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Jaguar XJ220 Concept to Reality - Where Did it All Go Wrong

Updated: Jul 3

Jaguar XJ220

When Jaguar unveiled the XJ220 concept at the 1988 British international motor show, it blew everyone's socks off. The production version however, left many with cold feet. By Craig Toone. Images by Jaguar Media

Jaguar has often been the manufacturer of the world’s fastest production car - the XK120 and XK180 triumphantly boasted of their top speed in their title. The XKSS was a road-going Le Mans winner whilst the XJR-15 was cut from a similar cloth. When the XJ220 broke cover however, it looked like it was doing 220mph stood still, and dropped the jaws of everyone present. It even slackened ones as far away as Maranello and Stuttgart.

Jaguar was riding the high of its recent Le Mans victory and the confidence was reflected by the XJ220. It was a clean, slippery shape - a UFO with alloy wheels and a number plate - lacking any of the excesses that had come to define supercars from the likes of Ferrari & Lamborghini, yet managing to retain all the important signature cues - impossibly wide, obnoxiously long and lower than a snake's belly.

The spec sheet had the Italians covered too. Jaguar's famous V12 engine had been bored and stroked to 6,222cc, gifted with four valves per cylinder and double overhead camshafts, a dry sump and made extensive use of magnesium. No official output was declared but the rumour mill put it comfortably north of 700bhp, enough to give weight to the name.

Meanwhile, the body was crafted from aluminium whilst the chassis used know-how garnered from Le Mans garnished with four-wheel drive, four-wheel steering and active suspension & aerodynamics. Inside the XJ220 retained all the luxurious craftsmanship expected from a Jaguar with a full glass canopy, leather seats and climate control. Compared to a Ferrari F40 it was the QE2.

Jaguar XJ220 interior

The concept XJ220 had never been intended for production; it was the brainchild of director of engineering Jim Randle. Over the Christmas holiday of 1987, he put together a 'CAD' model of a potential new supercar - not of the computer aided variety as we know it, but cardboard. He pulled together a team of volunteers who worked on the project after hours, quickly designated “The Saturday Club”.

Two design studies were created, with the one sketched by Keith Helfet getting the nod for its futuristic aesthetic. The club eventually presented the mule to Jaguars Chairman in secret, who immediately approved its unveiling. The concept was only finished 24hrs before its debut and the marketing department hadn’t even clocked eyes on it - not something you can imagine happening today, unless you worked at BMW…

Reaction to the XJ220 was so overwhelming it was only a matter of time before the supercar became a production reality. A purported 1,500 deposits at £50,000 a pop had been secured off the back of the motor show, and after a feasibility study, the project was rubber stamped in December 1988 with a proposed £290,000 list price.

Immediately the headaches began. Jaguar didn’t have the capacity to produce the XJ220 themselves, so they extended their partnership with Tom Walkinshaw Racing, the motorsport team running its Le Mans campaign. TWR was contracted to develop and then build the XJ220. Right away costs spiralled out of control and when the first production cars were delivered in June 1992, the price had almost doubled to an eye watering £470,000.

Not only that, TWR had found the promises of the concept car to be far too ambitious. The V12 engine had no hope of meeting emissions regulations - or couldn’t make enough power when it did. It was also far too heavy, and occupied too much space. Enter the infamous “MG Metro 6R4” substitute engine, a twin turbocharged 3.5 litre V6 with distant links to the Austin Rover V64V.

It mattered not that nearly every component was changed from the iconic Group B rally cars, the association killed the halo stone dead leading to a flood of cancelled orders, despite its 542bhp output being good for a sub four second 0-60 time. Sadly, what it wasn’t good for was the claimed 220mph top speed. The closest a production car got was 217mph minus its catalytic converters, or 210mph with. It was still comfortably the worlds’ fastest car, but somehow XJ210 doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Jaguar XJ220 rear three quarter

The number of cylinders wasn’t the only thing that halved - the four wheel drive system had been jettisoned in favour of rear wheel drive, also axed was the adaptive suspension and four wheel steering. Even the scissor doors were cut...The sci-fi supercar was beginning to look like a charlatan. Unimpressed, customers began suing Jaguar for breach of contract, whilst the manufacturer counter sued for unfulfilled deposits.

Complicating matters was Jaguar getting hit hard by the global recession of the early ‘90’s, leading to a takeover by Ford. And that's before we get into the sticky mess of TWR covertly developing their own V12 powered Jaguar supercar alongside the XJ220 (the Jaguar XJR-15, which was much closer related to the racing cars than an out and out road car).

TWR also had a further role to play by developing the XJ220-S, which put the car on a crash diet, ditching all luxuries, replaced select panels with carbon fibre, lost the complicated swivel headlights and cranked the output of the V6 up to an eye watering 680bhp. It was enough for a claimed 228mph, but it still wasn’t enough for customers - in the end, only 281 XJ220’s were sold by the time production was halted in 1994, some way short of the planned 350.

With the passing of time, complaints about the XJ220’s VMAX faux pas are starting to look a little silly. After all, a claimed 150mph top speed never did the E-Type any harm. What really killed the XJ220 was the car nobody saw coming - the McLaren F1 - which instantly outclassed the Jaguar and the supercar landscape was never the same again.

Jaguar XJ220-S by TWR
XJ220-S by TWR
Jaguar XJ220-S rear three quarter TWR


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