Track suits. When former F1 driver Jonathan Palmer was developing a two-seat track car in the early 2000s, he turned to Jaguar for the engine, choosing the same 3.0-litre V6 as the X-TYPE. We head to Castle Combe to experience one of these incredible race-tuned beasts. Words & photography Paul Walton.
PALMERSPORT JAGUAR JP1
We head to Castle Combe to experience the full force of this Jaguar 3.0 V6-engined JP1
There’s nothing subtle about this JP1. There’s how it looks, for a start. Low, black and with larger aero aids than the Wright Flyer, I reckon even Batman would say it’s too aggressive for him. It’s also loud. At full chat, the engine note becomes a high-pitched wail, loud enough to wake the dead, and possibly even a teenager. And the interior? Nothing but hard bucket seats and a simple carbon dash to hold a few switches in place.
Not, then, something you’d associate with a brand universally known for its stylish and comfortable cars. Yet the Palmer JP1 is still part of the Jaguar family tree – albeit on a branch so distant it’s in a different time zone – because behind the cockpit, under the hard, angular-shaped bodywork, is Jaguar’s 3.0-litre V6, as fitted to the X-TYPE and S-TYPE.
Developed by British track-day specialists PalmerSport in the early 2000s, very few of these beasts were released into the wild. So, when Swallows Jaguar bought a rare escapee and invited me to drive it at the daunting Castle Combe circuit, distant Jaguar relation or not, it was an invitation I couldn’t turn down.
With 83 Formula 1 starts to his name, plus a second at Le Mans in 1985, when Jonathan Palmer wanted a purpose- designed track car for the driving experience events that his company, PalmerSport, held at Bedford Autodrome, he knew what he wanted. And that was something as close as possible to the cars he’d driven at the famous French circuit, yet suitable for novices on the tight Bedfordshire circuit.
“I’m passionate about delivering the perfect motorsport experience for my guests,” explains Palmer in a 2003 press release about the machine. “Producing our own sports car – the JP1 – is a personal ambition of mine. Having competed in the Le Mans 24 Hours six times, there’s something very special about driving a sports car.”
Palmer found what he was looking for with the Zeus Challenger. Produced in Oxfordshire by Zeus Motorsport Engineering and designed by former racing driver and company boss Peter Sneller, it was powered by a four-cylinder 2.0-litre Toyota engine and was, by all accounts, very fast, its aerodynamics offering competition levels of grip. There was only one, albeit considerable, problem: it was a single-seater and Palmer needed room for the driver and an instructor. For Palmer, the answer was simple – to buy Zeus Motorsport Engineering, and have Sneller widen the steel tube space-frame chassis to make room for a second seat, with help from PalmerSport’s technical team.
The official reason why Palmer chose Jaguar’s 3.0 V6 to power the car is, “I have driven the Jaguar X-TYPE and it has great performance, feel and nimble driving dynamics, which combine to make the car flattering to drive. It is also soundly engineered. These are qualities the JP1 shares, with the result that it is easy to drive quickly and great fun,” he explains in the press release.
I’m sure that the real reason wasn’t quite as romantic. Admittedly, the 3.0 is a fabulous engine. Torquey and free revving, it can (as many owners have discovered) be tuned for further performance; but with Jaguar competing in Formula 1 at the time and the car looking similar to a Le Mans racer, the PR potential was huge, and not just for PalmerSport. It was Jaguar’s public affairs team who produced the press release where Stuart Dyble, the company’s then director of communications, is quoted as saying “The Palmer Jaguar JP1 captures perfectly the performance spirit of Jaguar.
“When Jonathan approached us with the initial plans for the JP1, we immediately recognised a perfect way for us to share our passion for driving enjoyment with a wider audience. This innovative programme will further raise the Jaguar profile by allowing enthusiasts to experience the dynamic attributes that make a Jaguar so special.” To make sure there could be no doubt as to the engine’s origin, the publicity picture accompanying the press release shows a JP1 on the Bedford track side-by-side with an X-TYPE.
To reinforce the link between Jaguar and the JP1, the eight cars stationed at the Autodrome are painted in the same metallic green as Jaguar’s Formula 1 cars, with a huge Leaper across the air box. In short, PalmerSport did all the work, Jaguar got all the publicity.
Actually, it was Cosworth Racing that altered the 3.0 V6 for the required mid- engine application. Power was then increased from 231bhp to 245bhp, the torque boost down to a bespoke engine management system, while the responsiveness was improved thanks to a lightened flywheel and by revising the inlet and exhaust systems. Perhaps clutching at straws, Palmer even tried to link that to Jaguar, saying, “The exhaust note is sensational. To me, it’s reminiscent of a V12 Jaguar Le Mans car!”
I can tell you now, it isn’t. The result was a machine that was as striking to look at as it was fast. With a top speed of 180mph, 60mph in a frighteningly fast 3.6 seconds, and 100mph in just 3.2 more, they were impressive figures for an engine from a compact saloon. This is no doubt the reason why Jaguar was keen to get on board.
While eight cars were put to work at Bedford Autodrome (all of which PalmerSport has retained and still uses for track-day events, although no longer sporting their original green paint), there was a handful of customer cars. And, in 2017, one of these came up for sale.
“I told Gary we had to buy it,” Swallows Jaguar’s Colin Porter tells me in Castle Combe’s paddock as its black JP1 rolls off the trailer. “I drove one at Bedford in the mid-2000s and thought it was fabulous.” Knowing there were only a few customer cars about, when this example went on the market in 2017 Colin realised the car’s significance and convinced Swallows’ Gary Robinson to add it to their fleet of ex-PalmerSport XKRs. The full history of this particular example is unknown, but the faint outline of a British track-day hire club’s logo remains on the rear wing. As the car had been idle for 18 months it needed some light recommissioning, mainly because the 3.0-litre engine had been incorrectly modified. When they couldn’t access the Pectel ECU, Swallows’ Tom Robinson contacted Cosworth, but, more than 15 years after the car was built, it couldn’t officially help because everyone who worked on the cars had left. “But the person we talked to,” Tom tells me, “said they still saw one of the engineers at the pub. A few days later, we got the right password and accessed the ECU.” Now, thanks to a minor remap, the engine is producing 277bhp.
Visually, other than the addition of some Swallow Racing stickers, the car is as it was when Colin and Gary bought it two years ago. The jet-black paint is a contrast to the original green livery of PalmerSport’s own cars, but it suits the JP1’s design. However, it’s not what you’d call pretty, with hard, angular lines, an enormous air box above the cockpit, a huge, adjustable rear wing and a front splitter so low you could plough snow. What it is, though, is reminiscent of the kind of sports prototypes that raced at Le Mans in the Eighties.
Removing the composite body reveals both the car’s web-like tubular chassis and Jaguar 3.0 engine. With a huge Pipercross air filter it looks a lot different from the production model, as hinted at by the small Cosworth Racing plaque on the bulkhead. Gary enjoys some laps of the Wiltshire circuit to warm up the tyres before handing the car over to me. The carbon fibre seat is tight and, even with the steering wheel removed, I still need to be pushed down into place like a returning Jack-in-the-box.
In front of me is a plank of carbon fibre with the starter button and fuel switch; all the digital dials are housed in the flat- bottomed, suede-covered Momo steering wheel. In terms of comfort, design and quality, it’s a long way from my XK8. Or even my wife’s filthy, sweet-wrapper strewn Ford Focus, for that matter.
After Colin tightens the five-point harness so vigorously I feel like I’m in 50 Shades of Grey, I start the engine, which fires up with a ferocious bark. The track is open, so I drive down the access road and, with nothing behind me, enter at Folly – a long right-hand bend – and squeeze the throttle. The result is a sudden, violent and powerful burst of speed. I’ve driven some of the world’s fastest supercars over the years, from an XJ220 to a Lamborghini Gallardo, none being a patch on the JP1.
Obviously, that isn’t down to its power, because 277bhp might be 30bhp more than when the car was new, but it is tiny by today’s standard. The F-TYPE 2.0, for example, has 295bhp. The reason for its manic performance is weight, the car tipping the scales at 690kg. That’s 880kg less than a standard X-TYPE 3.0 saloon and only slightly more than my Christmas turkey. Originally it had 370bhp per tonne, twice that of a standard X-TYPE 3.0 and roughly the same as a McLaren 570 S supercar. The resultant acceleration is so strong I can feel my helmet lifting from my head; only the chinstrap stops it blowing away like a crisp packet in the wind.
As the engine reaches its ear-splitting crescendo, and the exhaust note becomes a high-pitched wail, I reach for the brass gearlever to my left and change up. The JP1 uses a Hewland, six-speed sequential ’box, which means I simply need to pull the lever back in quick succession and the gears bang into place like bullets leaving a gun.
At Avon Rise, a long left-hander that would require me to brake into if driving a saloon or hatchback, I simply lift off. Despite still travelling at a tremendous pace, with fat, sticky tyres and full aero package pushing the car down, I’m still facing the right way at the other side.
I do need to brake for Quarry, a tighter right-hand bend, where the Alcon four-pot racing calipers with 280mm ventilated discs stop the car quickly and progressively – without the tricky on-or-off nature of other competition cars I’ve driven. As before, grip is phenomenal and I hustle the car around this long corner even quicker than in the PalmerSport XKR I drove here in 2016.
Accelerating hard out of Quarry for the following Farm Straight, the little car never feels twitchy, or as if the rear is about to step out. Instead, I feel the rear hunkering down under that huge wing, the tyres finding all the grip they need. Carrying plenty of speed and driving close to the perfect line, I hurtle down the small straight, changing gear with a bang-bang-bang, and hugging the left- hand curb ready for the Esses, a quick right-left-right series of corners. With fast, accurate steering, I barely need to move the wheel to scythe my way through, and then, after another short straight – the wonderfully named Hammer Down – it’s hard on the brakes for Tower Corner, a sharp right-hander. The brakes again scrub off speed instantly, before I change down, perfectly balancing the throttle, and power smoothly out of the corner, only slowing for Bobbies – another slow-right, hard- left chicane. Here, I clatter hard over the kerbs as I look for the best line. It’s now a long, hard blast on Dean Straight towards Camp Corner. Once more, the acceleration as the 3.0 V6 opens up is hard and brutal, the wail from the exhaust loud and ear- splitting, yet I don’t back off, even when I enter the long right corner that takes me past the pit complex. This car’s excellent grip allows me to take the bend at remarkable speed towards Folly, becoming a black blur as I whizz past Gary and Colin (spectating on the pit wall to make sure I don’t stuff their pride and joy).
My subsequent lap times become quicker and quicker as I gain confidence and learn to brake later and accelerate harder. I’ve never driven a pure sports racing car, of the type that would race at Le Mans, but I can imagine the experience is close, the JP1’s noise, speed, overall power and psychotic levels of grip bombarding all my senses. However, the car is different from the real thing by how easy it is to drive.
Within a few laps, I am really flying, not something I could say about driving a Porsche 962 or Jaguar XJR-9, for example (it would be easier for me to master playing Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee on a kazoo than do that). The reason, I think, is the humble origins of the engine. Although it has been modified to an almost unrecognisable level by Cosworth, the V6’s inherent drivability and eagerness to be revved remains. So, unlike genuine, pure-bred racing cars I’ve experienced (such as the tricky TWR- developed Group A XJ-S that I took up the Goodwill Hill in 2005), it’s not difficult to drive quickly. And, while it might not look like a Jaguar, or have been developed by the factory, the PalmerSport JP1 is still every inch a real Jaguar.
Thanks to: Gary Robinson and Colin Porter from Swallows Jaguar (tel: 01934 750319; swallows-jag.co.uk)
Acceleration is so strong I can feel my helmet lifting from my head; only the chinstrap stops it blowing away like a crisp packet in the wind
Jaguar and PalmerSport were keen to stress the connection between the X-TYPE 3.0 and JP1 by sending out this press image in 2003 of the two cars side-by-side at Bedford Autodrome.