MOTORING / Darling, I'm just popping out to the garage: Amid the calm of an English village, the world's fastest production car is being built, writes Jonathan Glancey
Saturday 11 July 1992
These dashing sports cars have become a common sight as they travel to and from JaguarSport's factory at the Banbury end of the village and the Millbrook test track near Coventry. At pounds 340,000 ( pounds 415,000 after tax in Britain), the XJ220 is not the sort of car its owners - limited to just 350 - will want to drive slowly through Bloxham or anywhere else. On test in Italy a fortnight ago, the racing driver Martin Brundle piloted one at 217mph on a banked circuit, the equivalent of 223mph on a level road, making the XJ220 the fastest production car ever built (the new Bugatti takes second place at 212mph). Brundle was able to take his hands off the steering wheel at 210mph; the car, he said, felt that stable at speed.
Over the past year a secret few of the rich and famous have been coming to Bloxham to watch their dream machines take shape. They are said to include Mick Jagger, Phil Collins, Elton John, the Prince of Wales and, even more surprisingly, Petula Clark.
Bloxham is accustomed to a different kind of visitor. Its major pre-Jaguar attraction was the magnificent medieval parish church of St Mary's, crafted from the local coffee-coloured sandstone and topped with a 198ft (64- metre) tower and spire, the tallest in the area by far. The church's spectacular windows are so tall and wide that the walls that frame them are almost non-existent. The church was as hi-tech in its day as the XJ220 is in ours.
Otherwise, Bloxham's features are familiar. They include All Saints School, built in 1866 by George Edmund Street, architect of the Law Courts in the Strand; Mr Eagles, the 'Family Butcher', at work in his striped apron; and billboards of the Banbury Guardian trumpeting 'Bloxham Flower Festival - Success Picture'. There are shops selling Banbury cakes, notices advertising last weekend's 'steam fair', and thatched cottages along Church Street. You see geese in back yards, bits of farming equipment, poppies and nettles.
A car built in Bloxham, you might think, ought to be hand- crafted in ash, walnut and leather. It should have a wooden steering wheel and run on wire wheels. But the dashboard of the XJ220 is of plastic and its bodyshell aluminium. 'Quaintness doesn't come into it,' says Bill Donnelly, sales and marketing director of JaguarSport, sitting in his 17th- century farmhouse office framed by beams, stonework and paint effects. 'Quaintness stops with our buildings.'
So why choose Bloxham?
'If you imagine it placed on a map of Britain's automotive industry, you'll see that it's ideally located,' Mr Donnelly says. 'Every supplier, specialist and technician we need is right on our doorstep. The bodies, for example, are built by Abbey Panels in Coventry. They have a long history of working with racing Jaguars; they made bodies for the Le Mans-winning C- and D-types in the Fifties and lightweight E-types in the Sixties. The engines are assembled and tested by TWR at Kidlington - each one takes five days to build. Every other component and skill we need to make the XJ220 can be sourced within about 30 minutes' drive from here.
'The other bonus,' he says, 'is that buyers enjoy coming here, and the 95 of us who work here enjoy it, too. It's nothing like the mainstream motor industry; there's no clock- watching, and if there's a job to be done, everyone stays until it's finished.'
Both offices (the stone farmhouse) and factory (a low-key steel- and-brick shed) are unusual for the motor industry. Surrounded by hills and fields, the factory is immaculate, more like an operating theatre than a car assembly plant. There are no pin-up calendars, no radios blaring, no gratuitous effing and blinding. Everyone who works here is a qualified technician; they come, many from up to 50 miles away, not just to make a living but also because they want to be a part of the project.
When the last of the 350 Jaguars leaves the factory in December 1993 work will begin on the new, lightweight Aston-Martin - codenamed NPX, but possibly to be called DB7. The plan is to build 650 cars a year, keeping Bloxham at the cutting edge of the motor industry for the next 10 years at least. When Aston Martin Oxford takes over JaguarSport at Bloxham (the companies are intertwined), production of future dream Jaguars will probably take place at TWR, Kidlington.
The standards of craftsmanship involved in building an XJ220 are at least as high as those that went into the creation of St Mary's church. Each component is honed to aerospace standards; each part of an XJ220's suspension could be displayed as sculpture.
Underneath, the car is almost completely smooth and flat; only the wishbones for the rear suspension protrude and even these are finely crafted and shaped like aerofoils to keep wind resistance to a minimum. At the rear of the car, two sculptural 'venturi shafts' generate a powerful downforce on the vehicle at high speed, giving it exceptional stability. The ventilated disc brakes are quite simply beautiful. But so they should be. This is a Swiss watch of a car, a thing of beauty designed to last, if not forever, then at least until cars are finally outlawed to private tracks.
What the Jaguar is not is a crude, muscle-bound, street-legal, gas-guzzling and ear-splitting road-racer. It is astonishingly quiet and comfortable and, although undeniably big (just 4in shorter than an XJ6 saloon and much wider), it has none of the connotations of the Italian cafe racer or the Californian adrenalin-pump. Restrained in every detail (down to some undeniably functional, but rather disappointing, Ford Sierra controls), the XJ220 meets all EC emission and safety requirements, runs on unleaded fuel, expels waste gases through a catalyser and, according to Mr Donnelly, is 85 per cent recyclable: 'not,' he adds hastily, 'that we expect any of them to be broken up'.
When the show car was displayed at the Birmingham Motor Show in 1988, the XJ220 was very much a folly, or, to put it more kindly, a showpiece of the best of Jaguar engineering. Although far too big and complicated, it drew 1,500 would-be buyers. Jaguar agreed to build 220 production cars and then upped this to 350, asking each potential buyer to put down a deposit of pounds 50,000.
With this as development money, Richard Owen, chief design engineer of the XJ220 project, set about making the car smaller, lighter, less complicated and altogether more practical than the show car. The voluptuous lines drawn by Keith Helfett and Nick Hull of Jaguar's styling studio were little altered, but JaguarSport is now confident that buyers can pick up their car at Bloxham and take it out on a full-speed test run (if, as one buyer has done, they hire a racetrack for the day). JaguarSport does not expect anything to break.
The car might seem like a toy for the rich - who needs or dares to be seen at the wheel of a 220mph car in these days of environmental correctness? - but JaguarSport is convinced that the lessons learnt from building these road-going Concordes will benefit mass-production Jaguars: it will make them safer, stronger, lighter, more dynamic and less of a strain on the environment. This is not just a case of justifying a glorious mechanical dinosaur; the relationship between road-going and racing Jaguars has been close in the past, and because the XJ220 is so nearly a racing car and yet a genuine grand tourer, this relationship is a not an unrealistic one.
Of the 350 XJ220s, 105 will probably remain in Britain. Over the next year a few will return to be serviced or repaired at Bloxham. But so low is this car, and so quiet, that you might miss it in the rattle of the everyday traffic. In a postcard or carefully set-up photograph, Bloxham might appear to be stuck in the 18th century, but it is really a brilliantly disguised hub of what remains of the best of British production engineering. In future years Bloxham will be remembered for its church, flower festival and steam fair as well as for being the site of JaguarSport and the last of the great supercars.
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