use on supercars today and deliver power via a highly tuned V12 engine with dual overhead cams and four valves per cylinder, with a 373kw output and decades of proven motor racing provenance, including use in Tom Walkinshaw’s fabled XJR-9. And all this as well as an advanced four-wheeldrive system attached to a sleek aluminium body big enough to be spotted from the moon.
Following the launch at the 1988 British Motor Show, Jaguar began taking deposits for the XJ220 from a new era of Jaguar fans, who urged the manufacturer to build the car. With a flurry of excitement, the concept was to become reality, and over 1000 prospective purchasers, who appreciated that the XJ220 had the potential to be one of the greatest cars of all time, put down the £50K deposit almost there and then. Word has it that that year’s show saw a bump of 90,000 visitors, all there to see the XJ. Even the neighbouring stall-holder’s Ferrari F40 and its associated scantily clad women couldn’t tempt the crowds. Yet, at £400K — which was more than twice the price of the Ferrari, making it the most expensive car in the world at the time — sales proved more impressive than Jaguar had anticipated. With hindsight, the appeal of such a questionable investment strategy was unsurprising, given the time.
Not long after those deposits were banked, there was an announcement from Jaguar. The big 12-pot engine, Lamborghini-style scissor doors, and four-wheel drive had gone. Instead, customers were told that their new supercar would be delivered with a twin-turbocharged V6, rear-wheel drive, and doors that opened outwards. Disappointment ensued, lawyers were engaged, and threats were made.
Six of the best
So, why did Jaguar suddenly turn its back on a V12 with such pedigree and instead opt for such an unfamiliar and seemingly untested power plant?
While tyre manufacturer Bridgestone was happy to create rubber specifically for the XJ220, it wasn’t confident that it could produce a tyre capable of holding the Jag’s promised aerodynamically enhanced downforce of 1360kg, or cope with its mooted top