The Jaguar XJ220C's bittersweet Le Mans debut

From conception to race track, the Jaguar XJ220's journey was fraught with trouble – as David Coulthard and David Brabham remember

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The McLaren F1 cast an incredibly long and dark shadow in the early 1990s. Alongside it, the Jaguar XJ220 never had a chance to shine as bright. Though the road-going version failed to gain the same limelight, its racing cousin helped create an ever increasing appreciation for the 217mph short-lived fastest car in the world. 

Turning up to Le Mans for a gruelling 24 hour endurance race, winning, then having its victory swiftly taken away was a tragic development that mirrored the road car's development woes. As the most famous of all XJ220s crosses the auction block in London today, we look back at its fascinating history.

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A difficult birth

Like many of the motoring world’s finest creations, the XJ220 started life as an after-hours project. The aim was straightforward and attainable: to narrow the gap between Jaguar’s production cars and its racing notoriety – a gap that had been ever-growing since the 1950s.

However, seeing the project through to fruition was strung with difficulty and compromise. The XJ220 was conceived with Group B racing as the target and so engineers planned a V12, all-wheel-drive flagship. But with Jaguar lacking the resources to see the project through, it turned to Tom Walkinshaw Racing, which was running XJR-9s in Group C competition. All-wheel drive was dropped in favour of a lighter and lower maintenance rear-wheel drive configuration and the V12 shipped out to be replaced by a twin-turbocharged 3.5-litre V6.

As a result of the recession in the early 90s, the XJ220’s asking price rose by £50,000 to £290,000 and, with the dramatic design overhaul as well, orders were cancelled. But nevertheless, with catalytic converters removed and Martin Brundle at the wheel, a 550bhp production car capable of 217mph had been born.

Now with a jewel in Jaguar’s crown, the next step was to take the XJ220 into competition. It was a chance for the car to fulfill the original intention that had spawned its creation. Carbon-fibre replaced most of the aluminium panels and a rear wing was added. The resulting XJ220C was unveiled to the public at the Autosport International Show in 1993.

That same year a three car-strong works team headed to northern France for the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The race

'For me, it was very much a case of there was nothing else going on,' reflects David Coulthard on why he took to the seat following a shakedown test at Silverstone.

'My father used to go to Le Mans, but it was not something on my horizon. I went because I could, rather than because I was passionate about it. I did that test, didn’t do the pre-Le Mans test. So I turned up for that week of the event, did my day running, did my night running and then shared the car with John Nielsen and David Brabham.'

Coulthard was very much the fresh face in the team. Nielsen already had seven Le Mans appearances to count, including winning the race with Jaguar and Tom Walkinshaw two years previous; Brabham had entered with Toyota in 1992.

Banking on a wealth of experience both in the cockpit and in the sportscar powerhouse of TWR, the XJ220C programme was expected to hit the ground running with immediate succes.

'There was obviously pressure to do well and win,' says Brabham. 'Although because of the earlier nature of the programme, I don’t think there was too much high expectation of not going through without any problems.'

And it proved that way as, by mid-distance, the other two Jaguars had already fallen to engine issues, and the remaining car’s running was far from smooth.

'We had our own problems, we had a fuel leak,' Brabham reflects. 'I was driving and I got this smell of petrol fumes. I radioed into say, ‘look, I’m starting to smell fumes, I’m starting to get a bit of a headache and I’m also starting to feel my heels slipping [off the pedals].'

'So I finished the stint, came in and they filled it up and looked around. They could see where it was leaking and they said: "Would you mind going out and doing a few laps while we figure out what to do?" I said, "f* off!" So they did! They whipped the tank out after that.'

The mechanical maladies didn’t stop there, with Coulthard hampered in the cockpit. 'The synchromesh got damaged so you had to be really careful on the gearchange. I remember my drink bottle disconnected itself and, because it was pressurised, it sprayed water all round the inside of the car.'

With the leaks sorted and nearest rivals Han-Joachim Stuck, Hurley Haywood and Walter Röhrl – sharing a Porsche 911 Turbo S LM – out with accident damage, the Category 4 – GT class – win was #50’s.

Exclusion from the win

Or so it should have been. The XJ220C crossed the line first in class but it’s a victory absent from the history books. The car was entered to comply with IMSA rules that permitted entry to race without catalytic converters. Confusion among the French authorities led to the car being excluded however, and so they competed in the race under appeal. Indeed, TWR challenged the ruling and it was overturned, but the appeal was lodged too late and the #50 car was excluded from the class win.

In the intervening years there has been speculation that Walkinshaw was deliberately late in his appeal, supposedly unhappy with Ford’s recent acquisition of Jaguar.

'It wasn’t until later that I found stories around it and I had no idea what was true and what wasn’t. But Tom was a political animal so anything could have been possible,' says Brabham. 'That was the same year my brother Geoff won [overall] with Peugeot. Dad [Jack] was there… so it was a double win for the family. Obviously that changed after, with disqualification, but at the time we didn’t know that and it was a fantastic moment for us.'

Coulthard too remains surprisingly upbeat about the exclusion, more appreciating the outing as an enabler on the way to Formula 1.

'They cheated, it wasn’t anything I’d done. I’d just assumed and believed and trusted, and the rest is history,' says the 13-times grand prix winner. 'But in terms of me turning up, doing my job and going home, I did my thing and, OK the results may not show it, but I’ve done a 24 hour race and we managed to bring the car home.'

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The opportunity

'I never got paid because we never got the prize money. But back then it wasn’t about the money but about the opportunity,' Coulthard reccounts. 'Tom was obviously a bit of a racing legend with his team and his work in F1. To have all that experience and the opportunity to work with him was just a gift.'

It does nothing to diminish his respect for endurance racing, says Coulthard, but more a reflection that he was of a different mould.

'I enjoyed the experience and the opportunity, but it was just a filler for me. It was not "this is what I might end up doing in the future". I don't want to drink for 24 hours, have sex for 24 hours and I don't want to drive a racing car for 24 hours. A good night out with your friends doesn’t last for 24 hours, there’s a build-up, crescendo, then you go home and sleep it off. I’ve got tremendous respect but it’s just another form of racing.'

Much like its road-going sister, neither XJ220 variants had their time in the limelight and any chance to develop the car or to retake the class win for the following year’s race was lost as the team withdrew. That left XJ220C entry to privateers who could meet the £380,000 asking price.

Retrospective reviews of the road car have since revealed it to be compliant and well-mannered. But to those who had to navigate Tertre Rouge and the Porsche Curve, it lost that ease-of-use in being converted to race specification.

'Certainly compared to the Group C cars I was used to [it drove like a truck],' says Brabham. 'Particularly when we first tested it. It wasn’t the nicest car to drive, it had no rear downforce so it was all over the place.'

Similarly for Coulthard, famed for his smooth driving style and more used to the delicacies of single-seaters, the XJ220C was a new challenge. 'It was very different to the things I was racing at the time. I don’t remember it being a truck, but I do remember it being a big old sportscar.'

As such neither Brabham nor Coulthard were willing to sign on the dotted line to buy their own XJ220 for the road.

'I wasn’t really into that sort of thing. You know, just give me a contract and I’ll go racing. That was my attitude,' says Brabham.

Likewise, when asked if he ever considered an XJ220 for personal use, Coulthard wasn’t sold. 'I remember it being a lot of bodywork. For me it was, with the greatest respect, a lot of fur coat and no knickers. I’ve never really been that guy,' he says.

The XJ220's lasting impression

While the race was tarnished by political intervention and it wasn’t the road car for them, Coulthard and Brabham are still fond of the XJ220 and the Le Mans appearance in terms of what it gave their careers.

'It was a gift to race with two such experienced guys. John was a powerhouse, popped out of the Nigel Mansell mould of strength and getting your elbows out and getting on with it,' says Coulthard. 'David was obviously from a racing dynasty and had done Formula 1 and was at the peak of his form. These guys were professional racing drivers, I was just a kid making my way. I was in a Dyson mode, sucking up all the information, ultimately just trying to be the best version of myself and they were such a help in that whole experience.'

For Brabham, though, the XJ220s legacy was best felt at the Classic. It was he who was tasked with leading the £16m convoy, albeit at a much more sedate speed than those achieved on the Mulsanne Straight. 'Of course, at the time you don’t know it’s going to have that kind of magic to it years down the road. But to be at the front of that queue and looking behind in the mirrors seeing all those XJ220s – it was a really special time, no doubt about that.'

Even if it was an ill-fated project and the history books don’t tell of a 1993 class win for Jaguar, the #50 car, more than any other XJ220C holds special significance. And in a time where classic cars have continued to appreciate in value and so the importance of buying the most history-laden examples of any given model has swelled, fittingly, the car is being auction today, December 1, by Bonhams. Find out more about its auction here.

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