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Its competition flame rekindled by the factory supported privateer efforts from Group 44 in North America and TWR in Europe, Jaguar began exploring the possibility of a production based racing car in the mid-1980s. Built to Group B specification, this supercar would be able to take on the might of Ferrari (288 GTO and the subsequent F40) and Porsche (959 / 961) on the road and track. When the Group B class was binned, Jaguar's engineers quietly worked on with the spectacular 'XJ220' show car launched at the 1988 Birmingham Motor Show as the final result.
By this time the racing plans were all but forgotten and Jaguar's first 'super car' served to celebrate the recent successes in the World Sports Car Championship and at Le Mans with the V12-engined XJR-9 Jaguars. Accordingly, the XJ220 Prototype featured a twelve cylinder engine derived from the XJR unit. In fact the 6.2 litre V12 was more sophisticated with a twin-cam, four valve per cylinder head. This configuration was also tried on the racing cars but deemed too heavy. In XJ220 guise, it produced around 500 bhp, which was on par with the performance of the Ferrari F40 and Porsche 959. Just like the latter, the XJ220 Prototype sported all-wheel drive with a front/rear torque split of 31/69.
Unlike the all carbon composite XJRs, the XJ220 featured a bonded aluminium chassis. Suspension was also competition inspired with double wishbones and push-rod actuated dampers. The potent package was clothed in an aluminium body penned by Jaguar's chief designer Geoff Lawson. His design was very slippery with curvaceous lines, pop-up headlights and a 'Kamm' tail. Like the contemporary sports racers, the XJ220 featured underbody aerodynamics, developing considerable amount of downforce. In good Jaguar tradition, the 220 in the name referred to the potential top speed in miles per hour.
When the XJ220 was launched in Birmingham, Jaguar stressed that it was 'just' a show car and that there were no firm production plans. Interested parties were told that would the super car become available, it would be priced at around 250,000 Pounds. Well over a year after the launch, in December 1989, Jaguar finally revealed that the XJ220 would be built in a limited run of 220 examples with the possibility to go up to 350 if there was enough demand. Assigned to further develop and construct the XJ220 was JaguarSport, the joint venture of Jaguar Cars and Tom Walkinshaw Racing (TWR) that also ran the competition program.
When the XJ220 finally entered production, in June of 1992, it differed substantially from the original show car. The most significant change was found under the see-through engine cover; gone was the V12 and in was a twin-turbo V6. Similar to the engine used in the second generation XJR racing cars, the state-of-the-art six cylinder was preferred by the engineers because it would be easier to comply with the ever stricter emission regulations, while producing similar power figures. In fact, despite being almost half the size, the 'JRV-6' engine produced almost 10% more horsepower at 542 bhp. Very much a Group B artefact, the all-wheel drive system was also deleted from the production car.
Jaguar had received as many as 1,500 down-payments, of which all but 350 were repaid. Unfortunately Jaguar had not selected meticulously enough as many of the clients proved to be interested in the XJ220 mainly as an investment opportunity. At around the same period the market for collector cars collapsed, diminishing the appeal of the Jaguar by no fault of its own. The price had also gone up to 290,000 Pounds, resulting in a considerable amount of customers rejecting the XJ220. In addition to the increased price, they also quoted the different specification compared to the show car (read the lack of the exotic V12) as a reason not to take delivery. Some even sued Jaguar demanding their deposit back but they lost.
As a possible distraction from these (legal) problems, TWR stepped up and developed a competition version of the XJ220 for the new 'GT' class. Most of the aluminium panels were replaced with carbon fibre examples and a large rear wing was fitted. A three car team of 'XJ220Cs' was fielded at Le Mans in 1993 but legal problems once again hit Jaguar's super car; the governing body stipulated that catalytic converters were required but Jaguar went ahead and raced the XJ220C without them. David Brabham, John Nielsen and a young David Coulthard drove their example to victory in class, only to be disqualified after the failing the post race tech inspection.
In response to the lower demand, Jaguar capped production of the road car at 280 examples. The last example rolled off the line in 1994 but it took many more years before the final cars left the factory. TWR upgraded six examples to 'XJ220S' specification. These were effectively road-going versions of the XJ220C racer. They also featured carbon fibre bodies, a rear wing and an upgraded engine. With the mandatory restrictors removed, the tweaked engine produced a staggering 680 bhp.
Sadly, the Jaguar XJ220 will always be remembered as a failed super car. This was mainly because it entered production at the worst possible time, although the lack of the V12 and high-tech drivetrain of the prototype are also often quoted as reasons for the car's failure. However, the fact is that the production car was both much lighter and more powerful than the lamented prototype. Today the XJ220 is still not as high in demand as its contemporaries, making it a true bargain super car that offers more bang for buck than any of its original rivals.
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