Inside Don Law Racing: Where Jaguar’s Heritage Will Never Die
Photography by Ted Gushue
“Stoke-on-Trent is where Slash is from, you know, Guns & Roses. Lemmy from Motörhead is from here too. You’ve got Lemmy, Slash, and us.” Explains Don Law as he shifts into 5th gear in the shop wagon, a late model RS6 Avant that has no business traveling at these speeds on these roads in this part of the Midlands of the United Kingdom.
There are legends of the Laws in the automotive community. Rough and tough rock and rollers from the middle of nowhere who do unholy things to get unholier performance out of the legendary Jaguar XJ220. It’s easy to see why, Don and his son Justin are genuine rock and rollers. They play in a band together, to which they drive an XJ220 powered Ford Van to (It does around 175mph, but they’re working on getting 190 out of it), they win races together (Justin holds several Goodwood and historic racing titles) and they are essentially the sole reason that the XJ220 is still on the road today.
As for rough and tough? They couldn’t have been less so – the Laws are consummate, passionate, kind professionals who have dedicated the better part of 40 years to the Jaguar marque. A mutual friend of ours, a chap by the name Phil McGovern put us in touch when I was last over in the UK and before I knew it I was on a train up to their compound.
Ted Gushue: Don, what was the first car that you ever remember driving?
Don Law: The first car I remember driving was a Morris 1000.
TG: How many people do you think in United Kingdom had their first driving in some product made by Morris?
DL: Probably a very large portion, particularly from my era back in the ’60s.
TG: Can you describe the performance car culture as you started discovering it in the ’60s and how you sort of tumbled in slowly?
DL: I think in the ’60s the iconic car without a question of a doubt was the 3.8 MKII Jaguar saloon, and that was my dream car. I remember seeing them when I was four or five years old and as soon as I’d finished my college training and passed my test, I’d been on motorbikes—Triumphs— for five years, I bought a 3.8 Jaguar saloon car and Justin and the family grew up with those cars.
TG: You studied Engineering in college, did you have any focus towards automotive engineering or any sort of lean towards it?
DL: No, I went into civil engineering. I went into plant and excavator engineering because it was a great job and it’s where there was good money, but my hobby and my fascination were particularly Jaguars and those beautiful 6-cylinder engines. I spent 10 years in civil engineering and during that period of time I was running a beautiful 3.8 saloon as a daily car and on weekends I was often helping friends with their racing Jaguars. I was fascinated by how to make a car go quicker and how to do the performance modifications and again, Justin grew up with this because he would go along with me from the age of four or five years old and so you know, he knew all the key people that I knew in racing too from a very young age.
TG: Did you find that racing during that period was much more of a social sport in the UK? It somehow seems less unreasonable to locally know 5 or 6 guys that are going racing on the weekends then compared to now.
DL: You’re absolutely right. It was very much club racing, people even turned up in their road cars, took out the picnic basket from the back, changed the wheels and tires, and went and raced. And you know, we’re actually testing tomorrow with one of my most longstanding customers and he was famous for turning up in a brand new XJ saloon straight out of the showroom and racing it! Things are very different now.
TG: At what point do you realize that this isn’t a side hobby and this could become a business?
DL: I think that happened very quickly but probably not quickly enough. Civil engineering was quite boring by comparison. I didn’t have the fascination for that, that was just a job. I wanted to know more about engine building and performance and I suppose that as I grew more fascinated by all of it, the marketplace for racing engineers also grew, but I was always interested in the very highest quality work and the very high standards and that always wasn’t around back in that period, you know, in the early ’80s.
I think that one of the problems of course was that in the early ’80s, the parts availability for those cars was vastly depleted so that when you went out to buy a part, you didn’t necessarily get a quality part, you got something that had been re-manufactured. It was a difficult time and particularly later on in the ’80s when the values started to rise, just about every secondhand wreck in the United States came into the UK and then it was just a minefield. You know, it was just such a difficult time to restore cars.
TG: What time did this all start becoming interesting to you, Justin?
Justin Law: I had my first motorbike when I was five years old and Don was busy working most of the time so I was shown how to maintain it myself and that was the start.
TG: And how old were you when you guys started to interface with Jaguar corporate?
DL: In the early 90’s. We were with Tom Walkinshaw racing in 1993 when the cars did Le Mans. We went with the team.
JL: We went back again in ’95 with the team too that’s really where my passion started. When you watch one of those cars going round the circuit at Le Mans with the brakes glowing in the night, those memories stay with you.
TG: You guys are at Le Mans, you see the cars being raced in period, you fall in love with them let’s say. Do you return home and just say, “Right, let’s do this.”?
DL: I think the next step was the following year in 1994, the first of one of those race cars came into our workshop and from that point onwards we were involved in preparing and racing cars. In 1997 when Jaguar tried to sell the last of the 100 cars they’d built, their PR department were using us as an example to prove what a great car it was. You know, sending out official press releases about us. We had great success with the cars and raced them against Porsches and Ferraris and raised people’s awareness of the car, and started to grow interest in them again.
TG: What was Ford and Jaguar’s internal stance on the XJ220 at the time?
DL: I think that’s a very difficult question. Clearly Jaguar did not want to see this car in the North American market because there was no service network for it, that’s really the reason. Jaguar initially were in love with the car and then very quickly fell out of love with it as it was a major strain on the finances of Jaguar at a very difficult time, and Ford ultimately made the decision that they want to stop the program. Once the program was stopped, that literally was the end of the interest from Jaguar’s point of view. They had a 10 year responsibility to supply parts and service backup in Northern Europe to fix the cars, so they came to me for help, at which point they formally asked if they could send customers to us.
TG: So you became an officially certified XJ220 service center?
DL: It was made very clear that we could not be “official and certified” because of their contractual obligations to the main dealerships who’d never seen a car. They’d spent all this money investing in the car, so it was all very tricky and political. It never was a bad car, there never was a problem with the car. It was circumstances to do with the financial markets, and you know there’s the fact that more than 100 of the depositors found themselves in difficult situations where they couldn’t buy the car that drove them to lose faith in their own program.
TG: You described earlier their 10 year obligation to the car, what happened on the last day of the 10th year?
DL: Well Jaguar basically said to Justin and I, if you service these cars and keep the good name of the car and look after the car and assist us with the parts situation, we’ll take care of you. The chain of parts suppliers was very depleted during that time so we actually came in and began manufacturing parts for the XJ220 during that 10 year period. So we did this for Jaguar for 10 years, at which point they called up and offered us the entire business. And literally to the day exactly, in 2007 I had a call from one of the directors to say look, this business is yours and you know, our obligation to the dealers has finished, come and see us and you can buy the business. They couldn’t wait to get rid of it quickly enough.
TG: As I saw in the workshop, you guys have the original wooden buck. What’s the story there?
DL: A lot of the tooling and equipment came with our deal with Jaguar and some of the other very interesting things too; we have a cutaway Jaguar engine, and the buck is actually a CAD model, so that was the full sized CAD model that Jaguar made, gave to the body manufacturers, and said “You make it like that and you don’t make any changes,” and we just decided that you know, as well as rescuing the parts business, we’d try to rescue the heritage of the car as well, so we saved the pre-production cars and we saved the MIRA crash test car and we saved the buck, and now that interest has started, and the cars are back to the value they were from new, somebody will be the caretaker of this business in the future and the heritage can go right along with it.
TG: You guys have also doing a meticulous job of keeping track of every part that’s ever been manufactured, every car, every VIN, and you said earlier that every nut and bolt is attributed to a specific car.
DL: We have effectively been operating as if we were a manufacturer, and operating our own dealer service network. Our records are on par with the best of manufacturers and service networks. All of the things that normally happen in the lifecycle of a car: recalls, improvements, fixes, you name it, that’s all been done by us and not Jaguar. This also allows us to make improvements that even a manufacturer wouldn’t have made because we have been living with the cars day in and day out for 20 years. No manufacturer spends that much time getting to know the idiosyncrasies and issues that arise over time in their product.
TG: Do you guys do have the ability to create a brand new “Don Law” XJ220?
DL: Well we could do that. All of the pieces are there. The core of the chassis is honeycomb flatpack, we have most of the tooling needed to make new panels, and we are responsible for supplying every single item of the car. Engine, transmission, bodywork, everything. I think its probably an extremely unique situation for a small family business to be such caretakers of such an important part of any company’s heritage—it’s unique in that respect. And it’s a very very difficult situation should we ever choose to do something like that, as of course we don’t own the Jaguar XJ220 name.
TG: If you had to spitball how much it would cost for me to order a brand new XJ220 through you, what would we be talking?
JL: You can’t answer that question. You know, if for example the car was worth £5 million, then you could warrant the amount of work it would take into producing all the parts to make new cars and the time required, but…
TG: I suppose it’s a bit like GTO Engineering, in that it’s fiscally viable to make a $600k recreation of a $5m 250SWB Ferrari.
JL: Exactly. You’re never going to own one unless you spend 20 million. $600k compared to auction values for the real thing. At the moment the XJ220 is floating around the $500k mark and realistically, to start producing them, you’re not going to be making a lot of profit out of that.
TG: So Justin, as your business has grown, how has your racing career been a part of that, and where did it begin?
JL: The first race I ever did was in my MKII Jaguar, a 3.8 liter similar to Don’s first car. That actual car belonged to a friend of the family, a lady who’d owned it from new. She gave it to me when I was 14 years old and I restored it while I was at school, and when I started driving, that was my first car. 17 years old I started driving it, and when I was 18, I did my first race in it and I drove to Donnington Park, our local track, with three of my mates, kicked them out when we got there, raced my car, and then drove home again. On the same day, I was loaned a Lister Jaguar by a client to shake down, and he said “why don’t we enter this car in a race and see how you get on with it, and record any issues you find and then that will help the car be ready for the race that I wanna do with it.” And I led the race for most of the way and ended up finishing second in my second ever race, so you know, from that day on, off I went with my race career, people noticed me straight away.
DL: And from that day on I stopped racing, because I realized that if a race driver can recognize when somebody’s got that little bit extra, it’s worth going after. I realized I just didn’t have the balls, I didn’t have that little bit extra. I could do a good old race, but I just decided from that point on to support Justin, and the other part of this is you know, in a business when you’re preparing cars, you’re the two partners principally responsible for everything. You can’t both be racing, too dangerous! Not to mention the workload.
TG: What are some of your more memorable racing moments?
DL: 2002, at Spa.
JL: Well, yeah, I mean I’ve raced in historics which is always a good time. My route into racing wasn’t a normal one though, I never raced go karts when I was a kid. Don was starting the business and there weren’t the funds to do that. I kept my hand in by riding an off-road motorbike which teaches you the skill and balance and clutch control that’s all the same transferred into a car, but the highlight really comes from having raced various different things. I worked from the historic cars up to the XJ220, and then into the group C Jags. A group C car was just immense when I started driving it, and I was winning races in our historic championship, but in 2002 I had a chance offer to drive a Lister Storm in the Spa 24-hour race and I’d never driven one before. It runs a Jaguar engine and I could drive a group C car quickly, so it was a last minute thing: one of the drivers dropped out, and I was actually sitting in McDonald’s eating a burger with my mate and I got the phone call saying you’re in the 24 hour race in 2 days time, you need to get on a plane and go to Spa. So I flew out, and like I said, I’d never even seen the car close up before. I drove it for the first time in the dark, in the wet, and this is a flat shift car so you get in and floor the throttle and just bang it into gear with your foot hard on the gas you know, which was a different thing for me, but we ended up finishing 2nd overall in that race, so to just walk into a front-running team and come away with that result fresh having never driven the car before was pretty amazing. That’s definitely one of my highlights.
DL: And then later that year another team asked Justin if he’d race a Saleen in an FIA GT race in the UK, and again he got a 2nd place result, but we had to make a decision from there where to go. Did we put him into the car full time and send him off racing as a career? Or do we focus on the business and send him racing when we can? We ultimately decided to do a mix of both, and the rest is history.
TG: What would your business look like if you didn’t have a race pedigree?
JL: You know, my driving skills are a big part of our business. I do all the road testing in all the cars. When I was racing the cars and we had a problem, I could diagnose it while I was in the car. A lot of race drivers would go out in the car, blow the thing to pieces, destroy it, and then just walk away. But I was always different because of my mechanical sympathy having had a lifetime of experience working on these cars with Don. My group C car for example, the one that I raced, I built the engine myself and assembled the car and set up the suspension, every inch of it was me. So when something goes wrong, I know exactly what it is and how to fix it. Most drivers can’t say that, so it creates this really positive feedback loop between our racing and our business. We couldn’t have one be as good as it is without the other.
TG: So how many XJ220s have you guys worked on would you say?
DL: Most of them. One way or another, most of them. Either worked on them or supplied parts for them, but what’s changed in recent years it that we’ve been able to give the car more exposure and we’ve actually helped Jaguar to love the car again from a corporate perspective. We said to them a few years ago, you know, “Why don’t you embrace this car?” They were about to launch the CX car in the recent Bond film, and it just made so much sense to us that they should embrace the XJ220’s heritage as well.
TG: Which leads us to you convincing Bridgestone tires to reproduce a line of tires specifically for the XJ220, right? You guys have tremendous force in this small community, don’t you?
DL: Bridgestone made the tires originally. The problem was, we contacted them about 7 years ago, and what we didn’t realize was that Bridgestone had the vision that over the next 10 years major changes had to be made to those type of sports car tires to meet current road legislation; they plan 10 to 15 years ahead, so the new tires they’ve just made, they’re looking at legislation over 15 years and making sure that they’re covered. 7 years ago they couldn’t make them because of changes in the laws. But because we’ve worked together with them so hard over the last 5 years or so, we eventually had a chance meeting with Christof Devarroger, who’s the vice president of Bridgestone in Europe, at Goodward last year, and we sealed it with a handshake. The passion from both of us to go ahead and make new tires for the XJ220 was there, because of course, the XJ220 isn’t the only big supercar or big car that has had difficulty finding tires long after they stopped supporting them at the companies. It’s a financial disaster if you’re trying to make money on these tires, but you have to take a practical view: without the tire, the car’s dead and so is our business, so we owe it to our client base and it’s one of those things we’ve put a huge investment into that we’ll never get back, but you have to factor it into the whole business and our customers’ enjoyment of the cars.
TG: What’s the average set of tires run the modern day XJ200 driver?
DL: Well the tire price of the XJ220 is £4,160 for a set of 4… Plus VAT, and I think that’s still probably about 5 times cheaper than a set for a Bugatti Veyron, and the difference is that you know, we don’t make any money and they probably make a considerable amount! It is an almost impossible task and we’ve managed to achieve it.
TG: In the process, you’ve started working on a documentary with Bridgestone, correct?
DL: Yes. Bridgestone said, why don’t we turn this into a film, and so they’ve made an hour-long documentary about producing the tire including some fascinating stuff: in their building facility out in Rome, where their research and development is done, there they have a huge test track facility with wet handling, dry handling, and a banked circuit, and when you see two guys building these tires by hand—normally the R&D would be done there and then it would go to one of the many Bridgestone factories to be produced in bulk—but we have two guys hand-building all our tires. It’s quite humbling to see that.
TG: Is there anything else you want the world to know about Don Law Racing and your services?
JL: There are two other things on my highlights before Don butted in! I was going to say my first race win and my first pole position was at Monterey.
TG: Interesting. During the Motorsport Reunion?
JL: Yeah, in a C-Type Jag. I was told after qualifying that I was a bit too loose because they weren’t used to seeing a car going round corners with the kind of angles that I was throwing it into.
TG: Well that’s the interesting thing about historic racing right, is that it can be a bit pussy-footed generally speaking, so when someone comes out and really kind of throttles it like Chris Ward does or maybe perhaps like you do at Goodwood, some people get a little touchy.
JL: Well that was certainly the case at Monterey. I think they thought I was going off at every corner, and I did in fact have quite a big moment coming down the corkscrew: I was going backwards at one point but I held it and carried on and I was up against much quicker equipment, so that was good. The other two highlights were when we won in a Group C Silk Cut Jag, which we used to win the support race to the main event on the 24 Hour weekend on the 20th anniversary of Jaguar’s winning.
TG: That’s awesome. What’s it like to drive a Silk Cut Jag at speed?
JL: Well driving a Silk Cut Jag at Le Mans with a full Le Mans crowd is just amazing, and to be able to win that race in honor of the original Silk Cut winner, you felt the whole crowd behind you.