Jaguar XJ220: An Unconventional, Hella-Fast Supercar

Article by Rick Jensen. Photography by Marcel Lech.

Quick question: Let’s say you could take a time machine back to the late 1980s and put down a sizable deposit on Jaguar’s V-12-powered, all-wheel-drive XJ220 supercar concept. Would it piss you off if, a few years later, Jaguar delivered a turbo V-6-powered, rear-wheel-drive production car?

We Grand National and GT-R lovers probably wouldn’t mind. But the majority of guys would take a V-12 over a V-6 any day—especially the ones who dropped more than 400,000 British pounds on their XJ220s! Shutter man Marcel Lech captured the dramatic XJ220 on pixels in the colorful back alleys of Vancouver. While the XJ220’s controversial rep may keep it on the sidelines during ultimate supercar discussions, it’s still one of the fastest, most beautiful supercars in history.

Developed by Jag engineers in their spare time, XJ220 was meant to excel both on the street and the racetrack, a la the Ferrari F40 and Porsche 959. The engine, drivetrain and chassis were based on Jaguar’s fearsome Group C racers, and the wailing V-12 was bolted to a prototype all-wheel-drive system. As if that wasn’t just the tits, Jaguar’s senior sports car designer, Keith Helfet, penned a gorgeous, swooping body that incorporated curvy classic and edgy modern styling cues. Top speed was to be 220 miles per hour. 

XJ220 started out as simply a stunning concept, but after it was unveiled at the Birmingham NEC Motor Show on October 18, 1988, the motoring public clamored for a production car. Jaguar's chief engineer Jim Randle knew it could be done, but unbeknownst to the folks who’d dropped down deposits, there were some changes in store. For the 1992-1994 production run, the 48-valve V-12 was replaced by a trick twin-turbo V-6 making 542 horses and 475 lb-ft of torque, and the AWD was tossed for a reliable rear-wheel drive design.

Wait, what? A twin-turbo V-6… Jaguar? Cue overly dramatic hand-wringing and whatever passed as a flame war on Netscape Navigator.

But pissy traditionalists and rich dudes aside, the XJ220 simply nailed it. Its looks are like no other road-going car, and the 281-vehicle production run guaranteed exclusivity. The slippery aero and heady power pushed it to 217 mph in 1992—again missing its initial target of 220, but, as the world’s fastest street car, giving zero fucks about it. Adorning many a young lad’s walls (including mine) in the 1990s was a foregone conclusion. Good thing, too: XJ220 was the last bright flame before the old Jaguar disappeared into the bowels of Ford Motor Company.

These days Jaguar is enjoying a resurgence thanks to a large investment by new parent company Tata. And while models like the sexy F-type are selling well, Jag would do well to remember the unique XJ220 when designing important new cars like the 2016 XE. The 220, just like the classic Jags, was bold, unconventional, unapologetic and legendary—a proper heritage that today’s Jaguar needs to follow to set the world on fire once again. 


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Rick Jensen (Turboguy)

Rick's a Turbo Buick and EFI GM nut who was born in Nebraska, then reborn on the mean streets of Queens, NYC. Spent high school and college wrenching and racing before moving to NYC and spending 13 years as the editor-in-chief, editor, and writer for some of America's best automotive magazines, websites, and ad agencies. Favorite moments include running low 10s in my Turbo Buick, Exposing GM's weak-assed early CTS-V drivetrains, road racing Corvettes and Camaros, and doing high-boost launches to make my kid laugh.
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