Jaguar XJ220: The Big Cat’s Den

Jaguar’s XE SV Project 8 has gained significant appeal in new Touring Edition spec, as we find out on a trip to Don Law Racing to get the lowdown on a hardcore ancestor from Jag’s not so distant past.

I’m not sure where to go or what to do with the Jaguar XE SV Project 8 Touring Edition. On paper it’s the same car we drove around 18 months ago, minus a rear wing, and this time with a full road car interior, albeit one you could specify on the bewinged version as an option. With just 15 to be built, there’s an air of desperation about the advent of the Touring: it seems Jaguar is struggling to find homes for its skunkworks sedan on steroids.

Yes, it may be the most powerful Jaguar ever officially built, at 441kW, but it seems the idea of an all-wheel-drive sedan weighing nearly 1800kg but aimed largely at track use, that’s left-hand drive only, has just two seats, boasts a rear wing and graphics that wouldn’t be out of place in a Fast and Furious film, and is from a brand with a less than stellar track and competition history over the past 20 years, is struggling to compete with 911 GT3s and their ilk at the $350 grand mark. Who’d have thought it?
Perhaps that’s harsh. We liked the Project 8 when we originally drove it, but it was the overall concept of the car that left us a bit mystified when experienced in Track Pack form, not so much the fine engineering that had taken place under the surface. After all, the Project 8 is far from half-hearted: the roof and door skins are now aluminium and everything else is made from carbonfibre, there’s new wide-arched bodywork covering swollen tracks front and rear, a flat underbody, carbon-ceramic brakes, new billet uprights with ceramic bearings, ball joints on the upper control arms… yes, it may be based on an XE, but in both looks and specification this is a tremendously thorough and bespoke job.

Any cynicism I might have about the Touring vanishes as quickly as the Project 8 accelerates when I set eyes on it. With just a subtle flap on the bootlid instead of that incongruous wing, and in a sinister black-with-black-with-more-black colour and trim scheme, the Touring might just be the evilest-looking sedan car I’ve ever seen. There’s something immediately British about it; different. It doesn’t sing from that tried and tested German supersedan doctrine – it’s more flamboyant than that, albeit it in a typically idiosyncratic English way. Frankly, it looks like its long-lost black sheep of an uncle – but this is a positive thing.

I’m heading north for Stoke-on-Trent, to visit an emporium of Jaguarness that puts some much-needed petrolhead passion back into a glorious brand that’s been having a tough time of it lately. Specifically, I’m going to see a father-and-son operation that has kept the faith with a car that has some glaringly obvious parallels with the Project 8: the XJ220. A struggle to sell when new? The most powerful Jaguar ever made at launch? Sadly, the themes all sound so familiar…

Don Law Racing isn’t a company with an extravagant hand-written sign above the door, a pristine gravel drive and some pretentious set-up for photographing cars on. And that’s completely by design, and reassuring to discover. Since 1986 it has specialised in the marque and built a worldwide reputation, particularly for maintaining Jaguar’s supercars of old and the restoration and preparation of its iconic racing cars. Its huge workshops are filled to bursting with more XJ220s than I can count and so many other interesting racing and performance cars that my head starts to spin.

After an aborted first attempt at a chat thanks to the brutal bark of a completely unsilenced XJ220 firing up in the workshop, Law Senior and I move outside for an on- and off-the-record discussion. ‘‘I was a weekend race engineer helping friends with their racing Jaguars,’’ he recalls. ‘‘Back in the mid-’80s there wasn’t the depth of knowledge around that there is of historic cars now – not the parts or info – and wherever you went to get a service done I wasn’t satisfied. I thought: ‘I can do this well. It’s the good service that brings customers back.’ I built my reputation on integrity and that good service, and here we are 33 years later. The XJ220 is now the main part of our business, and race prep and restoration the rest.’’ It’s a preamble to our deep dive into the world of Jaguar’s enigmatic V6 supercar – a hypercar really, before the term existed.

‘‘I think there’s a lot of myth and rubbish talked about XJ220,’’ says Law, warming to the theme. ‘‘If you consider that, in 1994, Ford wanted Walkinshaw [TWR] out of Jaguar, and to close the XJ220 project down. To people like us – that felt like TWR were our heroes – it felt like a disaster; like it was all collapsing. At the time there were 12 owners suing Jag over the stigma of the loss of the V12 and all-wheel drive. It’s not difficult to see how all this together made it a disaster – not that it was actually a disaster. In 1988 what appeared was a concept car; why does everybody hang on to a concept and expect that car to be built how it was? A number of things made it impossible: the V12 was too big, archaic; the shape, with the long, raked windscreen. Plus there was the collapse of the financial markets at a point when deposits were paid and the project committed to.

‘‘The last cars were sold in 1997 and Jaguar asked me if I would take on the servicing because their dealerships had never seen a car, and they’d all invested in equipment and weren’t happy. They said: ‘We can’t make you a franchise dealership, that would be against our contract with the dealers, but we can advise people when they call us to come to you.’ They were happy to PDI the last cars, but they didn’t want the regular servicing work.

‘‘We were quite lucky that we had an excellent working relationship with TWR. Justin [Law’s son] and I were at Le Mans with them in 1993, and if we needed advice or help with anything we got it immediately. They were only too keen to see XJ220 do well. We took over the engine and transmission building and chassis work, that Jag intended would go to TWR, Ricardo and Abbey Panels respectively, and so we carried on doing damage repairs, and general maintenance. Jaguar set us up a special account to buy XJ220 parts, and explained that they had a responsibility to supply parts for 10 years after the cars were built, and therefore around about 2007 they would come and talk to me about selling the business – all done on a handshake. When the time came, they called and said we needed to come and get it sorted quickly, and they couldn’t wait to get rid of it all quickly enough. It’s a shame they didn’t embrace the car, but they didn’t have the resources, and they didn’t understand the car because it wasn’t built by them. The CAD model that’s here, I had a call from Jaguar Heritage saying they were thinking of burning it as it was in the way, and a call from TWR saying they had all the engine files and that JLR had told them to burn them… They couldn’t wait to erase the project from their memory.

‘‘It’s not easy for Justin and I, a small father-and-son team with less than a dozen people working for us, to take on that massive responsibility. Now we have to supply every part, do every service, and we’ve had to maintain as much as we can the integrity and good name of the car, and we’ve done a good job. People now do understand the car. It was a project of engineering brilliance by the TWR world sportscar team, and they knew what they were doing, which the car has proven over the last 27 years.’’

I can’t help wondering out loud what the 220 is like to run. On the surface it appears deceptively simple, but with so much race-proven hardware that surely can’t be the case? ‘‘There’s lots of minor things that can happen in terms of durability, but the car is a super piece of engineering when viewed against period rivals,’’ says Law. ‘‘However, it’s basically got the bones of a Group C racing engine, and they do need looking after. If the boost control goes out they can overheat on one bank, the head gasket goes, water gets into the cylinders, owners don’t realise it has, and then you end up with corroded liners and pistons. The cars weren’t being serviced properly in the US and elsewhere, but I think that marketplace now realises the car needs quality servicing.

‘‘I can’t give you any major problems the car has; its issues are introduced by not maintaining them properly and not driving them properly. Slipping clutches is one of the worst things to do. It’s not that the clutch is weak, but you can burn a clutch out in five minutes if you’re driving it the wrong way. Over-revving and missing a gear on a downchange is another potential issue. If a car comes back to be recommissioned after 27 years it’s going to be absolutely right [you’re looking at about $100,000 by the way, and there are still delivery-miles cars coming out of the woodwork]. No one has more experience of them than Justin – he’s done probably 300,000km in XJ220s and knows them intimately [and as anyone who’s been to Goodwood knows, he’s a fantastically rapid pedaller, too]. Now people in the States and Australia have realised that the best thing is to put them in a container and ship them over for service.’’

Casting my eye around the workshop building there must easily be 20, maybe 25 XJ220s here, including famous cars such as the yellow 507kW S model that was Tom Walkinshaw’s own car and used for press activities. There is also a wooden buck, what appear to be spare chassis tubs, and racing versions of the 220, including the spare car from TWR’s 1993 Le Mans assault. That’s before we get into the delectable XJR‑15s, Group C cars, assorted Cobras and E-types and a Lister Storm – but they’re all for another day, another story.

It’s the kind of place I could just hang out in all day, taking in the smells of oil and old racing cars, listening to conversations about engine rebuilds and detailed points on restorations while gawping at beautiful cars that are, I suspect, still rather underrated. But I can’t, because Jaguar wants its Project 8 back, and we need to hit the road, smartish. As the Touring Edition’s V8 fires up with an aggravated rasp, I feel a sadness that Jaguar hasn’t seen fit to make more of its competition successes and supercars from the ’80s and early ’90s. It has feverishly plundered the victories and style of the ’50s and ’60s, yes, and still does, which is understandable. But for so many enthusiasts that’s a world away, and the personal connection is a dim one. For me, it’s partly why when I look at an F‑type, I feel nothing – no sense of excitement. However, talk XJR‑8, XJR‑9, XJR‑11, XJR‑12, XJR‑14, XJR‑15, XJ220, and suddenly my heart rate rises and I’m there at Arnage in the dead of night, listening to the big cats roar once again.

Surely Jaguar needs to harvest this passion, along with real, contemporary motorsport success in meaningful disciplines? Without it, it feels as though cars such as the Project 8 will always struggle, especially as there’s no filtering down of its genes to a faster XE that is more attainable for the masses. Yes, I appreciate that’s a simplistic take on the argument, but how else to solve the credibility problem – albeit one of the firm’s smaller problems at the moment – than by tackling it head-on?

The more time I spend in the Touring, the more I grow to love it. The seats are great and the driving position spot on. The ride has a purposeful, stiff-legged sort of response, but it’s beautifully controlled and so well-rounded, and for such a big, reasonably heavy car, it’s amazingly agile. The eight-speed ’box has been given a kick up the backside and changes cogs swiftly, while the venerable V8 is in rude health here: a deliberately snappy throttle calibration perhaps exaggerates its ultimate abilities, but even so, it does feel stupendously quick at any revs and at any speed. Jaguar claims 0-100km/h in 3.7sec, and the Project 8 feels good for that easily. That would leave a standard 220 gasping…

That’s partly due to the Project 8’s unobtrusive all-wheel-drive set-up, which also gives the car an effective character. So often, powerful Jags seem to hide dynamic flaws behind a cloud of theatrical wheelspin that makes for great Instagram posts but is less useful for exploitability and lap times, but despite up to 100 per cent of torque going to the rear wheels in the Touring’s most aggressive drive mode, it’s very surefooted, translating all its power into forward motion, which is why it always feels so damn rapid.

I’m really glad I’ve had more time with the Project 8. But most of all I hope it doesn’t go down in history as another Jaguar supercar with a cloud around it, but rather the first step on a return to form for a great sporting marque. L

Words: Adam Towler

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