The Jaguar XJ220 is one of the greatest cars ever built. At the time of its debut, it was seen as one of the most disappointing. It all has to do with the cutaway above.

Nestled between those rear wheels is a V12. Not just any V12, but an extensive redevelopment of Jaguar’s decades-old engine fit for racing use. A version of this motor won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a Jaguar XJR-9 the year this concept came out.

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Displacement in the XJ220 concept was 6.2 liters, with dual overhead cams and four valves per cylinder. Horsepower was set for 500. Here is a completely ridiculous poster that Jaguar’s chief executive commissioned that shows the engine under glass.

But that V12, intake trumpets and all, never made it to production. Jaguar and their development partner Tom Walkinshaw Racing went with a quad-cam, 24 valve, twin-turbo 3.5 liter V6 developed from the Metro 6R4 Group B rally car. Here’s how that V6 looked in a cutaway of the production car.

That engine ended up more powerful than the V12, and it also came from the world of motorsports. But a widebody hatchback in rally didn’t have the pedigree of sports car racing at Le Mans, and stodgy Jaguar buyers pulled their orders because the production car didn’t have the big, original engine. Some apparently threatened to sue.

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It was a huge reversal for the XJ220 project. 1500 people had put down early orders for the car when they say it debut as a concept in 1988. The XJ220 project, I should say, started as an off-the-books, after-hours program. It was part of what Jaguar employees called “The Saturday Club,” when they would met on nights and weekends to pen their own freethinking designs. As Motorsport Magazine explained, Jaguar’s engineering chief wanted to put some backbone into his company’s image now that they were free from government ownership, and he wanted a Group B-style car to take on the Ferrari F40 and the Porsche 959. It was the huge influx of buyer demand that compelled Jaguar to see about turning their skunkworks concept car into a production reality.

So why did Jaguar opt for a V6 instead of the original V12? Well, the accepted answer is that the V12 couldn’t meet emissions standards, then getting tougher at the time. That theory doesn’t totally check out, as far as I’m concerned. Jaguar and TWR got another race version of this engine certified not long after the 220 came out.

This book Jaguar XJ220: The Inside Story gives an alternate explanation. Mike Moreton wrote the book, and he was the project manager for the XJ220.

Moreton explains in the book that Tom Walkinshaw came to him after a meeting with engineers at Bridgestone, working on making tires for the XJ220. The tire engineers had explained that there was no tire that could handle a car that heavy that could go at its targeted 220 mph top speed. If the car was going to work, it would need to be lighter and smaller. Moretone said that “hard choices had to be made” in this simplification effort, especially as they realized they were heavier than their two main competitors, the Ferrari F40 and the Porsche 959 by 1300 and 550 pounds, repsectively. Here are Moreton’s words:

Tom already knew what was to be done. The answer was right under our noses, derived from the XJR-10 and XJR-11 race cars. 1989 was the year when their engine was changed from the 7.0-litre V12 engine to the lighter and shorter 3.5-litre V6 twin-turbo engine in the never-ending quest for more power.

Indeed, the V6 ran up to 800 horsepower in Jag’s Le Mans cars. It was a enlarged version of the Metro 6R4’s 3.0 liter V6 developed by an ex-Cosworth engineer poached from the Williams F1 team. The 6R4 V6 was a derivation of the Rover V8, itself a derivation of the 1961 Buick aluminum 225. Moreton goes on to point out that TWR had recently bought the rights to the motor and it seemed perfect for their smaller, lighter needs.

This makes much more sense, as the XJ220 also lost all-wheel drive in the transition from concept to production. That decision has little to do with emissions and everything to do with weight and packaging. Dropping a huge V12 for a smaller V6 fits in perfectly with that narrative.

Moreton elaborates on the emissions question.

Specifying a road version of the V6 engine for the XJ220 would be a logical and relatively simple solution. The engine would have to be developed to meet the demanding European exhaust emissions regulations, as would the V12, but a turbocharged engine produces lower levels of harmful emissions, and the engineers considered that to be quite feasible.

So it’s not that the V12 couldn’t have passed emissions, it’s just that the twin-turbo V6 would have caused them fewer headaches.

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The question about stodgy Jag buyers dropping orders because of the loss of six cylinders also might not be as simple as usually thought. The first additional point to be noted is that the booming late ‘80s economy tanked as it entered the ‘90s, just as the XJ220 production car debuted and went on sale. The market for supercars was particularly hit. One Ferrari 250 GTO, as this auction house explained years later, went for $13.3 million at the height of the bubble in 1989 and $3.5 million in 1994. That’s an $9.8 million loss through the recession, not even adjusting for inflation.

The second point is that Jaguar, under pressure to actually make some money from their halo car, upped the price from an initial £350,000 to £460,000. That is no inconsiderable chunk of change. Moreton wrote in his book that he believes this is what sparked the huge drop off in sales. He believed that a huge number of people who had placed an order for the car back in ‘88 were simply speculating on the then-skyrocketing market for supercars. Waiting customers were selling their spot in line for £70,000 in the hopes of making a “quick buck,” as Moreton explains.

All the speculation and greed went pear-shaped overnight, right at the point when we were building up to full production.

The final point is that in the midst of the XJ220’s development, TWR announced that they would build an even more desirable, even more expensive road car for sale. That car did indeed come with a V12, and it was based directly on Jaguar’s Le Mans racers. That was the XJR-15.

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The XJR-15 ended up being one of the most manic cars of the modern era and never came out with the top speed of the XJ220.

The XJ220 ultimately topped out at 213mph (the fastest production car of its day), but the XJR-15 was enough to challenge the XJ220 as the greatest Jaguar on sale, and that challenge to the hierarchy helps further understand why so many XJ220 buyers pulled out.

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So it’s not just that the loss of the V12 was an affront to Jaguar-ness incarnate. It was just part of a whole shitstorm that led the XJ220, then the fastest production car in the world, to be seen as such a let down. So unloved was this car that one ended up left to rot in the Qatari desert a few years back.

I’m just glad that now the kids who grew up idolizing this car are old enough to lionize it, setting big auction prices (they used to go for around $200,000, now they can approach half a million) and burning tires out in the country. The car is finally getting appreciated for what it was, not what it was once going to be.

Photo Credits: Jaguar via jag-lovers.org


Contact the author at raphael@jalopnik.com.