The XJR-15 and XJ220: When Jaguar Tried to Be Cool and Failed

Doug DeMuro
by Doug DeMuro
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.

The XJR-15

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.

Going Racing

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.

The XJ220

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 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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5 of 65 comments
  • Robert Gordon Robert Gordon on Mar 20, 2013

    "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." What a load of bollocks...What is so special about the innards of an XJ220 that it requires that level of specialist? Answer nothing. Probably the only issue is parts supply.

  • F16TomCat F16TomCat on Apr 12, 2013

    There are those that talk about these cars and then there are those that own them. I am always fascinated to read the so called facts about the 220 and the 15. I own both models and nobody sued me to buy them. I was at the 1988 motor show in Birmingham (UK) when the XJ220 was revealed. Bar none, in terms of motor manufacturers at the show, it blew them all away. It was an awesome sight and the sheer scale of the car was amazing. Tom Walkinshaw, the boss of TWR was at the show with Peter Stevens, the designer of the XJR-15 and the McLaren F1. Walkinshaw asked Stevens if he could come up with something better, and as a car designer, he of course said yes.... and this was the beginning of the XJR 15 story. At this point TWR had not been commissioned to build the XJ220 and when they were asked to do so this presented a conflict of interest. In fact the XJR-15 was the source of much friction between Jaguar and TWR when the XJR-15 emerged. As a result of the friction between the two, the XJR 15 was never fully developed as such. In principle there appears to be three versions of the car. There is the race car, a 6Ltr, 6 speed crash box, stripped out version, a road car which was also 6Ltr but with a 5 speed synchro box, air conditioning and good road manners and finally a quite rare LM version said to have a 7Ltr engine with a 5 speed synchro box, air conditioning and a modified body to improve handling. These are basically race cars with no creature comforts and are akin to the sparse specification of the F40. For the car buff, the XJR-15 is good to look at, it is very rare, sounds great and goes like stink (or a bat out of hell if you prefer). For the armchair critic it is a rich source of Jaguar ridicule (for a car that has never seen the inside of a Jaguar factory or showroom), and then there is the that’s a different story. In truth I have a road and race car. The first time I drove the race car on the public highway, it was a great thrill. I have converted the car to street legal in the UK, just a few modifications were required such as a hand break and a horn. The car has certain draw backs if you are tall, but what a great thing to drive on the road. It is like being in charge of your very own roller coaster. It takes a while to get to grips with the 6 speed crash box, but well worth the effort. I have owned and or driven all sorts of exotic cars, including some track time in an F1 car and I can honestly say that the XJR 15 is fabulous. Following my first drive, I think I had a grin on my face for days afterwards. The road car is less fierce than the race version, but still a great drive. The XJ 220 is a pleasure to own. My car has straight through exhausts, and whilst I agree that the engine rattles at idle, you should here it when it’s on song. I drove mine through London a couple of years ago on a super car run and the video was posted on Youtube, it sounded fantastic. Inside the car the space if excellent, unlike the XJR 15 which is cramped, the seats are very comfortable and once the car is doing 70 mph or so it is quiet and smooth. An excellent long distance GT car. Whilst the 0 – 60 mph time of 3.5 seconds is impressive, the 7.8 seconds for 0-100mph is awesome. The XJ220 is still in the top 10 (or so) fastest cars ever built. For the owners of these cars it’s much more about the experience of driving and owning them than picking holes in what the dash looks like, or what car did this switch come out of. When Jaguar announced the format for placing an order of an XJ 220, through JaguarSport appointed dealerships, I was very tempted to place an order. The power plant for me was never an issue. They wanted a £50k deposit, plus Vat at 15%. Whilst that was a bit tricky, the main issue was that the final price for the car was open ended. It was a basic price of around £350 – 400k (as I recall) and then subject to increase based on the RPI with no actual delivery date. I though that was a bit of a lottery and I decided not to play. I knew a number of people who were just speculators who placed orders, some were awarded orders. As I recall the power plant for the car was never specified, but people assumed that it would be the V12. To put the market in perspective, at the time Jaguar were marketing the XJ 220, so late 1989, here in the UK, F40’s were changing hands for circa £1m and a Testarossa was about £350k. By comparison the XJ220 was not that expensive. Of course in the post 1990 recession era where the second hand market saw F40 tumble to about £125k and a Testsrossa was about £35k, the XJ220 at £460k looked ridiculous. As a result it was not surprising that the speculators, who had lost their proverbial shirts on other supercars tried to get out of their contracts for the XJ220. Properly wealthy people just paid up and bought the car they had ordered. I have no doubt that many of them were a little sore in doing so, but pay up they did. The speculators had placed their deposits for £50k, so Jaguar had that. Those that Jaguar litigated against had to pay a further £75k + to hand back their orders, and then the remaining cars were sold. Eventually a jaguar Dealer called Grange bought up the remaining cars, all left hand drive and they were sold over a period. I don’t know what Grange paid for them, but they were selling them for between £175 – 225k. So whilst the XJ220 was a PR mess, it was not the financial disaster that the motoring media liked to promote it as. Currently in the UK a nice XJ220 will set you back around £250k and an F40 is about £350k. In terms of servicing and maintenance, Don Law has really become the centre for this for both the XJ220 and the XJR 15. As far as I know he is happy to ship parts and provide technical support. I have always found his firm to be very helpful and without him it might be that the XJ220 would be in a very bad place right now. In my view it is to Jaguar’s detriment that they have not fully supported these cars, but that may be partly due to the falling out with TWR, who after all, were the manufacturers of the cars.

    • See 2 previous
    • Ed3lm4n Ed3lm4n on Dec 26, 2017

      @Doug DeMuro I was doing an online search for extra info on the XJR-15 when I came across this article. Even if it's well over 4 years old by now, I just had to step in and do something because this is about the biggest bunch of nonsense that I've ever read and it's published on a website that calls itself 'thetruthaboutcars'. So in order to prevent future readers that come across this from being told a very bad joke, I just have to place things in perspective. To start with: almost every fact in this article is wrong. And if it does happen to be correct, the right background info is missing, making it look as a part of the bad joke again. So here's a little real truth: Jaguar has always been pretty succesful at racing on every attempt in the 20th century. First in the '50's with the C-Type and D-Type and later in te '80's and '90's Group C era. The only thing that came to haunt them over and over again, was changes made in regulations so their cars weren't eligible anymore. It happened in the '60's with the gorgeous XJ13, which had a 4.8L V12 only to see the Le Mans rules restrict engine capacity to 3.5L before it was finished. It happened again in the '90's when Jaguar was a the top of the racing world. That's right, Jaguar wasn't the loser brand it's pictured to be in the article above, they were dominating everybody. In the '80's the Group C endurance competition had gained a lot of followers. The rules were very open so manufacturers could enter almost every engine formula (turbo or naturally aspirated) they wanted. This resulted in a domination of Porsche 956's and 962's with turbo engines. Nobody could match the Porsches until Jaguar came along. American Bob Tulius had been using Jaguars for racing since the late '70's and the Jaguar headquarters had seen the results improve so they decided to make a manufacturer effort along with the Tom Walkinshaw Racing. In '87 they got close at Le Mans, but in '88 they won the illustrous race beating the unbeatable Porsches with the mighty Jaguar 7.0L V12 engine. The same year they also had already won the Daytona 24h, putting Jaguar on the map as the top contender. By that time sportscar racing had become so popular that it was becoming a threat to F1 so the FIA decided something had to be done. They announced a set of new rules, limiting engine capcity for sportscars to 3.5L. This proved to be a problem for Jaguar, as they had only experience with the big V12's. They relied on TWR to build the XJR-10 (3.0L IMSA version) and XJR-11 (3.5L Group C version) to remain competitive. Because this was a totally new turbo engine lay-out for Jaguar (LOOSELY based on the MG Rover 6R4 Group B rally car, that was named rally car of the year in '85), it wasn't as succesfull as the previous V12 Jaguars. FIA in the meantime had to postpone their severe rule changes because nobody could match them, allowing Jaguar to enter it's V12's again in the 1990 24H Le Mans race, claiming victory once more and proving that Jaguar was still top of the racing world. The massive crowd at Le Mans even prevented the winning Jaguars to cross the finish line. In 1991 however, the FIA had definitly forced it's rules upon Group C, banning turbo engines entirely, making the XJR-10 and XJR-11 efforts obsolete. Jaguar responded with the XJR-14, arguably the best race car of it's era. It was designed by Ross Brawn (who later teamed up with M. Schumacher to dominate F1) and was on a different level than it's competitors. The XJR-14 combined the Ford Cosworth F1 engine with a splendid chassis, making Jaguar the world champions once more in 1991. Because FIA had messed up completely with their rules making Group C too expensive to compete for many manufacturers, the 1992 season had to be cancelled because nobody showed up, only for Peugeot to step in and force it anyway (remember both Peugeot and the FIA were run by the French at the time). Jaguar however saw no future in it and decided to call it quits. They were proven right because the 1993 sportscar season never started thanks to the FIA idiots. In just 2 years time FIA had managed to kill the most successful racing formula ever. The conclusion: as long as Jaguar was competing, they were winning. They were just forced out of racing once more as they were in the '60's with the XJ13. Now put your article on the XJR-15 and XJ220 in this timeline. Because Jaguar was dominating the racing scene since the mid '80's they wanted to translate this success to their road cars. The XJ220 originally was an after hours concept by a few Jaguar engineers, inspired by the racing success, called 'The Saturday club'. They wanted to make a road going Group C racer, so naturally they planted the V12 in the back for it's debut at the 1988 Birmingham Motor Show. Originally a concept, the car was a massive success based on its looks so Jaguar decided to develop it further. Nobody knew anything about the performances this car would bring aside from the claimed top speed of 220MPH (giving the car it's name). As told before, the racing rules were evolving in the mean time as were the emission rules for road cars. This forced Jaguar to come up with a solution, because the V12 could never deliver enough power to make the 220MPH mark and complying with the emission rules. So they switched to the 3.5L turbo engine of the XJR-11. When the car came out in 1992, it delivered exactly what it had promised: a top speed of 220MPH (yes it only did 217MPH in the road test, but nowadays cars only meet the emission and MPG numbers on the test bank as well). However by 1992 there were a few factors against the XJ220: a global recession and the fact that a lot of deposits were made by Americans who were basically no brain car ignorants that only think in cubic inches and that were let down by the switch from the V12 to the turbo V6, not knowing that the latter was in fact a lot more sophisticated. Hence the Fast Masters effort to prove to the Americans that the XJ220 indeed was a true supercar. So yes, commercially the XJ220 wasn't a success by the time it was released, but it was the greatest sports car of it's era. The fact second hand prices went down, was due to Jaguar letting the car go because of the commercial hangover and even more so because Bridgestone stopped producing the original tires for it, the only ones that would fit. However in a joined effort with Don Law Racing, Bridgestone has redevelloped the tires only recently and Jaguar has reinstalled it's Classic car maintenance program, causing the resale value of the XJ220 to double immediatly. It would 've been one of the best investments if you bought one at the time when this article was published. The XJR-15 on the other hand, was the TWR vision of the road version of the XJR racing cars. TWR absolutely wanted to make a V12 supercar, so it did. Tom Walkinshaw was a very persistent man, causing troubles between him and Jaguar later on (and at Benneton F1 a few years later). But the XJR-15 came into existence and was actually finished before the XJ220. Because TWR's business with Jaguar was ending in sportscar racing, they created the Jaguar Intercontinental Challenge to put the XJR-15 into the limelight along with the F1 races as FIA was aiming all efforts to F1. It was a necessary move given the fact that FIA had destroyed the sportscar competition. And to get things right: the XJR-15 Challenge was disputed by A-class drivers from the start. It didn't do much good to the XJR-15's popularity but it wasn't a joke either. In fact it was no different than the many Porsche cups or Ferrari challenges that have been held all over the world. What else was there to do when the ruling body changes the playfield in their own interest all the time? Jaguar simply was forced out of the game in favor of F1. Now to get to your comparison with the Ferrari F50, that's only to make the joke complete. First of all Ferrari are somewhat the losers in the racing world. Yes they manage to pretend to be the top of the world, but in reality they aren't that great. Before the Schumacher era, their last F1 world title was in 1979 with Scheckter. Then there was the magic trident Schumacher - Brawn - Byrne that would have made any F1 team world champion and a late Raikonnen spur but after that it was back to losing again for Ferrari. They didn't even bother to compete in sportscar racing for 20 years after their beating by Ford in the late '60's until the rules changed in their favor in 1993 and they could use an F1 engine in the 333SP, which wasn't that succesfull at all in the big races either. So their racing pedigree is mainly based on the fact that they're the only manufacturer that has always been present in F1, what deservedly earns them a lot of respect but also causes them to try to influence the rules in their favor all the time. The same goes for their road cars, which have been great but never the best at the time of release. They're always beaten by someone. Not so the XJ220 in 1992. So praising the F50 over the XJ220 is just due to a lack of knowledge. For the record, a McLaren F1 also needs maintenance from the original factory, making it necessary for a technician to travel around the world or the car to return to Britain. If you have the money to buy a '90's supercar, that can't be a stumbling block. So the next time you publish an article on Jaguar being not cool, please do check the facts. They have produced some of the greatest racing cars of all time that have timeless looks. It caused me to become a Jaguar fan in the '80's in a world where Ferrari and Porsche are all over the place all the time. Nobody forced me to make a choice, but Jaguar simply were the coolest. And they still are, keeping true to their designing style with Ian Callum at the helm. That's the real truth about cars.

  • ToolGuy Here is an interesting graphic, if you're into that sort of thing.
  • ToolGuy Nice website you got there (even the glitches have glitches)
  • Namesakeone Actually, per the IIHS ratings, "Acceptable" is second best, not second worst. The ratings are "Good," "Acceptable," "Marginal" and "Poor."
  • Inside Looking Out "And safety was enhanced generally via new reversing lamps and turn signals fitted as standard equipment."Did not get it, turn signals were optional in 1954?
  • Lorenzo As long as Grenadier is just a name, and it doesn't actually grenade like Chrysler UltraDrive transmissions. Still, how big is the market for grossly overpriced vehicles? A name like INEOS doesn't have the snobbobile cachet yet. The bulk of the auto market is people who need a reliable, economical car to get to work, and they're not going to pay these prices.