Jaguar XJ220: Is the unloved big cat's star on the rise?

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This Jaguar XJ220 will go under the hammer at this year's Monterey Car Week(Credit: Russo and Steele)

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History has generally been kind to audacious supercar projects, and their lucky owners. It seems we're fascinated by the drama and romance involved in chasing speed records, sending the value of cars like the McLaren F1 skywards the second they launch. One exception to the rule is the Jaguar XJ220, briefly the fastest car in the world. Since 1992, values of the Big Cat have never made it past their list price, but it would appear that could be about to change.

Great expectations

The XJ220 was the brainchild of Jim Randall, Jaguar's Director of Engineering, and boy did he have big dreams for it. Randall envisioned it as a halo for the Jaguar range, a car which paid respect to its ancestors but also looked to move the game on with its performance.

In 1988, an XJ220 concept was unveiled at the British International Motor Show promising to do all those things. Hidden beneath the alloy body was a V12 engine sending power to all four wheels, like the Porsche 959, and the crowds instantly fell in love.

Based on the overwhelmingly positive response it received, Jaguar started accepting pre-orders with a deposit of just £50,000 (about US$96,000 at the time). In the end, around 1,500 people laid down their cash, and delivery was slated for 1992.

Tweaking the formula

The XJ220 might have been slated for big things, but Jaguar wasn't going to be able to handle development on its own. Having forged a relationship with the company on the track, Tom Walkinshaw Racing stepped in to lend a hand.

Early on, it became clear the project wouldn't get far in concept specification. Power came from a modified version of the V12 featured in the Silk Cut Jaguar XJR-9 which won Le Mans in 1988, and the four-wheel drive system was fiendishly complex. Neither of these factors was a problem sitting stationary on a stand in Birmingham, but proved problematic in the real world.

Instead of running with a beautiful racing-derived V12, the production XJ220 was fitted with a twin-turbocharged V6. Based on the engine from the Austin Rover rally Metro, the Jaguar/TWR JV6 would be easier to package than an engine with twice the cylinders, all the while producing more power. As if that wasn't enough, the V12 quickly proved too thirsty to meet incumbent emissions legislation, ruling it out as a viable option.

It was a similar story with the all-wheel drive system, dropped because of its complexity and cost.

Fast, sexy and unloved

When it landed in the hands of reviewers late in 1991, the XJ220 was a very different car to the one promised at the 1988 British Motor Show. Even so, the big Jaguar won plenty of fans with its savage acceleration, high speed stability and impressive engineering.

Fast, as in world's fastest, with a top speed of 217 mph (350 km/h). Even though the twin-turbo V6 had half the cylinders of the original concept, it still pumped out 542 hp (404 kW) of power and 644 Nm of torque. That wasn't enough to stop the McLaren F1 stealing its mantle in 1994.

Unfortunately, these attributes weren't enough to save the big cat from being a big, expensive flop. Some of the buyers who'd slapped down deposits in 1988 had been hit hard during the recession of the early 1990s, leaving them unable to complete the purchase. To compensate, Jaguar bumped the sticker price from £350,000 to £470,000 (equiv. $900,000).

Just 281 examples were built, and some left-hand drive cars were still unsold in 1997, three years after production wrapped up. Some buyers, desperate to get out of their contracts, tried to sue Jaguar for making such drastic changes to the specification, but that court case was quickly decided in the car company's favor.

Under the hammer

Even though it stands out as a fascinating step in Jaguar's history, the XJ220 has never managed to pass its original list price at auction. Thus far, the model record sits at $462,000, achieved when a 1,751 mi (2,818 km) example sold last year.

Even though it's seen five owners, the Monza Red example going under hammer during Monterey Car Week has covered just 541 miles (871 km) since 1993, making it as close to factory fresh as is possible for a 26 year old car to be. Russo and Steele is therefore expecting it to return "well over half a million dollars." We'll see if that prediction is correct when the XJ220 goes up for sale between August 18 and 20.

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