Designing for Jaguar – we talk to Keith Helfet

Keith Helfet

Designing for Jaguar. We talk to Keith Helfet, the man who styled the iconic XJ220 hypercar. “What a lot of people won’t know is that it was meant to be a racing car” Richard Heseltine gets the inside story of the ill-fated Jaguar XJ220, styled by Keith Helfet whose proposal for the F-type was hand-picked by Sir William Lyons. Portrait Tony Baker. Archive Keith Helfet/LAT.

There was no self-doubt evident in his work, but there was occasionally in the artist. “I’ve never done things conventionally, which I suppose is why I have had an unconventional career,” says Keith Helfet, half laughing, half groaning. Evangelical about his chosen profession, this likable designer is nonetheless modest about his achievements. A self-starter who left his native South Africa to become a car stylist, he arrived in Blighty armed with little more than enthusiasm, but would in time shape everything from supercars to MRI scanners.

You could call it perseverance in the face of logic. “What you have to remember is that I had no real understanding of car design before I got here – none whatsoever,” he insists. “When I was growing up, I had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted to do: I was going to be an engineer. I loved mechanical things and used to take them apart because I wanted to know how they worked. I never really considered doing anything else. I was also a serious petrolhead.

“After school, I studied mechanical engineering at the University of Cape Town. It wasn’t what I was expecting, though, because to me it seemed to be applied maths and not much else. That wasn’t my thing, so I spent more time surfing than studying. Naturally, my parents were concerned and then a family friend who knew about these things suggested I do an aptitude test. It came back that I might be better suited to doing industrial design. I hadn’t even heard of industrial design, but then it didn’t really exist in South Africa in the early ’70s.”

Our hero set about learning all that he could, mostly by trial and error. “When I stop to think about it, I was incredibly naïve,” he admits, shaking his head. “I bought a knackered Triumph Spitfire and set about redesigning it. You know, it never occurred to me to actually try it first on paper. I mean, I may have done a rough linedrawing, but it seemed easier just to shape it as I went along. I thought in 3D. Anyway, from a local abattoir I managed to get some foam that they had used for insulation and, armed with about 700lb of plaster of Paris, I set about shaping the car in my parents’ garage. After six months, I had something that looked reasonable and a South African magazine got very excited about it. They came along to take some pictures, but because I wasn’t really happy with it, I promised I would let them know when it was finished.

That took another two-and-a-half years.” Having earned his degree, Helfet set his sights on joining the Royal College of Art in London: “Back then – this was 1975 – there were two places in the world that taught car design. I didn’t really think things through, though. I just arrived in the UK, straight off the boat, and told the people who ran the course that I’d like to be a designer. They were very nice, and asked if I had brought along a portfolio. It was a case of ‘What’s that?’

I exaggerate, but only slightly. I mean, I hadn’t even heard of Magic Markers! I was then asked if I had ever made a scale model. No, but I had made a car. I showed them some photos and that impressed them. I was told to go away and do some drawings, get some pictures together, and then apply properly. I did some fairly pathetic renderings, submitted them, and then bummed around Europe. I wrote off my chances and then a month later I was offered a place. I was beside myself. It was a leap of faith on their part.”

Scroll forward three years, and the newly qualified designer joined Jaguar. He soon became embroiled in a project that would dominate his professional life for almost a decade: “I was delighted to get a job with Jaguar, but this was at a time when it was part of British Leyland. It looked as if it might go under at any moment, but then fellow South African Michael Edwardes was brought in to right the ship. The upshot was that I did some detail work on the XJ40 and chief engineer Jim Randle thought that it might make for a better business case if we spun off another car on the same platform. He suggested that we do a sports car – what became the XJ41.

“There were competing designs, and I came up with some renderings showing a car as a coupé along with targa-type roof and convertible variants. It was then a case of making a quarter-scale model out of clay. This was the first time that I had really worked with the stuff, and I was fortunate enough to be helped by Roger Shellbourne who was an experienced modeller. I had the option of letting him act as my hands, if you will, but I wanted to do it myself with him guiding me. I learnt a lot from Roger about perspective and it represented a major moment in my growth as a designer. I felt far more confident working with clay than I ever did doing sketches.”

Helfet’s confidence was further boosted after his design was hand-picked by marque founder, Sir William Lyons: “It was as though God had spoken. He was one of the world’s greatest car designers, yet he couldn’t draw. Malcolm Sayer, the man who shaped the D- and E-type among others, was another. They were both frustrated sculptors like me, and I felt incredibly privileged to spend so much time with Sir William perfecting the shape. He was my tutor and mentor.

Nobody else was involved, not even my boss Doug Thorpe. I had a one-to-one with Sir William each week from part-way through 1980 until he died in 1985. The responsibility of my first-ever design for Jaguar being in essence a modern-day E-type was daunting, not least because it would inevitably be compared to the original, but I relished the opportunity.”

Just as night follows day, however, there were complications. Chief among them was Jaguar’s parlous financial state. Once free of the shackles of state ownership in 1984, the newly independent marque pushed on with the project, only for it to stumble at the final hurdle after Ford began acquiring shares in Jaguar five years later prior to a complete takeover. As Helfet puts it: “I worked on the XJ41 for nine years. We spent £50m on it.

We had working prototypes. We had tooling. It was a case of a new broom coming in and cleaning house; out with the old, in with the new. I wasn’t happy, but I can be philosophical about it now. It was a missed opportunity, but it isn’t as though it didn’t come out. It’s just that it came out wearing an Aston Martin badge! When Tom Walkinshaw took on production of the XJ220 for Jaguar, he saw the 41 and the next thing you know it became Aston’s ‘Project XX’ – the DB7. We knew it as Project Double Cross…”

Mention of the Jaguar XJ220 inevitably leads us onto the story of it being created in the out-of-hours ‘Saturday Club’ within Jaguar. Much has been written about this, but the actual reason why it was first mooted may come as a surprise. “It was dreamed-up by Jim Randle,” he says. “What a lot of people won’t know is that it was meant to be a racing car. In the early 1980s, the FIA announced that there would be a Group B class in the World Endurance Championship, which would complement Group C. Ultimately, only two manufacturers ever built cars – Ferrari, with the 288GTO, and Porsche, with the 959. And even then the Ferrari never raced.”

What emerged at the 1988 British Motor Show at Birmingham’s NEC was something else entirely; a vast, V12-engined, four-wheel-drive supercar that rendered onlookers speechless. “The reception was incredible,” Helfet admits. “And if you think that car was huge, it was about 2ft shorter than Jim’s original concept! Along the way, it turned into a supercar project with the XJ13 being my inspiration. I saw this as an opportunity to make a spiritual successor to the first mid-engined Jaguar. I wanted to use the sculptural, flowing design language of classic Jaguars in contrast to the origami fashion of the time. I’m thinking of the Ferrari F40 as a prime example. Jim called in a lot of favours, with Park Sheet Metal and at least eight other major suppliers offering their services for free. Of course, the production car was somewhat different: it had 11in taken out of the wheelbase for starters. The problem for me was that the front overhang remained the same size as before and should have been scaled down so that it remained in proportion. Unfortunately, the XJ220 came out in time for a global recession, which hurt its chances, but I am still proud of that car.”

As well he should be. Then there was the XK8 that has retrospectively been attributed to former head of design Geoff Lawson. It was conceived at a time when Jaguar’s styling team was having to compete with rival bids from the Blue Oval’s artistes in Detroit: “The political situation was a distraction, and at one time I in effect had two direct bosses who were fighting for control.

After the initial difficulties with the programme, I was asked to ‘do a clay’ and that was ultimately chosen as the production design theme. Due to the politics and resultant compromises, I declined Geoff’s offer to take it further.”

Nevertheless, it in turn led to a concept car based on a shortened and reconfigured XK8 platform that wowed just about everyone when unveiled at the ’98 Paris Salon: “The XK180 was built to honour the 50th anniversary of the XK engine. I was given eight weeks in which to devise something and envisioned a car that borrowed from the D-type, in particular the head fairings and the windscreen into which I invested a little cleavage. There was no business plan, though. A second car was made for Jaguar North America but that was it. The F-type Concept was meant to be a production version, and I came up with a car that had the same dimensions as the Porsche Boxster Concept show car, which was much smaller than the production version.”

In theory, this new, altogether more compact Jaguar roadster would have featured an AJ-V6 engine. Despite landing just about every award going when unveiled at the 2000 North American International Auto Show, however, it remained unique: “The problem was, the new styling management was clearly going to do its own design, which it did, and the programme was cancelled. So, in spite of the unprecedented response to the car where more than 50,000 people placed deposits in the belief that it was going to be made, it never stood a chance.”

Helfet left Jaguar in 2002, but retirement doesn’t appear to be in his lexicon. He submitted a proposal for the Morgan Aero 8: “It was between my design and Charles Morgan’s. They went with his, which came as no great surprise.” He also shaped the Joule electric car for South Africa’s Optimal Energy, as well as working in medical and product design fields.

While clearly not one for blowing his own trumpet, Helfet reflects by saying: “It’s every schoolboy’s dream to design sports cars and I did five. I’ve been very lucky.” Then he lets us into a secret – he was christened Edsel Keith Helfet: “It isn’t the ideal first name if you want a career as a car designer, which is why I dropped it!”


4.2-litre V8 produced 450bhp; superbly crafted cabin echoed racers of the past; stunning F-type was going to be the production version; Helfet’s proposal for the Morgan Aero 8

Clockwise, from above left: 4.2-litre V8 produced 450bhp; superbly crafted cabin echoed racers of the past; stunning F-type was going to be the production version; Helfet’s proposal for the Morgan Aero 8.

Designing for Jaguar - we talk to Keith Helfet

Just two XK180s were built: Autocar put one through its paces in period at Castle Combe – it was good for 0-60mph in 4.5 secs and 180mph.

Designing for Jaguar - we talk to Keith Helfet

Clockwise: team was headed by Jim Randle (on left) – Helfet is fifth from left; car was unveiled by Sir John Egan at NEC; V12 prototype; Bloxham plant.


Designing for Jaguar - we talk to Keith Helfet

Clockwise, from above: Sir William Lyons chose Helfet to style the XJ41 fixed-head and XJ42; XJ220 was famously designed and built by ‘The Saturday Club’; V12 prototype comes together.

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