Form And Function: Revisiting The Design Of Jaguar’s XJ220 Supercar
Photography by Jayson Fong
I would like to give special thanks to Jim Randle, Keith Helfet, and Don Law Racing for this opportunity.
When asked to reflect on the past, sometimes the best stories surface when there is an object that can be used to shake the memories loose. So, standing in the the company of Professor Jim Randle and Keith Helfet, key members of the secret “Saturday Club” design team that made the Jaguar XJ220 a reality with 23 examples surrounding us, I was curious to see where our afternoon at Don Law Racing would take us. You might remember Ted’s visit to the de facto kings of the contemporary world of the XJ220; our setting was ripe for a discussion about the car’s inception.
“It’s wonderful to see…I’ve not seen so many before, not even at the factory,” mentions Jim, former Director of Engineering at Jaguar, as we step into the workshop. It’s interesting to see that it’s not just me whose eyes widen at the sight of all the cars in various configurations. “It’s like meeting an old friend,” says Keith, the man responsible for the flowing lines of the slippery XJ220, realizing that it has been a number of years now since he has seen one of his creations in the metal.
As expected, the reunion uncorks the memories, which come flooding back in the presence of these supercars, allowing the two minds to begin reflecting on the original design process and motivation behind the car. This all started back in late 1987 as not much more than a secret brief, a small collection of Jaguar engineers and designers gathered together around strict instructions to keep the project out of company time. The result would end up being a timeless design that to this day retains its space-age aesthetic while simultaneously being an icon of 1990s design done well.
From Jim’s perspective, the 220’s direction always had performance as the driving force behind it, however it also had to play a much bigger role than just being a new sports car; it also had to be a design that would help propel the Jaguar brand in a new direction for a new era, yet still give a nod to Jaguar’s success with the introduction of the XK120. Stylistically, “It had to have the underpinnings of a race car,” Keith says, and as a result, everything needed to be designed and styled with performance and function in mind.
We step back from one of the original timber body bucks, and Keith examines the wooden silhouette. “I had to make the nose shorter to bring it back into proportion,” he recalls, explaining that the original concept was considerably longer. Taking inspiration from the one-car production run of the 1966 XJ13, Jaguar’s other mid-engined road car, almost all of the XJ220’s lines were initially explored through clay sculpting, rather than being “penciled” in order to get a true feel for an elegant proportion in a tactile way that is lost on paper and certainly in programs.
Unlike the Ferrari F40—which had a clear directive for purely performance-driven design—Keith needed to address both the form and function in the styling of the road car, with particular attention on the need to keep the car planted on the ground at speed, to keep the interior comfortable, and to ensure a proper layout in order for adequate cooling of a 750hp race engine. As a result, the styling had to satisfy two mandates: to look pleasing, and to function effectively. Pretty straightforward on paper, much tougher in practice. In particular, Keith points out that in consideration of the car’s downforce, special attention was paid to almost every facet of the car’s look, included the wheels, the aerodynamic folding headlamps, the rear diffuser, and front air dam, which was designed specifically to keep the car on the road. All of this had to not only perform, it had to look like an effort in aesthetics as well. This was tricky, however, for instance, the louvers that helped to stabilize the air flow over the front and rear also became a styling opportunity. As did the wheels, intended to channel air more effectively, they also work as a nod to turbofan wheels in their ring of inlets around a solid face.
Although the concept unveiled in Birmingham in 1988 would be the closest to what they wanted to achieve in form, with its long, wide, and sleek footprint housing a Le Mans-specification V12 mounted behind the cabin, like most concepts, redesign was required to bring the car into production. Talking about all of this, Jim stops at the rear wing and points out that the initial concept included an electronically-adjustable rear wing that could provide up to 3000 pounds of downforce at top speed, as well as butterfly doors which would have given the shut-lines a more forward side profile.
However, for many initial buyers of the XJ220, it was the decision to change the heart from the V12 to the twin-turbo V6 that caused the most controversy. From Keith’s prospective, as customers made decisions to purchase products based on an emotional attachment, the large displacement V12 in the 220 represented more than just an engine: it was the heart and soul of a statement-making sports car that customers had put their deposits down for. But with its lightweight, practicality, motorsport pedigree, and performance in mind, Jim remains certain that the V6 was the correct engine for the job.
As the afternoon comes to an end, I catch the two designers having a discussion amongst themselves, surrounded by their creations. It’s been a special experience to see their reunion and hear some of the stories and work that went on behind the scenes, but thankfully it’s not the last time it will happen. As we head out of the workshop, I’m told that they will be meeting once again at this year’s Silverstone Classic, which is set to host a world record collection of over 35 XJ220 road cars, including a Le Mans competitor, from around the world for a special 25th anniversary celebration. For all XJ220 enthusiasts and curious minds alike heading out this weekend, it will be the perfect chance to meet the makers and ask questions about the iconic big Jag, so if you see these two, strike up a conversation!