PH Heroes: Jaguar XJ220
The car that buyers wanted to give back before they'd even got their car? A hero? You betcha, says Riggers
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Engine: 3,498cc twin-turbo V6
Torque (lb ft):475
On sale: 1991-94
Price new: £460,000
Price now: c. £150,000-£200,000