Road legal and 200mph...

A brief look at one of the early members of the 200+ club

Jaguar XJ220
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The launch of the latest Tesla Roadster made me realise that 200 mph is wholly expected from today’s supercars but 25 years ago it was a barrier that very few road-legal cars could surpass.

Of the limited number that could, the quickest of them all was the Jaguar XJ220. A top speed of 212 mph made the XJ220 the fastest production car in the world (a record that lasted a whole year). But high speed doesn’t always translate into success – just look at TVR – and the XJ220 quickly became an unfortunate flop.

Things started out very promisingly. In the late 1980s, Jaguar set out to once again build a car that could win the Le Mans 24 Hour Race. A concept car was quickly built and launched at the 1988 British International Motor Show in Birmingham. It may have been rattled together by a group of employees working in their spare time, but it completely overshadowed Ferrari’s display of the iconic F40 – almost 100,000 extra visitors were estimated to have seen the Jag. Noticing the interest, Jaguar immediately looked into the possibility of turning their concept into the real deal. Deciding it could be done, they set deliveries for the summer of 1992.

Jaguar XJ220 Green (2)

photo credit: The Supermat 

And that’s when things started going wrong. First the electric scissor doors from the concept car were chucked, and then the 6.2 litre V12 engine was traded for an Austin Rovers 3.5 litre V6. These were canny decisions in hindsight but ones which seemed extremely anti-climactic at the time. When the XJ220 finally went on sale, it was initially praised for its speed and luxury interior.

Jaguar XJ200 Interior

Photo credit: Valder123

However, many of the motoring journalists who were quick to pick their jaws up off the floor found many problems with the handling, brakes, visibility, clutch and engine noise. One writer reported that at idle the engine sounded like someone “clanking a bucket of rusty nails together.” 

Jaguar still hoped it could redeem itself commercially, but that didn’t happen either. 350 cars were supposed to be built, but when production ended in 1994 only 275 models had been rolled out. The steep price tag of £290,000 in 1990 had risen to almost half a million a few years later, and the recession of the early 1990s killed much of the market for expensive, collectible supercars. 

The XJ220 had a number of fairly major problems, rather unsurprising for a British car of its era, but its biggest failure was out of its hands. Had it been released three years earlier, it likely would have been a massive success, and any issues with the actual experience of driving it would probably have been mostly ignored. However, Jaguar wasn’t that lucky, and the XJ220 has since been largely forgotten about.

I am not sure exactly what this means for the new releases of supercars, but it's a lesson that performance isn't all that matters. Sometimes, in the famous words, it's 'the economy, stupid'*.

*coined by campaign strategist James Carville for Bill Clinton's 1992 election winning campaign for the US Presidency.

Header photo: Jaguar MENA

Thumbnail photo: Morio

by Andrew Shaw at 29 Nov 2017, 00:00 AM