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Jaguar’s secret supercar designer will be a Festival Guest of Honour
Above: Keith Helfet on right
In the eyes of Jaguar founder Sir William Lyons, designer Keith Helfet was a natural. Sir William recognised in Keith someone who regarded cars as sculptures-on-wheels and who instinctively appreciated how to make Jaguars look as if they were in motion even when standing still. As Jaguar’s Chief Stylist, Keith was responsible for the XJ220 supercar, XK180 concept car, and 1990s F-type concept. We’re looking forward to hearing some of Keith’s stories about those designs when he steps onto the stage at the XK70 Jaguar Festival as a very welcome Guest of Honour.
Keith recalls that the turning point in his career came when he was one of “half-a-dozen” members of Jaguar’s design studio asked to sketch their own ideas for an XJ-S replacement, with a brief to think more of an E-type-style sports car than an XJ-S-style grand tourer. At the conclusion of this informal competition, Chairman John Egan and Chief Engineer Jim Randle invited Sir William - still Jaguar’s President in his retirement - to identify the design he liked most, and the one he selected was Keith’s.
Keith was surprised to find after this that he was granted “the unbelievable privilege of having Sir William as a sort of tutor and mentor for the next five years.” But he was not half as surprised as the tutors he’d met some years earlier had been when he applied for a student’s place at the London Royal College of Art. When the distinguished members of the College interview panel asked to see Keith’s portfolio of sketched car designs, he replied that he didn’t have anything worth showing. Keith further astounded the professors by casually mentioning that he had built his own style of car in his parents’ garage in South Africa by buying a good-for-nothing Triumph Spitfire, stripping the car back to its bare chassis and laboriously hand-crafting a new body shape with sack-loads of plaster of Paris. Soon after this apparently disastrous confession, Keith travelled to continental Europe, skiing and surfing and abandoning all hopes of further education. Upon returning to the UK, he learned to his surprise that the College had taken a leap of faith and awarded him a place.
There were surprises, too, in the XJ220 story.
The first was for Chairman John Egan, who knew nothing about the XJ220 until the first hand-built example of the car was nearly completed. Jim Randle had directed construction of the car in secret, calling on unpaid favours from suppliers and voluntary weekend work from employees who called themselves ‘the Saturday Club’. Randle had known that Jaguar’s board couldn’t justify signing-off investment in the speculative development of something as specialised as a Group B-inspired racing car for the road - but knew, too, that Egan would want to show the car to the world after he’d seen it in the flesh. And the shaping of that flesh was something Randle entrusted to Keith Helfet. This was a responsibility Keith relished, believing the new car should be “a spiritual successor” to the gorgeous XJ13 prototype racer designed by Malcolm Sayer.
When the XJ220 was first unveiled to hushed disbelief at Britain’s Motor Show in 1988, it was presented as “a concept car”. Hidden beneath Helfet’s long and swoopy coachwork were a bonded aluminium structure chassis, mid-mounted 6.2-litre V12, four-wheel-drive, height-adjustable suspension, active aerodynamics, venturi-effect underbody, and rear-wheel steering. Measuring a mammoth 4930mm (194.1 inches) in length and 2009mm (79.1 inches) in width, this car certainly had presence. Admirers swooned at its graceful lines, fantasised about its hot performance, and wrote-out £50,000 deposit cheques imploring Jaguar to put the concept into production.
Giving the green light to the XJ220 seemed like a no-brainer. This was a time when supercar prices were booming, with delivery-mileage Ferraris and Porsches changing hands for two to four times their list price. Petrolheads looked at the XJ220 with undisguised lust and investors had dollar signs in their eyes. But there were two more surprises on the way, and for the 1500 or so people who had paid a deposit, these weren’t nice.
The first surprise was the sudden arrival of a serious economic recession and its long-lasting refusal to go away. Many petrolheads who had been tempted to make the financial stretch to an XJ220 could no longer afford one. And the speculators who had wanted an XJ220 for financial gain saw other collectible cars tumbling in value and decided they no longer wanted one.
The other surprise was the extent to which the XJ220’s technical specification had to be changed for the real world. It was no accident of design that the two top supercars of the day, the Porsche 959 and Ferrari F40, were significantly smaller and lighter than the Jaguar and powered by smaller-displacement engines with forced induction. Emissions regulations were tightening around throaty V12s like a noose. So out went the XJ220’s original powerplant, and in came a 3.5-litre turbocharged V6 designed for Austin Rover’s Metro Group B rally car. Out too went the complex, costly and heavy all-wheel-drive, rear-wheel steering, height-adjustable suspension, and active aero.
In addition to these changes, the adoption of a shorter powerplant made it possible to cut 200mm from the car’s wheelbase. This was practically desirable and perhaps also an aesthetic improvement, but Helfet rues the fact that the front overhang wasn’t also reduced to retain his design’s original proportions. Nevertheless the XJ220 still looked sensational.
And this car was sensationally fast. Faster, in fact, than any other production car of the time. On the 7.8-mile Nardo test track in Italy, which is circular and banked, a standard-specification XJ220 attained 212.3 mph. Then the two catalytic converters were removed and the rev limit increased from 7,400 to 7,900 rpm - and in the hands of Jaguar’s 1988 World Sportscar Champion (and 1990 Le Mans winner) Martin Brundle, top speed increased to 217.1 mph. It has been calculated that this is equivalent, on a flat and straight road, to 223 mph. Fans of the XJ220 say this justifies the number, intended to denote top speed, in the car’s name. But with an automotive creation so unorthodox - in origins, purpose, appearance and performance - does rational justification matter any more than the fact that the car’s stylist went to a university interview naively unprepared?
By Phillip Bingham