Grunge. The Internet. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The 1990s was a time of great change, from digitization to globalism. During these years a new breed of supercars arrived on the scene, defining a new era of performance and engineering.
In the ’80s, the Porsche 959 and the Ferrari F40 fired the first salvos on this emerging battleground. Cost was no object. Road car speeds pushed past the 200-mph barrier. Manufacturers sensed the opportunity to elevate their brand identities with cars faster and more capable than anyone had ever seen. Twenty-five years ago, at the dawning of this phenomenon, two English supercars duked it out on the world stage. A British supercar would be the best in the world, but would Jaguar or McLaren earn the right raise its banner?
The Jaguar XJ220's vision began in 1987, the McLaren F1’s in 1988. McLaren and Jaguar forged their ultimate weapons in the mantle of racing, the former as a result of Formula 1, the latter as the child of top-level endurance racing. The F1 started out as a sketch, drawn as company executives waited in an airport to fly home from yet another successful Formula 1 race during the era of drivers Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. Around the same time, Jaguar director of engineering Jim Randle wanted to tie XJR Le Mans racers to a conceptual road car, so he mocked up the XJ220 in 1/4-scale cardboard.
It would take until 1992 for both cars to coalesce into reality, and the two projects mirrored one another in many ways. Both, for instance, were developed on relatively limited budgets
A group of 12 volunteer engineers and designers (dubbed “The Saturday Club”) put together a concept model for the XJ220 in their off hours. Conceptually, the Jaguar was close to the Porsche 959, being a luxury road version with an eye to Group B regulations. The original engine was a mid-mounted V-12, similar to that found in the 1988 Le Mans-winning XJR-9, as campaigned by Tom Walkinshaw Racing (TWR). Randle leveraged relations with suppliers to build the aluminum-bodied XJ220 concept on the cheap—F1 creator Gordon Murray would pull the same trick with his car’s development—and the Jag was first shown at the British International Motor Show in October 1988.
Coming off an F1 World Championship win, McLaren's executives were optimistic about the future, and they were convinced of the viability of building an ultimate road-going car. Such a machine would incorporate the best of McLaren’s racing technology and benchmark the greatest manufacturers in the world: Porsche, Ferrari, Lamborghini.
However, McLaren’s Formula 1 engine partner in those days was Honda, yielding an unexpected twist. The McLaren team visited Honda’s Tochigi research center in Japan, where Murray got his first taste of the Acura NSX. Created with development input from the legendary Senna, Honda’s ultimate halo car had benefited from their partnership with McLaren. Now, McLaren would benefit from Honda.
The NSX’s everyday usability and practicality—without sacrificing its appeal as a mid-engine exotic—became Murray’s new target. He knew the F1 needed a lot more power than the NSX, but he was drawn to Honda’s attention to detail. Murray drove an NSX around for seven years and noted, among other things, that he never once had to adjust the automatic air conditioning.
Meanwhile, Jaguar had completed a feasibility study on its XJ220 concept and decided to put it into production. The factory was tied up with producing more conventional models, so further development fell into the hands of JaguarSport, a joint venture with TWR that built Jaguar's racing cars.
JaguarSport was pursuing power-dense small-displacement engines, following in the footsteps of both the 959 and the Ferrari F40. The team decided to spike the XJ220 concept’s V-12, in favor of a 3.5-liter twin-turbocharged V-6, which was rooted in the Group B MG Metro 6R4. In Jaguars, this engine saw success in the XJR-10 and XJR-11 race cars.
Over at McLaren, finding a suitable powerplant was proving more of a challenge. Honda wasn't interested in developing a road-going V-12 that could fit McLaren's specifications, and Murray was unwilling to turn to forced induction. A naturally aspirated engine’s linear power delivery would be far superior for a road car, he reasoned, even if the racing machines were turning to turbocharging.
A chance post-race meeting with BMW engine wizard Paul Rosche, in the pits at Hockenheim, gave Murray the firepower he needed. Munich offered to provide the F1’s heart—a 6.1-liter V-12 cranking out 620 horsepower at 7,400 rpm.
In the meantime, TWR was working to combine boost and reliability into a workable package, creating an infamous footnote in racing history. In order to disguise their test mule, they stuffed the XJ220’s driveline underneath, hilariously, a Ford Transit van. The van still exists, tuned to north of 600 hp by XJ220 specialist Don Law Racing. You can occasionally see it screaming up the hill at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. Eventually, Jaguar managed to develop a steady 547 hp for the road-going supercar.
The first customer-delivered XJ220 arrived in June 1992, the first McLaren F1 in December that same year. Thus, for most of 1992, at least, the XJ220 was the fastest car in the world. Tested to 213 mph, it fell slightly short of its name, based on the nomenclature of its XK120 ancestor, which cracked 120 mph. Worse, the V-6 was a letdown for fans and prospective buyers who had looked forward to the concept’s V-12 engine.
When the McLaren F1 went 230 mph in 1993, it stole the Jaguar’s thunder (it would later up the record to 240 mph in 1998). More than that, the F1’s world-first production carbon fiber monocoque, center-seat driving position, and gold-leafed engine bay captured the world’s imagination. The F1 was also significantly rarer than the XJ220, with fewer than half the number produced (106 vs. 275). Its million-dollar price tag, too, was as brain-melting as its performance. The F1 GTR, a racing version, entered the 1995 24 Hours of Le Mans and was so fast and reliable it claimed overall victory on the first try.
As the years went on, the F1’s legend has grown to the point where the cars are tens of times more valuable than they originally were, even if they’ve been crashed and rebuilt. But the XJ220 hasn’t exactly languished. Instead, kids who grew up with the swooping Jaguar tacked to the wall above their beds have started driving prices up. The more valuable it becomes, the more likely the XJ220 is to be preserved.
And it deserves to be. Like the 959 and the F40, the XJ220 is a supercar hero with true, race-bred roots. No, it couldn't match the F1 head-to-head, but even modern supercars struggle to do so. It represents the passionate best of Jaguar’s engineers at the time, and it was an audacious car to build in concept form, nevermind as a real road car.
Even though its fire burned but briefly, the XJ220 has found a second life. The McLaren F1, too, is starting to see more road use, with an owners club dedicated to medium-distance touring. If you dreamed of them in the long ago, then rest easy. Grunge may be dead. Fresh Prince may be relegated to reruns. But the British dream cars of the 1990s live on.