The XJR-15 and XJ220: When Jaguar Tried to Be Cool and Failed
For as long as I’ve been alive, Jaguar has been mired in identity crisis. The main problem has always been the same: the average Jaguar buyer is old. So old, in fact, that a primary bathroom break debate topic at the recent Papal conclave was the best color for an XJL. So how can Jaguar find younger buyers?
Bizarrely, for years, Jag’s answer was: leave our current models exactly how they are. Instead, add new models to attract younger buyers. Somehow, this line of thinking resulted in the creation of a Ford-based station wagon.
The same thought process also led Jaguar to build two disastrously underwhelming 1990s supercars. To no one’s surprise, they didn’t sell, which should’ve been a telltale sign that Jaguar should stay out of the supercar business.
Instead, they went racing.
Jaguar kept its supercars away from ALMS, IMSA, Grand Am and European LeMans. Instead, it chose to compete in two separate one-make race series that somehow even managed to be more ridiculous than the cars themselves.
Jaguar’s first ‘90s supercar was a mid-engine, V12-powered exotic called the XJR-15. Around 50 examples were built from 1990 to 1992 by Tom Walkinshaw Racing, essentially Jaguar’s racing and tuning arm.
All of this would’ve been fine, except that Jaguar decided to price the car at around $1 million. That’s not $1 million adjusted for inflation, mind you. It’s $1 million in 1991 dollars. In today’s money, that would make it more expensive than a Bugatti Veyron.
Naturally, there were issues with this. One, it was a Jaguar. Back in 1991, Jaguar’s lineup consisted of the “XJ40” XJ sedan, which attracted nationalistic British men with low standards, and the XJS, which attracted no one.
Two, it had only 450 horsepower – and even back then, 450 horses wasn’t enough to reach seven figures. The Ferrari F40 produced more power, cost half as much, and … wasn’t a Jaguar. And three, the XJR-15 only came in right-hand drive. That meant sales would depend on the same nationalistic British men who bought the XJ, and possibly a few wealthy Japanese Anglophiles.
Despite the glaring issues, Jaguar was determined to make a “Halo Car” out of the XJR-15. So, eager for publicity, they invited owners to enter the cars in the three-race “1991 Jaguar Sport Intercontinental Challenge,” so named despite each event taking place in Western Europe. The cars would run before that year’s Formula 1 races at Monaco, Silverstone and Spa, supporting the F1 event and – presumably – gaining notoriety among the crowd. In theory, the young, car-enthusiast F1 fans would see the race, view Jaguar as a viable sports car manufacturer, and quickly rush to their dealers to purchase an XJS.
Sixteen owners actually took Jaguar up on the race series, which meant the courses would be jam-packed with million-dollar supercars driven by a mix of professional drivers and wealthy privateers who thought they were professional drivers.
The results, of course, were exactly as expected. When the series hit Monaco, the XJR-15s hit each other. Most drivers pressed on and returned for Silverstone, where 11 cars were damaged in one single accident. To put this in perspective: imagine 16 Veyrons plowing into each other as they raced around an F1 track. Who wouldn’t watch that?
Apparently, a lot of people. Viewership wasn’t high enough, so Jaguar decided to up the stakes. A few days before the third and final race at Spa, Jaguar announced the winner would receive a $1 million cash prize.
There was just one problem: outside of dirt tracks in West Texas, race car drivers are a clever bunch. So they started forming alliances with one another – things like “you block so-and-so and I’ll share the million with you” – as if they were contestants on Survivor.
To put a stop to this, Jaguar instituted a new rule. The $1 million purse would stand, but no one would know when the checkered flag was going to drop. It could happen on lap three. It could happen on lap 20. The race had just been transformed into a high-stakes game of musical chairs.
As expected, this caused the drivers to push way too hard, since they never knew when leading the race might matter. A veritable demolition derby followed, causing Jaguar to drop the checkered flag after just 11 laps. German racer Armin Hahne crossed the finish line in the lead, earning a seven-figure paycheck for driving just 47 miles.
The Jaguar Sport Intercontinental Challenge was over. And Jaguar’s supercar ambitions should’ve ended along with it.
But, of course, they didn’t. At the same time as the XJR-15 fiasco, Jaguar was developing another supercar which debuted in concept form at the 1988 British Motor Show. At the show, it had scissor doors, four-wheel drive and a V12, prompting dozens of attendees to demand on the spot that Jaguar build the car. So, they did, to disastrous consequences.
Over 1,000 people submitted deposits of around $90,000 when Jaguar announced in 1989 that its new supercar would see production. But the brand only wanted to build 350, so it returned more deposits than it took. Pricing was announced at $580,000, and the automotive world was abuzz.
When the Jaguar supercar finally came out in 1992, there were a few problems. Even though Jaguar had taken millions of dollars, the car had … changed.
For one, it no longer had scissor doors. It also swapped out the concept car’s V12 for a turbo V6. Four-wheel drive was gone. And despite its “XJ220” moniker, intended to boast about its top speed, no one ever got it past 217 miles per hour. It didn’t help that the XJ220 was wider than a Chevrolet Suburban and only a few inches shorter than a Tahoe.
These facts, coupled with a worsening economic recession, caused hundreds of people to request their deposits back. In some cases, Jaguar refused, which led to lawsuits. In other words, people sued Jaguar just so they wouldn’t have to buy the thing. The entire situation was a mess, but one thing was for sure: the XJ220 was going to be built. After all, Jaguar just had to attract those younger buyers.
Going Racing, Again
When all was said and done, Jaguar simply couldn’t sell its entire XJ220 production run, which eventually included around 280 cars – far fewer than the 350 it planned to build, and way below the 1,500 deposits it initially collected. Unsold inventory piled up, and Jaguar dealers had no interest in floorplanning a half-million dollar supercar. Something had to be done.
That something was called “Fast Masters.”
Fast Masters was a one-make, ESPN-televised race series that featured the behemoth cars ambling around the tight, 2.5-mile road course at Indianapolis Raceway Park. Naturally, this was a recipe for disaster appropriately described by a period article as “racing thoroughbreds around a dining room table.” Enthusiasts quickly dubbed the event “Crash Masters.”
To pile absurd on top of ridiculous, the XJ220 drivers weren’t serious pros or even up-and-comers trying to “make it” in the world of racing. Instead, Jaguar recruited the market it knew best: retirees. Every single car was piloted by a retired race car driver (dubbed “Past Masters”), perhaps proving that Jaguar actually wanted these things destroyed – especially since the races were run at night. It would be easier than selling them.
After exchanged paint and some twisted metal, Fast Masters ended and Jaguar wisely left the supercar business forever.
The Supercars Today
Neither the XJ220 nor the XJR-15 ever gained a following on the used market, and their values quickly entered the same free fall as the rest of Jaguar’s lineup. Today, the cars are 20 years old and function quite like any other 20-year-old Jaguar: expensively.
These days, XJR-15s sell for around $200,000. That’s more like the ceiling for an XJ220, with some examples closer to the $150,000 range. By comparison, the Ferrari F50 – priced similarly to the XJ220 when it came out in 1995 – typically trades between four and five times that figure. Of course, part of that is due to Ferrari’s pedigree and the F50’s place in the brand’s heritage.
But some of the F50’s premium comes from the Ferrari’s relative ease of maintenance. On the flip side, arriving at a Jaguar dealer in an XJ220 would elicit camera phone shots from the technicians and pleas from the sales staff to buy an XKR-S. But it wouldn’t result in any real service. That’s because virtually the only place that will touch an XJ220 is Don Law Racing, which is located in Staffordshire, England.
Yes, I am suggesting that maintaining your XJ220 will require shipping it to England. And since it’s an old Jaguar, that probably happens a lot.
These days, the XJR-15 and XJ220 are probably best as static garage art, likely owned by the same old people Jaguar was trying to avoid in the first place. Even on display, they’re beautiful reminders of the time Jaguar tried to make it in the supercar business – and failed miserably.
Doug DeMuro operates PlaysWithCars.com. He’s owned an E63 AMG wagon, road-tripped across the US in a Lotus without air conditioning, and posted a six-minute lap time on the Circuit de Monaco in a rented Ford Fiesta. One year after becoming Porsche Cars North America’s youngest manager, he quit to become a writer. His parents are very disappointed.
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