Don Law is a funny chap with some great tales, huge knowledge and is absolutely passionate about cars. In other words, he’s our sort of bloke. However, as I wave my final goodbyes he fixes me with a cold stare and delivers quite a statement: ‘If you say it has a Metro 6R4 engine I’m going to burn down your house.’ This then, is a story about the XJ220, a small but brilliant operation that keeps these cars on the road all over the world, and a wonderful, high-revving and bespoke 542bhp 3.5-litre twin-turbocharged V6 engine that was definitely never used in the back of a Metro. No siree.
Of course he’s joking. He doesn’t know where I live. And I understand the frustration about the myths and legends concerning the XJ220 that have become so oft repeated that they’re taken as gospel. You know how it goes: Jaguar showed an impossibly glamorous concept car with a V12 engine and four-wheel drive in 1988 at the Birmingham Motorshow. Eager customers slapped down sizeable deposits. Then the real car arrived with a twin-turbocharged V6 from a M**** and rear-drive only. Customers fought to remove themselves from the list and sued for their £50,000 back. From then on it was a struggle to sell the XJ220 and just 271 were built between 1992 and 1994. In the end Jaguar was almost giving the things way.
Some of that is true. The XJ220 became a massive inconvenience to Jaguar when the economy crashed and the company had bigger problems to worry about. Which is sort of where the seeds of Don Law Racing’s incredible expertise with the XJ220 were sown. ‘My wife and I started the business in 1986,’ explains Don. ‘I had a real passion for running historic Jaguars on a daily basis when I was in general engineering, and that passion fuelled a decision to run a business doing good quality work on those cars. Justin (Don’s son and partner in the business) joined five years later, at 15, straight from school… but was already an accomplished Jaguar engineer and could strip a cylinder head from the age of seven.’
Justin might be a handy engineer but he’s also a terrific driver. Check out his outrageous runs at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in the Group C Jaguar XJR-8/9 in ’08 or ’09 (he’s finished fastest up the hill four times) and prepare to feel a bit timid and distinctly terrible at driving… It’s also evidence of the operation’s roots in motorsport, which slowly intertwined with the XJ220 story and eventually resulted in Don Law Racing acquiring the business to run and repair Jaguar’s once unloved supercar.
‘The first XJ220 came into our workshop in ‘95,’ says Don with a wide grin. ‘It came in from a client who raced the car and wanted to sell it.’ Don and Justin were running and preparing historic race cars at the time and immediately fell in love with the XJ220. Perhaps contrary to the legend, they found a car that was beautifully engineered, supremely capable and as tough as old boots. ‘You have to remember is wasn’t built by Jaguar – it was Jaguar Sport, an operation jointly owned with TWR and staffed by guys straight out of the highest levels of motorsport,’ says Don. The stiff, light aluminium honeycomb chassis, double-wishbone suspension with inboard dampers, excellent aerodynamics and small, light and powerful Jaguar/TWR JV6 engine was irresistible to Don and Justin. By the way, the engine’s roots may have been in the Group B era, but TWR completely redesigned the engine and utilised it in Jaguar’s 1989 and 1990 Group C effort. The JV6’s compact dimensions helped the stunning XJR-11 to show incredible agility and speed at circuits where handling rather than outright power were required.
‘By 1997 we were running our own XJ220 race car in selected events, winning races and getting a lot of attention,’ explains Don. ‘Jaguar’s own press department were issuing releases about our achievements, and it was helping them sell the last cars. In fact, the last dozen or so were sold in ’97 and we were involved in placing those cars with customers.’ Don Law Racing and the XJ220 were now inextricably linked and became inseparable when Jaguar quietly asked them if they could point XJ220 owners in their direction for servicing and support. They also promised that they’d sell the entire business, including spares packages, rights and drawings for the parts when their legally binding obligation to the car ended after 10 years.
‘We had very, very hard times in that 10 years because not only did Jaguar fall out of love with the car, they weren’t interested in it, didn’t want to talk about it, nothing.’ Don is almost incredulous when he recalls this period and I can understand why. Jaguar’s halo supercar – which had proven itself at the ‘Ring with a 7:46.36 lap and by hitting 217.1mph at Nardo with Martin Brundle at the wheel – was treated like an albatross around their neck. ‘So not only were we remanufacturing parts for ourselves, because their parts were depleted and badly run, we were making parts for them, too.’ The effort paid off. ‘In 2007, good to their word, we had a call from one of their directors saying “If you’d like to buy the business, it’s yours.”'
The company bought more than the rights to look after the XJ220 and walking around their stores and workshop illustrates just what a comprehensive deal they struck to jaw-dropping effect. There are complete chassis, styling bucks, tooling for panels, complete engines, turbochargers, transmissions, wheels and tyres… Literally every nut and bolt. Justin is every bit as passionate as his dad and is clearly very proud of their operation and hugely protective over the car itself as we wander around the store room and engine facility. ‘Brakes, master cylinders, discs, disc bells, pipework, engines, all the engine components, chassis…’ he says as we meander through row upon row of boxes and crates laid out on floor-to-ceiling shelves. ‘I can build an engine from our stocks. Pick up every bolt, piston, piston ring, rod, crank, block. In fact we could build a whole car.’
How does the XJ220 stack up right here and now, at the tail end of 2016? Justin is obviously slightly biased but doesn’t hesitate to heap praise upon the car. ‘The fundamental design of the car is fantastic. Completely in a different league to some of the cars out there. You’ve seen the chassis, the honeycomb aluminium chassis was state of the art at the time. Compare that to an F40 for example, which is basically an old-fashioned tubular spaceframe with panels bonded in. And the 220’s performance matches that engineering…’
What’s really fascinating about this place and the XJ220 story is that it’s still evolving. The car really was out in the cold for a while but now values are rising and the car is in demand. During our visit there are cars in from all over the world – from Russia to the US – and Don and Justin are quietly placing cars with passionate new owners behind the scenes. Music to my ears is that most of the owners really drive them, too. ‘We do loads of the XJ220S conversions,’ begins Justin. ‘That’s 680bhp, all carbon fibre panels, uprated brakes (the real weak spot of the big Jaguar) – and that car really is something special.’ Just six of these cars were built at the time. There’s one in the workshop, of course, but what’s even more intriguing is Justin’s own XJ220 LM. Lighter still, more extreme and with uprated suspension, brakes and somewhere around 800bhp it’s the ultimate evolution, conceived and built by Don Law Racing. Another customer car is having a similar conversion, too.
I desperately want to try the LM but perhaps a more telling testament to Don and Justin’s commitment to keeping this story alive is that they’re developing a brand new tyre for the XJ220 with Bridgestone. Not just getting them to build a tyre in the correct size, but actually developing a bespoke construction and compound. Don and Justin have sent two absolutely perfect cars to the tyre manufacturer’s test facility near Rome and they’re currently being subjected to all sorts of wet and dry handling loops, high speed forces and durability tests. ‘The test driver couldn’t believe how good the car is,’ says Justin with a smile. It’s some investment for a small operation but the thoroughness and professionalism of the undertaking speaks volumes for Don Law Racing. As Jaguar realised back in ’97, the legacy of the XJ220 is in very safe hands with these guys.
Photography by Greg Pajo