Planned as a world-beating showcase of technology, the XJ220 never managed to live up to its own hype.
It was a huge commercial disaster, despite there being a lot to like about it. In the end, it proved to be an embarrassment for Jaguar, but not because it was a bad car. The XJ220 was handled poorly and debuted at the wrong time, but is still one of the world's most significant supercars. It was not initially intended to be a production car, at least, not as its primary function. Jaguar first toyed with the idea of the car as a competitor in Group B racing, taking on such all-conquering legends as the Porsche 959 and Ferrari F40.
But when the FIA killed off Group B, the XJ220 was repurposed as a concept to show off what Jaguar was theoretically capable of. The inspiration for the car came from the XJ13, a car built as a Le Mans prototype in the Sixties. The one-off car never raced, but the idea of a lightweight two-seat mid-engine supercar carried over to the XJ220. Also in keeping with the XJ13, the XJ220 concept was powered by a V12. In this case, it was a quad-cam 6.2-liter 520-horsepower example, a leftover first developed to test the feasibility of using a V12 with the XJR-9 race car. A sophisticated (for the time) all-wheel-drive system was incorporated as well.
The concept debuted in 1988 at the British Motor Show and the press went crazy for it. The reaction was so positive that Jaguar carried out a feasibility study to determine whether they should build a production version. The conclusion was that they should, and the price was set at £361,000. Some 1500 deposits of £50,000 each arrived almost overnight, but Jaguar had to return all but the first 350 received, since that was the production limit they had promised. Things looked good, but deliveries wouldn't begin until 1992, and by this time the situation had changed. To start with, Jaguar made some changes to the design before production began.
The all-wheel-drive system was replaced by a RWD setup in the name of weight saving, then the engine suffered the same fate. The V12 power plant was replaced by a twin-turbo 3.5-liter V6, lowering the car's weight and improving balance. The 542 horsepower produced by the new engine was actually more than the V12 had produced, but early Nineties turbo technology meant that this power came only after horrible lag. But the body was still aluminum, and only a few tweaks were made to the body's shape. The car was still quick, and the 3.6-second 0-60 time is still fast by our standards 20 years later.
The engine was derived from a Cosworth design used in Formula 1, and was actually potent enough to make the XJ220 the fastest production car in the world, although the record only stood for one year before being utterly destroyed by the McLaren F1. It didn't quite hit the 220mph planned top speed (hence the "220" in the name), but the recorded 217mph was enough for the record. Despite this being a world-beating car in 1992, Jaguar immediately ran into problems when the first cars rolled off the assembly line. Part of this was Jaguar's fault. 1990 had seen the release of the XJR-15, a street-legal version of the 1988 Le Mans-winning XJR-9.
This had a much more limited production run and was far, far more expensive, but to follow it up so soon with the XJ220 inevitably invited comparison, and since the XJ220 already didn't live up to its concept version, people felt extra let down. The next problem was that the price was increased from £361,000 to £460,000 by the time deliveries started. This would be bad enough, but the economic downturn of 1992 made things even worse. Some of those who had put down deposits found that they could no longer afford the supercar, while those who were buying for speculative purposes simply no longer wanted them.
The idea for these buyers had been to buy the limited-production cars and then turn around and sell them for profit, something which no longer looked possible in the depressed economy. Companies like Ferrari have policies against selling limited-production cars to buyers like these, but Jaguar's first-come-first-serve policy meant that several of them had gotten deposits in. In total, 75 of those who had put down deposits then refused delivery. This ended up in legal problems for Jaguar, on top of the fact that they only ended building 281 units of the XJ220.
It's unfortunate that a genuinely great car like the XJ220 met with such a disgraceful end. Part of this was just bad luck, but part of it was also Jaguar's fault for having so mismanaged the program. The XJ220 stands as a reminder that having a good product isn't all that's required for sales success, and hopefully carmakers all over the world took note.