Jaguar XJ220 - the inside story

The Jaguar XJ220 will forever be the car that wasn't. Whereas really, it should be celebrated for being the car that was, against all odds.

Professor Jim Randle, former Jaguar director of engineering, takes up the story, which starts in the early 1980s. “Sir John Egan had been tasked with demonstrating Jaguar was still in business and could independently survive.” A work level “bordering on the unbelievable” ensued for every director, selling the Jaguar brand and “inventing a believable product plan – which we didn’t have… but so good was our deception, BL believed it!” After six frenetic months Jaguar was privatised in August 1984. “We were then told to make it work.”

Sexy, swoopy and sensuous - the XJ220 concept
Sexy, swoopy and sensuous - the XJ220 concept
In Randle’s words, this meant “selling the sizzle became more important than selling the sausage”. Jaguar needed to get its pride back. More was needed than just new models like the XJ40. In stepped Tom Walkinshaw, who convinced the board he could win in ETCC. With the XJ-S, in 1983, he did. The workforce loved it. Later, he would do the same with Le Mans. But Randle had another idea: produce a road-going supercar designed to race in the fledgling Group B championship being mooted by the FIA. “I spent Christmas 1987 thinking about what we could do, and ended up with a CAD model, which I still have.” CAD for Randle is, it should be noted, cardboard-aided design…

“Intentionally complex”
This was given to the styling department. “Put a frock on it, make it echo the XJ13.” Randle also deployed an unwritten understanding with suppliers such as FFD, QCR, Triplex. If they did work, and it worked, they’d get the work. He wrote an internal memo, requesting volunteers to work, in their own time, on a supercar project. 12 people signed up, forming ‘the Saturday club’ and giving Randle “the opportunity to do the job without any money.”

Concept's drama carried over into final car
Concept's drama carried over into final car
And so, the gestation of a 220mph car started. “XJ220 was fitting. It was 40 years after the XK120 did 120mph. That was a Bill Heynes car, (development legend) Norman Dewis told us ‘honour Bill’.” 

“It was intentionally complex: four-wheel drive, rear-wheel steer, variable aerodynamics so it could ‘drive-to-race’, though being a downforce car it would have to lower by a few inches from road guise. The aero was to produce 1,360kg (yes, you read right) of downforce at 220mph – although, what tyres could manage such forces? They remained a problem throughout the entire programme.

“The V12 engine was originally designed by Walter Hassan in the 1960s. It was developed with Cosworth and raced in 1986, and a road car study discovered it was powerful, but uneconomical. It wasn’t carried on, but we were able to steal one of the five development engines for our concept.” Cue one 700hp 6.2-litre V12 engine, complete with driveshaft running through the open vee.

Infamous switch to V6 power was controversial
Infamous switch to V6 power was controversial
About that V12…
Just one of many clever innovations. “We designed the rear-steer system not for cornering but to put yaw damping in the system. Suspension was relatively conventional but, as it was height-adjustable, we accounted for caster change constraints.” The bodywork was 4000-series aluminium, with an FIA roll cage buried within the structure. “It had astounding crash performance.”

Keith Helfet did the styling, “knowing I was going to lose, how can to better the old cars?” But he went ahead, using the XJ13 as inspiration. Within the constraints of a design “that couldn’t be fully oval as we had the constraints of the Group B aero stuff”, he aimed to replicate Malcolm Sayer’s design language of form being all, getting acceleration into the design, “making it look fast standing still.”

Making it work was a real test of mettle
Making it work was a real test of mettle
It was an aero-led shape. “I didn’t want flame surfacing and feature lines, but shapes that made sense.” Jaguar couldn’t afford a full-scale model, so everything was done in quarter-scale. It was tested and honed in MIRA’s new wind tunnel, and this optimised model became the final car. “It was scary – the thing looked the size of a house. You can’t scale the sense of scale! I actually felt guilty, too: we’d made the aluminium body panel beaters’ job so hard. Luckily, they disagreed and said it was the highlight of their careers – they’d never been stretched so much.”

More late nights
And so, 10 months after the project started, the 12-strong team wheeled the car direct from its press material photoshoot into the 1988 NEC Motor Show at 3am on opening day. “One of the team found six bottles of Champagne. At 6am, we all went home worse for wear.” The crowds flocked in, your 10-year-old writer was squashed by them, Ferrari became increasingly desperate to draw attention to the F40 parked next door (“They moved the car, then got an attractive lady, who then started taking her clothes off – still nobody turned around.”), an extra 90,000 people visited the Birmingham show just to see it – the XJ220 sizzled alright.

Under appreciated, is the XJ220 due a revival?
Under appreciated, is the XJ220 due a revival?
So that was the concept. It was a bold Jaguar board that agreed to green-light it, targeting a 1992 launch just three years hence. And, with no racing intent in mind, it was a focused project engineering team that led to the road car makeup which disappointed so many.

Engine? The Metro 6R4 V6, a shortened Rover V8 whose design had since been sold to TWR. It had racing pedigree (in the Group C cars), it was powerful, it didn’t weigh loads. But for the V12 promise, it was ideal. The Porsche 959 could get away with a six-pot turbo, so why not Jaguar? As for four-wheel drive, it was heavy, compromise-laden, unnecessary: it went. Rear-wheel steer, height adjustable suspension and active aero followed suit. All were sound engineering decisions that created a lighter, faster, more able car than would otherwise have been the case.

Cut and shut
Helfet knew the car had to shrink. The V6 allowed it to. “This was before the days of Photoshop: we ‘cut and shut’ photographic prints to get the proportions of a smaller car. I’d have liked it shorter, but Tom [Walkinshaw] wouldn’t have it.” Bigger openings for the turbo intercoolers were created, but the XJ13-inspired glass engine cover was retained, as was pretty much everything else from the show car. Which in itself is remarkable. Few realise they are so very different. Few realise the show car was never designed to make production. Underappreciated is the fact it did at all.

The Jaguar supercar could be due a revival
The Jaguar supercar could be due a revival
Production ceased in 1994, 281 cars into the planned 350 total, with a fizzle. Yes, history is unkind to the XJ220. It was, at 213mph, the fastest car in the world, despite being developed on a shoestring at breakneck speed. The recession, the no-V12 fallout, the court cases from aggrieved owners, all shadow what is a pretty stunning accomplishment: an automotive minnow turning a race-inspired piece of conceptual engineering brilliance into a roadgoing reality that beat every other supercar on the planet. 20 years on, it’s time we celebrated it.

P.H. O'meter

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Comments (176) Join the discussion on the forum

  • coppice 30 Mar 2013

    A Marmite car I think - I have seen several over the years on road and track and whilst the view from the front is undeniably attractive the whole car is grotesquely long to my eyes. It would be redeemed if it sounded better (like a 6R4 would be good). But they sound like bags of spanners to me. I will keep my F40 thanks. (Tipo Burago 1/12 scale sadly ). The XJR 15 seemed to be a far prettier car(have never seen one in flesh however) and it did have the merit of a 'proper' engine.

    But fantastic that owners of the XJ 220 are so keen on preserving them and it is always an event to see one .

  • dinkel 30 Mar 2013

    RESSE said:
    1990 220 Development prototype for sale on the 17th of April via H&H's Auction.

    Estimate £150,000 - £180,000

    How strangely attractive is that?

  • f1ten 17 Mar 2013

    That development car is a real collector's piece although the panels maybe not fitted perfectly?

  • chevronb37 17 Mar 2013

    RufMD said:
    What a timely story ! I just acquired one of the 5 XJ220 "S" models, #220779, Orange with black wheels, came of the transporter last night. As most of your know, Jaguar Sport was a collaboration between Tom Walkinshaw's TWR and Jaguar, and led to many racing success in the 80's and 90's as well as production of the XJ220 at Bloxham. When Jaguar decided to race the XJ220 at LeMans in the GT category, TWR built 3 race versions, the XJ220 "C". One of these won the GT category at LeMans in 1994 with coulthard at the wheel....only to be disqualified on a technicality that was proven incorrect but upheld due to a "nontimely appeal". In order to homologate this race car, TWR built 5 (or six if you count a Tom Walkinshaw special) "S" versions.

    The only panels an "S" version shares with the original car are the doors, the rest is replaced with lightweight CF panels. The heavy seats were removed and replaced with leather clad racing buckets. Finally the engine was massaged to 680hp, up from the original 542hp. All in all, almost 700lbs were shaved off the original weight and the "S" version weighs in at 2376lbs. Add 680hp to that weight and the performance quotes of 3.3 secs to 60mph and a top end of 228mph seem plausible smile

    1. 220779 has 2900kms on the clock, has had its fuel cell and clutch replaced and recent gasket service. Going through it quite carefully at the moment but a full driving review will follow. Ive been trying to land one for yonks so to finally acquire one is really exciting.

    Edited by RufMD on Thursday 9th August 08:00

    Edited by RufMD on Thursday 9th August 08:11
    Utterly, utterly awesome car and car collection. Tiny comment though - my recollection is that the Le Mans disqualification was in 1993. I believe the 1994 GT1 class winner was actually the Dauer 962 which took the overall win.

  • onyx39 17 Mar 2013

    About a year before the 220 came out, a friend and I blagged some tickets to a Vauxhall event at Millbrook.
    We were told on the gate to surrender any cameras we had (this was before the days of camera phones) and that we might possibly see some "pre production" vehicles.
    I remember seeing a SAAB that I did not recognise before we got out on the speedbowl, but when I finally got out (I was driving a Senator 3.0 24v at about a ton), and what I later found out when he came around again, was overtaken by a 220.... Could not see what It was the first time, so god knows how fast he was going!

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