Drive-My takes the Jaguar XJ220 back to where it was tested

2015 / 2016

“It was done on about 1% of the Veyron budget” Alastair Macqueen was the man charged with turning the Jaguar XJ220 from show-stopper to production reality. Greg MacLeman rides shotgun. Photography Julian Mackie/LAT

Jaguar’s unsung XJ220 Insiders’ view of its birth. Drive-My takes the Jaguar XJ220 back to where it was tested. Coventry’s showstopper Jag development engineer Alastair Macqueen on the sensational XJ220.

“That was the fastest car in the world, you know – over 200mph,” says a surprisingly knowledgeable passer-by, before sidling off with a backwards glance at the unearthly shape of the XJ220. “I know,” says Alastair Macqueen, turning to me. “I was the one who did it.”

The one-time chief development engineer’s reunion with the Jaguar has been a long time coming. It’s been 25 years since this big cat and Alastair were last in the picturesque village of Broadway, and we’ve brought them back to mark a special anniversary: a quarter of a century since the XJ220 was first driven on public roads.

Jaguar XJ220 road test

Clockwise, from above: extreme length is clear in profile, but it isn’t an issue once you’re on the move. The acceleration is as vivid as you’d expect; MacLeman and Macqueen get comfortable in a corner of Broadway’s Lygon Arms; small luggage compartment sits behind mid-mounted V6 engine.

“The Lygon Arms here was the first rest stop we had,” says Macqueen. “That would have been early- to mid-1991 and we’d been tyre testing at Pembrey. The car behaved so well that we said, ‘Okay, we’re going to drive you home’. So Andy [Wallace] and I did between us, stopping at the Lygon Arms on the way back to Bloxham. Finding the space to let it off the lead was difficult. I remember there being a big section of humps, which Andy took flight over. We came over the next one and found a slow-moving Allegro…”

It had been three years since the XJ220 made jaws drop at the 1988 British International Motor Show. As the silk slipped from the low, streamlined bodywork, it must have been the most outrageous thing to appear in Birmingham since the net curtains closed around its first Ann Summers party. The 6.2-litre, V12 monster was equipped with a clever four-wheel-drive system and the public went wild, flinging their chequebooks at the car’s windscreen. It’s said that the pre-order book was filled in less than an hour, with 1500 punters – including Elton John and Rod Stewart – staking £50,000 apiece on a car built after-hours and without factory support by a band of brothers known as The Saturday Club.

Jaguar XJ220 road test

Macqueen’s job was to bridge the gap between the vision of the engineers and a finished product that could pass Type Approval: “In 1989, I was asked by Tom Walkinshaw to have a look at a car that had been secretly brought to TWR; it turned out to be 220A, the 1988 Motor Show car. I wrote a couple of sheets of paper highlighting the concerns I had in terms of how heavy it was, how big it was, whether we could meet emissions regulations, and whether we could get real downforce plus tyres that would hold it on the road at the speeds it was meant to go. I expected to hear no more about it.”

While Macqueen was off winning Le Mans with Jaguar in 1990, the chief designer who he’d placed on the project – Richard Owen – was busy turning the dream into something approaching a reality. “Richard redesigned the car from the 220A,” explains Macqueen. “He shortened it considerably and transplanted a version of the V6 twin-turbo engine into the car before getting a couple of very early prototypes – engineered correctly – ready and running. I was told by Tom to have a completed, signed-off and engineered car by the end of 1991, so they could get it into production for ’92.”

That the 220A could be built by a handful of Jaguar employees in their spare time was a feat matched by the effort to bring the car up to production specification. The task was kept at arm’s length by Jaguar, which set up a separate company – Jaguar Sport – in equal partnership with Tom Walkinshaw. The factory at Wykham Mill was home to just 40 employees, only 15 of whom worked on the cars, with the rest taking care of marketing, administration and setting up the manufacturing facilities.

The end result would become the fastest – and most expensive – production car in the world, at least until the arrival of the McLaren F1. What is most remarkable is that so much was achieved with so little investment.

“The 220 was done, in terms of its development cost, on about 10% of the budget of the McLaren F1,” says Macqueen, “and about 1% of the development budget of the Bugatti Veyron. And the 220 didn’t take an engine from stock. We developed that, we developed the transmission, there was no platform sharing of any kind – there was nothing to share anything with!”

“There are some Jaguar and Ford vents and switches, and parts of the dashboard,” he continues, but it’s clear that underfunding was one of the major challenges to be overcome. “We had to fit mirrors from a Citroën CX because we didn’t have the money to develop our own. We didn’t have the money to create lamps of our own, either – and lamps are a huge cost. To get a pair of prototype headlights costs a million pounds, and then to certify them and put them into production is even more.”

Jaguar XJ220 road test

Left: the XJ220 at rest outside the Lygon Arms in Broadway – where Wallace and Macqueen stopped during their ’91 journey. Right: the gorgeous, swooping shape gave it a drag coefficient of 0.36. Left: owner John Marton (on left) discusses the Jag with Macqueen. Below: on the productions cars, the V12 was replaced with a twin-turbo V6 – a move that TWR also made with Jaguar’s Group C racers.

Running the programme on the spare change that Jaguar found down the back of the sofa meant that the lion’s share of road-testing fell to the engineering team, and in particular Macqueen. He racked up more than 40,000 miles in car 005, one of a trio (with 003 and 004) built in 1990 for development purposes: “When we were at Nardo in Italy we averaged 140mph during one 9-5 working day. It was ridiculous!”

As well as putting thousands of miles on the cars during what Macqueen smilingly describes as SAD – Simulated Autobahn Durability – the XJ220 was also given a thrashing in search of its target speed of 220mph. The figure became important for the factory only after journalists mistakenly drew a parallel with its name.

“We took 004 over to Bridgestone’s eightmile oval in Texas,” Macqueen enthuses. “I spent the day driving the car around the circuit at up to 160mph. On the Friday night before Andy Wallace was due to come out to do the highspeed testing, we decided to find out how close we were to our predictions in terms of top speed. I suited up for the first lap. The speedometer was calibrated so it was within 1mph, so I knew pretty much what we were doing.

“It was absolutely flat through the first turn and you come out at 190mph – but the turns were so colossal that it’s basically a huge curve. There’s very little in the way of g-forces.

“So, we’re down the back straight and I see the needle climb to 206mph, 207mph, 208mph… just before we turned into the second corner. Then, about on turn-in point, a bird hit the top of the ’screen. You’ve never seen somebody’s foot come off the accelerator so quickly! I ducked and chickened out – to complete the bird analogy – and drove straight back to the workshop.

Fortunately, the ’screen runs at about a 20º rake so the bird bounced off – but it makes a big bang at 200mph! The windscreen survived, I survived and the car survived.”

Macqueen’s tales are swimming around my mind before sliding into the driver’s seat – no mean feat given its forward position in the door aperture and sills of which a 300SL would be proud. The cockpit of the XJ220 is an intimidating place, made more so by dozens of tourists with cameras trained on our every movement.

Jaguar XJ220 road test

Clockwise, from left: the luxuriously trimmed cockpit may feature Ford vents and switchgear, but it’s a spacious and comfortable place to be; XJ220 boasts immense reserves of grip; spoiler was neatly integrated into the rear-end design.

The starting procedure is simple – turn the key and thumb the tactile red ‘go’ button, which sparks the surprisingly muted ‘six’ into life. Release the fly-off handbrake and the first thing to strike you is the sheer width of the thing – more than two metres from mirror to mirror, with nearly enough room between you and the door for an overnight bag. It doesn’t feel so colossal when on the move, though; the Jag’s near-5m length and limited turning circle become an issue only at mini-roundabouts. At low speeds, the unassisted steering is easily manageable and the smooth twin-plate AP Racing clutch a pleasure to operate, but there’s always a sense that it’s chomping at the bit.

Regardless of which gear you’re in, there’s a noticeable resonance at around 2400rpm, accompanied by an unpleasant vibration. It’s a problem that Macqueen says has existed since the first development car, though it was greatly reduced by the time it entered production. It’s at higher revs that the car really comes alive, and the character of the otherwise chatty engine fully comes to the fore. It takes total commitment to change gear quickly due to the heavily sprung lever, but it’s a positive shift that encourages you to hustle the car along.

To gain a full appreciation of what the big Jaguar can do we pull off the original test route and I swap places with Macqueen. “I’ve never driven a production car,” he says, jumping into the driver’s seat as if this were his daily runabout. A quarter of a century hasn’t dulled Macqueen’s test-driver intuition, and his getaway is a revelation compared with my more sedate effort: “I’ve certainly done a number of 0-60mph runs at 3.5 seconds. When proper racing drivers were in there, they were tuned in and would do it regularly.”

His familiarity with the car tells as we climb the twisting roads surrounding Broadway, a crawler lane giving us the perfect opportunity to blast past slower-moving traffic that’s struggling with the incline. The out-and-out pace of the XJ220 comes as no real surprise – after all, this is the one-time fastest production car in the world, the record of 217mph being set by racing superstar Martin Brundle some months after Macqueen’s unofficial run in Texas.

The grip, however, is a revelation. Something about the proportions of the Jaguar foster the impression that it’s nothing more than a straightline missile, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. On the way back down the hill, the car dives into the hairpins at incredible speed, hunkering down and absorbing the increased momentum, always remaining perfectly composed and utterly planted.

It isn’t long before the conversation turns to that maiden road run, when the public’s gaze fell on the XJ220 for the very first time in 1991. “Andy Wallace did the first stint of driving from Pembrey to here,” says Macqueen. “He developed a technique for overtaking other vehicles – he’d hold the car on the brake on boost in third gear, then release the brake and floor the throttle. It just catapulted past lines of traffic.

“Obviously you can’t go mad on the road because apparently it’s got a light on the front of it saying, ‘Please nick me!’ The police in Wales were particularly good at stopping us. Once a police car pulled in behind us, but he just said, ‘Do you mind if we have a sit in it?’ The first thing he did, because the car was in gear, was to depress the clutch and roll backwards towards his car. He pulled the handbrake and of course there was nothing connected to it because it was ‘in development’ at that stage! We were never in any serious trouble, though.”

By the time the XJ220 was ready to go on sale, it didn’t matter how capable it was or how many records it held. Its meteoric rise from backroom pet project to poster pin-up glory was overshadowed by a collapse in the market. All 281 cars had been sold, but amid the financial uncertainty and the engineering changes from the Motor Show car to production prototype – dropping the V12 in favour of the race-derived 3.5-litre V6, shortening the wheelbase and switching to rear-wheel drive – some buyers sought to extricate themselves from their contract.

But, as Macqueen explains: “The performance expectations were exceeded rather than dumbed down. It didn’t have four-wheel drive, it didn’t have a V12 engine, but it was considerably lighter and the acceleration figures, which were quoted at 4 seconds, were regularly surpassed.”

The whole thing ended up in court, with the group of owners losing their case. It was agreed, however, that anyone who’d placed a £50,000 deposit could pay Jaguar a further £100,000 not to have an XJ220. The alternative was to pay the index-linked full price, which could end up being as high as £440,000, and take delivery.

Of all the supercars of the 1980s and ’90s, then, the XJ220 certainly drew the short straw when it came to external factors affecting sales. But as the years have rolled on, memories of the bitterness have faded, and what remains is one of the most beautiful cars of its generation. In fact, the featured example went on to claim a class victory at this year’s prestigious Salon Privé, beating – much to its owner’s delight – a raft of more expensive machinery.

Macqueen, as ever, is humble, with a penchant for understatement: “It’s only a quarter of a century later that you begin to see that this was actually quite a good car.”

Thanks to Don Law: Macqueen, Wallace and Justin Law are working with Bridgestone to develop original-spec XJ220 tyres, with a launch date of January 2017


Andy Wallace

“When I first tried it, I thought it was absolutely the most amazing thing I’d driven, road car-wise. Nothing like it had been before – it was very, very powerful and quite peaky when the boost came on. It was just incredible how fast the car was. Apart from at idle, when it did sound a little like a cement mixer, the power when it came on boost was fairly impressive.

“It came down to me because I was racing with TWR in Group C, so I got the job with Alastair to do a lot of the development testing. At that point, the World Speed Record for production cars was something like 213mph. We ended up doing 217.1mph. “Initially, we had the car wandering around quite a lot when it got to about 210mph. It turned out to be the tyre tread blocks being too deep. Like wet tyres on a racing car, the blocks get hot, then they get softer and move around more – it doesn’t feel very nice.

“The car was unbelievable in the wet, which was something I wasn’t expecting. There was a control car on the skidpan that we’d try to get as close to it as we could. We ended up being far quicker than it, which was amazing.

“I know the purists wanted it to have a V12 engine, but look at what happened in Group C – when I joined TWR we had a 7-litre V12 and switched to the twin-turbocharged V6 in order to improve our performance and fuel consumption. When the V6 was put in the XJ220, I thought, ‘If that’s what’s in the racing car, why wouldn’t you do that?’”


Sold/number built 1992-’1994/280

Construction bonded and riveted aluminium tub, aluminium panels

Engine all-alloy, 24-valve, 3498cc V6, twin Garrett T3 turbochargers and intercoolers

Max power 542bhp @ 6500rpm

Max torque 472lb ft @ 5000rpm

Transmission five-speed transaxle, RWD

Suspension independent, at front by double wishbones, coil-over dampers rear wishbones with toe-control links, twin coil-overs; anti-roll bar f/r

Steering rack and pinion

Brakes ventilated discs, with servo

Length 15ft 11in (4850mm)

Width 6ft 7in (2010mm)

Height 3ft 11in (1140mm)

Weight 3209lb (1456kg)

0-60mph 3.6 secs

Top speed 217mph

Mpg 28

Price new £340,000

Now £350,000

{module Jaguar XJ220 Club}



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