Things don’t always work out. In the car industry, just like in every other sector – and life in general – often, the plan just doesn’t come together the way people hope. Sometimes it’s a complete disaster; sometimes it’s less than that and ends up being a lesson, a learning opportunity…and other times, after the tumble, after stuff just goes plain wrong and everyone is running around with their hair on fire, something amazing still ends up seeing the light of day. The ultimate personification of this third possibility, the car version of John Locke screaming “don’t tell me what I can’t do!” from his wheelchair is, without a doubt, the Jaguar XJ220.
A product of the last years of the analog supercar era, the XJ220 looked and sounded extremely impressive at its conception. Car enthusiasts loved it, Jaguar got hundreds and hundreds of orders and then…well, then everything went a bit wrong. But let’s start at the beginning. Like everything fun at work, the XJ220 was something the guys kept secret from the boss, the weekend side project to blow off steam, have a couple of beers with the buddies at the office. The “Saturday Club”, a dozen Jaguar guys with designer Jim Randle at the helm looked at the supercars of the time, thought “meh” and began working on a massive, V12 powered, all wheel drive monster to end all monsters. The first prototype was built on personal time and called in favors. It was also finished the day it was presented at the Birmingham Motorshow, only one week after Ford (who then owned Jaguar) gave the go ahead for the XJ220 to go public.
Unsurprisingly it stole the show. Its extraordinary looks and its “here I am, deal with me” attitude made everything else look prehistoric and boring by comparison. People were impressed by the complexity of the projected four wheel drive system, by the majesty of the 6.2L, 48 valve, 500+ bhp V12 and the sexy, sexy curvaceous body of the thing. Jaguar (Ford) went along with the public unveiling of the XJ220 but there was never a real intention to actually produce the car. However, the attitude changed real quick from “we’re not doing this, it’s just for fun” to “well now, let’s not be hasty” when people started waving blank checks in their face. Over 1000 people expressed interest in getting an XJ220 and Jaguar – as one does – started taking 50 grand deposits for something that it didn’t have the first clue on how to build. What could possibly go wrong?
Jaguar aimed for 350 cars to be made, but because it had its hands full with, you know, the rest of the whole Jag lineup, it outsourced production. Tom Wilkinshaw Racing (TWR), creator of bitchin’ racing Jags was tasked with turning the XJ220 prototype into an actual production vehicle. This proved…challenging. How challenging? Oh boy…Well first, the project proved so costly that from an estimated price of just under 300.000 British pounds when Jaguar first decided to greenlight it, the XJ220 quickly jumped to well over 400.000, 100 grand more than a Ferrari F40. But just because you’d pay more, doesn’t mean you’d get more. Actually you’d get much, much less than what you were promised.
TWR quickly realized that the AWD system on the XJ220 would be too costly to develop and ultimately too heavy as well, so the idea was scrapped in favor of a traditional rear wheel drive layout. Then there was the engine, the glorious XJR-9 race refined V12…Over concerns regarding size, emissions, weight (tires couldn’t handle it), etc, the big 12 cylinder was – you guessed it – scrapped as well. In its place, a 3.5, 24 valve (twin turbo) V6 derived from a Rover Metro rally car…Can you imagine the Jaguar/client conversations at that time?
Jaguar: Good news, your car is being made right now!!!
Client: Great! I’m so excited!
Jaguar: We had to get rid of the all wheel drive tho.
Client: Oh…ok…that’s disappointing. But the V12 is still neat!
Jaguar: About that.
Client: Oh come on, Jaguar! Seriously???
Jaguar: No, it’s totally cool, we promise! Gonna be just as good! Now it has a twin turbo V6…from a *muffled speech*
Client: From a what?
Jaguar: *cough* Rover Metro *cough*
Client…I’d like my money back now.
Adding insult to injury, the XJ220 also failed at what was arguably the purpose of its existence, the very thing which gave it name: getting to 220mph (354 kph). The XJ220 could only run up to 212mph, 217 and change with its catalytic converters removed. This was especially embarrassing because the McLaren F1 – which arrived very shortly after the XJ220 – strolled all the way up to over 241mph (388kph) without breaking a sweat, setting a record which would hold until 2005. The final nail on the coffin for the XJ220’s reputation was the 1993 24 Hours of Le Mans. Jag tackled the legendary race with 3 cars, aiming for victory in the GT class. After a difficult run, an XJ220-C took the win, only to be disqualified for not running with catalytic converters. Jaguar argued that the cars had been cleared to run and even won the appeal with the race organizers, but in the end the XJ220 was still disqualified (the actual Le Mans winner is for sale right now and you can find it here). The once potential-filled, bedroom poster material Jaguar flagship was now synonym with disappointment both on and off the track, reduced to race in a ludicrous ESPN backed series called “Fast Masters” at the Indianapolis Raceway Park in which retired race car drivers would just fumble around the tiny track with the enormous XJ220s.
So that’s that then. The XJ220 is only remembered for suffering international humiliation, not reaching the top speed it was specifically made to reach, being a sales fiasco (not only did people demand their deposits back and competitors like the F1 – and even the XJR-15, in production at the same time and also by TWR, which ended up providing some very à la Romulus fratricidal tendencies – became more attractive, but the economic recession also hit like a sledgehammer), a subpar product…such a useless disappointment that no one even made tires for it anymore…End of story?
Not even close.
What the XJ220 really is, it’s extraordinary. Everyone plays fast and loose with the term “cult classic” these days, but the big Jag is a proper embodiment of the concept. With the crapnado that engulfed the car’s development and release, not a lot of people seem to have noticed that it was actually one of the most incredibly pieces of automotive engineering of the 20th century.
Going with the traditional rear wheel drive system as well as using a V6 instead of a V12 made the XJ220 light, very light. Plus, all body panels are aluminum and the chassis is a mix of aluminum alloys and composite. The car weighs less than 1.5 tons; in fact it weighs almost the same as a Carrera GT, a car with over an additional decade of technological development. And sure, at 2.20+ meters wide and almost 5 meters long it is massive, but the production model of the XJ220 is actually a shorter version of the original project and the small V6 allowed itself to be positioned in a way as to give the car a mid-engine balance. It also has venturi tunnels to generate down force at speed and its suspension is race derived with double wishbones and inboard springs and dampers; all this makes for fantastic handling (and bear in mind the crazy thing doesn’t have driver aids. Hell, it doesn’t even have power steering!). The engine might have been from a Rover Metro, but it was a TWR, race developed Rover Metro. With the addition of two Garrett T3 turbochargers and two intercoolers, the XJ220 had almost 550bhp to play with, quite a bit more than first intended.
Well planted, fast, savage…but also surprisingly comfortable. The interior was criticized for being a raid on Ford’s parts bin, but hey, if you break something at least it’s cheap to replace.
Despite being achingly beautiful and endlessly impressive, the XJ220 was for many years a car only appealing to the connoisseur, a non-mainstream alternative to the world of 80’s and 90’s supercars. Mainly unloved and profoundly misunderstood, the general public’s perception of the XJ220 is still obvious in the prices today; despite achieving a greater appreciation year after year, the value of an XJ220 is still nowhere near as much as the one of an F40, or 959…the F1s are – of course – in a whole class of their own. But what really kept butts off the driver seats of XJ220s was what we mentioned before: no one made tires for the damn things, so once the ones the car had on were gone, that was that.
Jaguar ended up making way less cars than intended (sources vary on the actual production numbers) and some remained unsold until as late as 1996. The ones that did sell ended up being stored due to the tires issue. Pretty much only Don Law kept the XJ220 alive over the last two and a half decades by specializing in the rare Jags (performance upgrades, racing, maintenance, replacement parts) and it was precisely Law who spearheaded the efforts with Bridgestone to create new tires and bring the big cats out to the streets again. But it wasn’t just Law and Bridgestone working towards an XJ220 comeback; Jaguar’s own Classic team set up a partnership with Pirelli towards the same effect.
This says something. Says these cars aren’t just museum pieces, they’re not a failed concept. Enough people appreciate and want to drive them. They belong on the street and on tracks around the world, being celebrated along with the other greats of their time.
It’s 2017 and the XJ220 is back, it’s pissed and it wants some recognition. “And I for one welcome our new Jaguar overlords”. So welcome back, XJ220 and happy 25th.
We missed you.
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