Don Law Racing Is Where The Jaguar XJ220 Legend Lives On
Story and Photography by Phil McGovern
Sometimes opportunities present themselves in the strangest ways. We had already planned to be back in the UK for the Goodwood Festival of Speed, followed by a brief visit to the Porsche Experience Centre, and then came the twist. Rather than shooting back to Dubai, flights were amended, hire cars booked and the sat-nav targeted at a very secret workshop in the north of England. Owned by a certain Don and Justin Law, said workshop holds a certain aura with me, five digits’ worth: XJ220.
The next three days will go down in my personal history as the chance to drive my poster dream car, experience stunning roads, enjoy great company, eat good food and most importantly, unleash 680 turbocharged horses.
When the Jaguar XJ220 was initially mooted to the world, it was destined to be the fastest, most gorgeous, and expensive Jaguar ever built. Named for its targeted top speed, the car was shown to the world as a concept car at the Birmingham Motor Show in 1988. This author was invited along to the event, and vividly remembers being whisked to the NEC just outside Birmingham after school, still wearing my horrifically garish uniform.
Sat proudly on the stage with an initial price tag of £360,000 ($557,000) it was immediately oversubscribed to the tune of four times the build allocation in just one day. Less we forget that this was 24 years ago, and even though £360K is big money today, we’re talking Veryon/Pagani cash when you take inflation into account. So the big question, then: why is this still a relatively forgotten machine, revered and admired by those in the know but largely ignored by the wider world?
Well, we’ll get to that a bit later on in the story. First up, a much required cup of tea and a good look around the sweet shop that is Don Law Racing.
Suffice it to say, when it comes to the Jaguar XJ220, it’s the go-to place. Starting its involvement with Jaguar’s XJ220 in 1996 and then taking on the JaguarSport operation (from Ford) in 1998, Don Law Racing has now grown into what you see before you. A full custom-built, family-owned and operated business, catering for anything and everything XJ220. Not to mention some other special pieces of kit.
In the shop, there’s a stunning green Jaguar sat in front of us. Undeniably, it’s one of the most extraordinary and beautiful cars on the road and judging by the reaction we received out in public, a sizeable proportion of the population agrees with us.
Would it be fair to call the Jaguar XJ220 the world’s first true hypercar? We certainly think so. The big Jaguar lapped the Nardo Test Track in Italy at a measured 213 mph (343 km/h), way back in 1992. After that initial run of 213 mph, the Jaguar engineers pulled the catalytic converters off, increased the rev limit, and proceeded to hit 217.1 mph. Remove the effect of the banking from Nardo and you are well into 220mph territory, a fact that is still consistently forgotten.
Not only that, with John Nielsen behind the wheel, Jaguar took the XJ220 to the Nürburging. This was back when manufacturer marketing departments hadn’t clambered all over the aged facility. Looking fresh in their Fat Willy’s shorts, the engineers popped some fuel in the tank, checked the tyre pressures and sent John out, who proceeded to rattle off a 7 minute, 47 second lap. A lap record at the time, and one that stood the test of time for eight years. Oh, and it was 30 seconds quicker than the previous record holder. I’ll will let you guess what that car was, though.
Still, it was nobbled a little bit (well, a lot) at launch. Original investors/buyers/speculators placed a £50,000 deposit on a car that was then-priced at £361,000, and by the time it was ready the price had swelled to beyond £400,000. Not only that, the mighty cat would be making its way to buyers without the 500 horsepower V12 engine, four-wheel drive, and Lamborghini-style scissor doors all promised during concept stages.
Not to mention the world had turned upside down and plunged into recession…not the start the car really needed, no matter how good it actually was.
With some advice from Tom Walkinshaw and the team of engineers at TWR, the fact that the XJ220 actually ended up with an even more powerful 542 horsepower twin-turbocharged V6 didn’t really cut the mustard back in the ’90s. Strange to think, considering that such a decision would now go down pretty well, what with the ever growing environmental pressures and rising costs of fuel we see today.
Sadly, for some reason the XJ220 never really been accepted into the rarefied world of hypercar-dom, as it was seen as being too large, cumbersome, too late, and under-specced. With a projected build run of only 350 units, the machines were stopped early after 281 cars had passed down the production line in Bloxham. A sad end to a car that only now commands attention and respect. Isn’t it strange what time can do?
That’s some of the history and details, but I’ve never driven one of these…it’s time to hop behind the wheel.
Anticipation levels were at fever pitch, and even copious amounts of tea and nicotine couldn’t settle the nerves. To make things worse, said green Jaguar wasn’t your average XJ220. It’s got 680 hp (up almost 140 from the stock car), upgraded suspension, wheels, brakes, and a couple of extra tweaks for good measure. All this with a kerb weight of 1,300 kg, no traction control…and pouring rain just to help the situation. Great!
Before I get going and hit the open road, Justin and Don kindly offer an acclimatisation drive to get used to the controls, ask any questions, etc. Not one to venture too far into a situation without a touch of guidance, my answer was a resounding, “Yes”. The decision was made easier by virtue of having Justin pilot the car down his favoured test route. I should say at this point that Justin is a dab hand behind the wheel of any car, especially so competition Jags. So it was up to me to strap up, hold on, savour, and try to hold back the laughs caused by the unbridled acceleration the big Jaguar is capable of dishing out.
As I slide into the driver’s seat and have a moment to myself, I can immediately see one of the reasons why the XJ220 carries the weight of non-success on its shoulders: it initially doesn’t feel as supercar special as I expect. Yes, there’s a bank of dials set into the driver’s door, but unlike other supercars of the time, it just doesn’t have that exotic or awkward feel about it. The seats are stunningly comfy (1,000 km over the course of the drive will attest to that) and there’s leather everywhere leading to a remarkably fuss-free and easy to operate environment. Probably not something you would immediately expect given its dramatic skin.
In the grand scheme of things, the interior is actually exactly what I want from a car like this – a simple, comfy and easy cocoon to operate from. As a six-foot-plus guy myself, I find the seating position to be great, the view out of the front clear and uncluttered, and my good friend, Luke Gilbertson, who had come along for the ride, managed to strap into the passenger seat. And he’s beyond 6’8”.
So what’s it like to drive? The mighty 680 hp MG Metro 6R4-derived V6 is making a rumble over my shoulder—not a glorious V12 orchestra, rather a turbo chatter-infested mechanical clatter sort of a noise. It’s immediately pretty, mightily effective, and sonorous in its own way.
The most surprising aspect of the drive is the ease with which it destroys tarmac. Yes, at low speed it’s a bit cumbersome and heavy, but much like a speedboat, once the 220 is up on a plane, it begins to come alive. Fast, flowing country roads are where the XJ220 feels most at home and after hacking half way across North Wales, I’ll stand by that statement all day long.
However, fiddly, twitchy country roads would see a well-steered hot hatch disappear into the distance because of its heft, and the difficulty in deploying all that power and torque. At speed, the steering begins to come alive in my hands, the suspension soaking everything up in only the way a Jaguar can, and thusly its slow gear change becomes less of a problem. With these levels of grunt, it’ll ride through any ratio I throw at it.
Sitting in the lovely, comfortable, pseudo-arm chair bucket seats, it does seem to be a very random place to be as I warp time and blur the countryside outside. In stock form, it’ll hit 60 mph from still in 3.6 seconds, chase to 100 mph in 7.9, and keep ploughing on until the speedo hits the stop tab. This is big speed, and even though I don’t have any stats to highlight the speed variance between a stock machine and this one, there is certainly a big jump.
Up at speed and using the car’s talents on the fast flowing roads , the forces generated by the car’s grip really take time to get used to. It has an uncanny knack of pushing me to go exploring for the ragged edge, as it just keeps giving. As the wet Welsh roads began to dry, I very quickly realise that getting anywhere near the outer limits of capability should never happen, as binning it through a childish challenge would be a stupid mistake.
There are the negatives and aspects that demand respect, pushing me to adjust my approach to the drive. For a start, the XJ220 is a true monster, monumentally large when it comes to even the biggest of the bad boy supercars. Yes, even Lambos. There is turbo lag, that although expected, is nowhere near what I had prepared for. There’s initially numb and heavy steering, a touch of understeer in super-tight slow moving corners and in stock form, brakes that aren’t really up to the task of hauling bonkers pace down to sensible limits. It’s a car built for outright velocity, not finicky little hairpins.
Once I’ve learned these foibles, it starts to come to me. There is a deep underlying skill-set in there, mighty levels of speed and an ability to destroy miles in utter comfort. On the motorway, it feels like an XJ. There is grip across the board and when up to speed, a benign feeling to the delivery that really makes me continually wonder why the XJ220 hasn’t been placed on a pedestal before. It is a truly capable and mesmerising machine. Just don’t forget that size and keep checking the speedo, as the muted exhaust note doesn’t alert you to impending warp speed.
As a final note, I need to whip back to the presence the 220 carries with it. There’s bags and bags of it. From deepest darkest Wales to Park Lane in central London (yes, we did take it to the smoke), it attracted more attention than I could ever foresee. Every petrol stop attracted hoards of fans, mobile phone snappers and young kids asking “what is it mister?”.
The XJ220, when it emerged from the womb, had missed its time. The excesses and big cash buyers of the ’80s had fallen away to recession, but now its time has come back around, and the world is starting to realise what a classic it has become. The XJ220 today stands to show “new” Jaguar what its heritage means, what can be achieved if a company puts its mind to something revolutionary, something mind-blowing.
All that’s needed now is to persuade the handful of owners to bring their big cats out of the cattery to play, and put some miles on them. Let the world see what it’s been missing. My eyes have been well and truly opened.