PH Heroes: Jaguar XJ220

History has not been particularly kind to the Jaguar XJ220. Call it a case of right car at absolutely the wrong time.

The background to the XJ220's genesis was an unpleasant one for Jaguar and the luxury/performance car market in general. Although enjoying serious success at Le Mans between the first stirrings of the XJ220 idea as a Group B racer in the mid 1980s and its eventual arrival on the market in 1991, Jaguar was a company on its knees.

After a surge of support for a newly independent Jaguar, freed from the ties of British Leyland, Jaguar had been struggling. It needed to throw off its image of unreliability, and it needed to recapture the glamour of its 50s and 60s heyday. Unfortunately Jaguar had no money with which to do it. Fortunately Jaguar's engineering director Jim Randle and 12 keen engineers were on hand with the 'Saturday Club', giving up their own free time to create the dramatic XJ220.

All in the timing
But the economic bubble of the late 80s burst before Jaguar managed to get the car to market, the promised V12 of the 1988 concept never materialised, and Jaguar only managed to sell 275 cars before production ceased in 1994. Even so, for a brief time the XJ220 was one of the fastest cars on the planet. And it remains one of the most exciting.

Aside from the fact that you shouldn't need much of an excuse to write a PH Heroes piece in order to slobber over so exotic a piece of automotive excess as a 200mph Jaguar, it's also 20 years since the XJ220 appeared on sufficiently wealthy driveways.

So to celebrate that fact, Jaguar called up XJ220 specialist Don Law and asked if he wouldn't mind rustling up a couple of XJ220s for a suitably salivating gaggle of motoring hacks to have rides in.

If you haven't heard of Don Law, he's an extraordinarily nice man and probably knows more about XJ220s than anybody else on earth, with pretty much every single one produced - for road or track - having passed through his unassuming Staffordshire base for sales or service.

Go on, twist my arm
He's an extraordinarily nice chap because he's let me go for a surreptitous drive in one of his own cars (after a spot of sales talk by us, explaining just how many PHers would be keen to read about a first-hand experience of his silver supercar - so thank you for that one, everybody...). This XJ220, the one you see in these pictures, was chassis number 004 and one of the original development cars. After this, it was transformed into a racer and campaigned by Don's son Justin in the British GT championship before being returned to road-car spec.

Considering its turbulent past, both as prototype hack and racing car, 004 is in truly immaculate condition. Interior plastics are unfaded by the sun, the leather seats are free from the creases of a thousand entries and exits, and the bodywork is unblemished, belying the knockabout life this car must have had.

But if this example looks as-new, you wouldn't mistake it for a brand new supercar. From the driver's seat the cabin is a veritable ocean of hard, grey plastics, and the general aura, while suitably imposing is rather more workmanlike than you'd expect in a bling-and-whistles 21st-century supercar. Or a Jaguar for that matter. But that doesn't really matter, because this is a tool for going fast in, not for showing off. OK, going fast can be showing off too, but you know what we mean.

You're on your own
The car-from-a-different-era thing is also reflected by the absence of any electronic driver assistance - there's no power steering, no ABS and certainly no ESP. It is also massive. Today's super fast cars are often as much about usability as they are about outrageous styling and speed. The XJ220 is not. Practicality can go hang. Mind you, despite the heavy clutch, woeful turning circle and lumbering unassisted steering, the XJ220 is actually perfectly biddable at low speeds, the suspension riding relatively softly over car park lumps and bumps and the engine happy to crawl along at little above tickover without complaint.

Once you do get a chance to explore a bit more of the power envelope, however, you realise that this is anything but a docile machine. OK, so it might not have the glorious howl of the V12 that was originally planned for it but then you’d have had to put up with an engine that was too big and heavy to fit into the huge body. And you would have ended up with a Coventry take on late-80s Lamborghini handling. But boy does the 550hp twin-turbo V6 go.

Goes well, stops ... eventually
Like everything about the XJ220, the throttle pedal is a distinctly analogue device, with a long travel requiring you to push hard before anything really happens. But once it does, and once the moderately noticeable turbo lag has been overcome, well, wow. I can honestly say that modern supercars do not feel a great deal faster once the XJ220 gets into its stride. We only had a chance to test the car briefly on the rural roads immediately around Jaguar’s Gaydon HQ but the big supercar feels surefooted, grippy and very, very fast. You just need to watch the brakes – there’s a lot of effort required to bring the speed down once you’ve built it up.

It’s a strange car really, the XJ220. In some ways it very much feels of its time – an engineering compromise built on a shoestring, effectively in a company’s spare time. But in oh-so-many other ways it is truly wonderful. Brilliantly fast, gorgeously dramatic, and surprisingly tractable. Those city types who threw their deposits back in Jaguar’s face didn’t know what they were missing.

 3,498cc twin-turbo V6
Power (hp):550
Torque (lb ft):475
0-62mph:3.6 sec
Top speed:213mph
On sale: 1991-94 
Price new: £460,000
Price now: c. £150,000-£200,000



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Comments (78) Join the discussion on the forum

  • F1GTRUeno 04 Jul 2012

    sisu said:
    The 90's weren't a great time for cars really.
    You are kidding.

    The 90's were the best era for cars, especially supercars and racing cars.

    • slightly biased being a 90's child

  • daveco 04 Jul 2012

    sisu said:
    The XJ220 still looks a bit BBW sort of car, especially when you see one up close. You also have to put this into context with the XJR-15 that they brought out a couple of years before this which was a mid mounted 6.0 V12. Agian this is still a fuller figured LeMans sort of thing. But with the right sort of soundtrack.
    The 90's weren't a great time for cars really
    McLaren F1
    Ferrari F50
    Ferrari 355
    Lamborghini Diablo
    Jaguar XJ220
    Porsche 993
    Honda NSX
    Skyline R33 GT-R

    There was a lot of normal saloon rubbish on the roads but I'm going to have to disagree with you old bean.

  • BarbaricAvatar 04 Jul 2012

    If it had been better 'packaged' then i doubt it would've been so beautiful.
    Love the standard XJ220, not a fan of the TWR versions.

  • LewisR 04 Jul 2012

    lambo_xx said:
    Nice article there! I always loved the XJ220 and this year my dream came true and I finally bought one biggrin!

    It’d a strange car and like everything it has its negatives but in my opinion the pros completely out way them. It’s hard and intimidating to drive and that is the way these older cars are, which for me I find adds to the experience.

    The major criticisms people had about this car I find are often either fairly exaggerated or just not really true. The size for example, yes it’s huge but an Enzo , Ferrari 599 and a Lamborghini Diablo are all wider and nobody mentions that when driving them. The standard exhaust doesn’t sound great, but fit a sports exhaust and it’s seriously seriously loud!

    I truly love mine, I understand why some people don’t like them but the one thing I can never get over is that the car is 20 years old and only now are “everyday” supercars managing to catch up, Gallardo’s, 458s etc.

    Edited by lambo_xx on Thursday 8th March 20:11
    Fan-bloody-tastic. I think that they look stunning and I love those wheels.

    If I could, I would.

    I wonder how well the 550bhp XKRS engine would fair in this?

  • James1972 17 Mar 2012

    Am I sad that I just had to search out what the rear lights were off ? - Managed to remember Mazda 626 for the XJR but Rover 200 for the 220 was lost in the mists of time. Lottery win I'm off to see Don Law with a bag of cash - metallic blue seams to suit them methinks

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