The Jaguar XJ220 will soon mark its twenty-fifth anniversary. I interview one of the people behind its production to find out if we have misjudged this big cat.
542bhp, over 322 kmph top speed and a svelte body which clothed the best engineering know-how that JaguarSport could offer – the Jaguar XJ220 should be a car that is showered with praise and admiration. Yet we read stories of owner’s bricking up these big cats or leaving them to fester in the Qatari desert. What happened to this once show-stopping car to warrant such neglect?
The 1980’s were a bit of a roller-coaster decade for Jaguar. It began with the then new boss, Sir John Egan walking into a company that was on strike and racking up £50m yearly losses. He promptly rallied staff and parts suppliers to up their productivity and quality to enable them to turn a corner in the American market and turn a profit again. Then it became an independent company again in 1984 before it was bought out by Ford on 2nd November 1989 for a record $2.38 billion.
In between those dates, a team of twelve engineers under Jim Randle called the ‘Sunday Club’ worked unpaid during their spare time to produce the stunning XJ220 concept for the 1988 NEC motor show in Birmingham. The four-wheel drive, mid-engine V12, race-car for the road caused such a stir that 40 people put down blank cheques within the first day, and begged Jaguar to put it into production. It has been said that the stunt drummed up £14 million of free advertisement for Jaguar, and quickly received the all-important sign-off by Sir John Egan.
Built to honour Jaguar’s first aluminium bodied car, the XK120, it was going to take on the Ferrari F40 and the Porsche 959 to become the fastest car in the world with a top speed of 354 kmph, yet still retain all the comforts of Jaguar’s normal production cars.
Jaguar quickly realised that the new car would need to be developed and built away from its existing facilities as they were already earmarked for existing programmes. Luckily, Tom Walkinshaw had teamed up with Jaguar on several racing projects, culminating in the creation of JaguarSport, who could take the concept to job one.
Building up the Jaguar XJ220 team up began in May 1989 Graham Collett was around 28 years old when he joined the project as the Senior Quality Manager. “I was putting in controls with [Abbey Panels] as it was critical that all the bits of the body get up to the right temperature. We had thermocouples placed on every single structure in eight positions so that you knew every vehicle had been cooked properly, because the bonding is what gives the car its structural integrity.”
The cars were put together like a jig-saw puzzle on the small production line at Bloxham. Being a limited run supercar, not all jobs were easy, as they would be for workers on a fully automated line. “The trickiest job was getting the fuel tank in. It’s a bag tank, and it has to be put through an aperture which is no bigger than an A4 sheet of paper. They had to take all of the foam out, stuff the bag in and then reinstall the foam. The first few we built had problems with leaky fuel tanks until the guys got the knack of how to do it properly.”
Some customers had their reservations about dropping of the concept car’s weighty V12 and four-wheel drive system. The reasons given have been numerous. According to the Project Manager, Mike Moreton – who coincidentally has written a book about the car, says it due to the weight. The car was projected to weigh around 600kg more than the Ferrari and 250kg more than the Porsche it was competing against. The fact that the turbo V6 it eventually received could pass emissions regulation more easily was just the icing on the cake.
I put the question of the loss of the V12 to Graham, and after a long sigh, “When the race and design engineers got hold of the vehicle they had a long and hard look at it, and just decided that actually, the vehicle was over-long for good handling, from my understanding, and if you went with a V12 and a 4×4 system, it was just going to be too heavy. We had a target of 1350-1400 kilos, and to get down to that, the V6 we used was much lighter and more compact unit, whilst still being capable of kicking out a good 550bhp.”
And the Jaguar XJ220 was fast enough to obliterate the F40’s top speed record, clocking 342 kmph with Martin Brundle behind the wheel at the banked circuit at Nardo, Sothern Italy. But what was it like to drive? “I found it a very easy car to drive, as long as you didn’t take liberties with it. You have to remember, there’s no traction control, no ABS, no airbags. It’s probably the last supercar we’ll see where there are no electronics helping you.”
So, the team had achieved their objectives of building the fastest supercar in the world, and one which could do so in comfort, just as the XK120 had done. But why is it that the XJ220 had lain in the doldrums while the Ferrari has been revered? I think the two reasons are the McLaren F1 and the recession. I mean, imagine that you had put down your deposit of £50,000 in 1988 for a £360,000 car, only to find that after ‘Black Wednesday’ the price had rocketed with inflation to £460,000. You would be pretty miffed. Especially if you had advertised your space in the queue for £70,000 in the hope of turning a quick profit. Then imagine being taken to court by Jaguar and being forced to buy the car. That really happened. This might explains why some owners have never driven their cars, as they sit unloved in private collections.
But perhaps this is the time for us to stop having a downer on the Jag. It is after-all a supercar which can travel at over 322 kmph, and do so easily and in comfort. With prices for the Ferrari now heading for seven figures, why not buy a Jaguar XJ220 at a fraction of the cost? It drives well, it looks stunning and can still embarrass modern supercars, all at a fraction of the price of its contemporaries. What’s not to like about that? I think that the 25th anniversary could be a turning point. It may have taken silver against the McLaren F1, but it’s a gold-plated investment opportunity.