If we’re talking about British supercars from the 1990s, the conversation generally begins and ends with one entry: The McLaren F1. Of course, that grossly oversimplifies things. Why? Well, for one, there were also the bonkers high-horsepower cars coming in from TVR. Plus, the Lotus Esprit gained a twin-turbo V8 engine and 350 horsepower in the 1990s (that was a lot of power for a light car).
And then, of course, there was the criminally unloved Jaguar XJ220.
A 200-plus mile per hour supercar that was unveiled to great fanfare in the late 1980s, the XJ220 was supposed to be Jaguar’s great return to the upper echelons of the performance car world. But it wasn’t meant to be. Beset with years of engineering and production delays, by the time it was launched in 1992, the company had a tough time finding any buyers. The result? They only built 271 models over a two-year span.
So if the McLaren F1 is the icon, and the XJ200 is the odd man out, then a car that bridges the gap between the two must be truly bonkers, right? Well, it is.
Jaguar was riding high in the late 1980s. In 1987, it partnered with Tom Walkinshaw Racing and designer Tony Southgate to design a prototype racer to compete in endurance racing. For the first time in 30 years, the new partnership would catapult the company back to the forefront of the sport. Built around the company’s venerable V12 engine, the Jaguar XJR-8 debuted in 1987 to immediate success, winning eight out of 10 races and taking the World Sportscar Championship title. It was also named Autosport’s Racing Car of the Year.
In 1988 (the same year Jaguar unveiled the XJ220 prototype), the XJR-8 was redesigned, making it even more formidable. The V12 was based on the 5.3 liter unit found in the XJS sedan, and reportedly, it was set to make around 720 horsepower. By the time Jaguar, TWR, and Southgate were finished with the car, it was different enough to become the XJR-9.
The XJR-9 quickly built on its predecessor’s reputation. It debuted at the 24 Hours of Daytona (a car endurance race in Daytona Beach, Florida), where it won outright. In Europe, it won an additional six races, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France. By the end of the season, the XJR-9 captured the Teams Championship, and driver Martin Brundle took home the best driver title.
As the team began to focus on the 1989 season, Walkinshaw began to put together plans for building a road-going version of the XJR-9. With the XJ220 still in development and on the verge of getting an influx of resources from its impending sale to Ford, Jaguar agreed to the project. Partnering with TWR, Jaguar Sport was launched.
While the XJR-10 and the XJR-11 were racing throughout Europe and the United States in 1989 and 1990, TWR and Southgate worked on turning the endurance racer into a road car. In order to transform the car’s aggressive aerodynamic bodywork into something more appropriate for the road, they brought in designer Peter Stevens to handle the styling. Shortly after this, Stevens would leave to work with Gordon Murray for whom he would style the McLaren F1.
Starting with the XJR-9’s carbon fiber tub, the car was widened by three inches (with its roof raised by an inch) to make the car a little more livable. With the classic Jaguar C- and D-type street cars in mind, it was decided that the road car would forego any of the Connolly leather, Wilton carpets, chrome, and burled walnut that was found in other Jaguars. This car would have seating for two, acres of exposed carbon fiber, competition gauges, and a racing wheel. It wouldn’t be a luxury car. But it would be incredibly exclusive — and incredibly fast.
Jaguar announced the XJR-15 road car on November 15, 1990, with a more formal launch at Silverstone the following spring. Like the XJ220 was supposed to have, the XJR-15 had a naturally aspirated V12 engine mounted directly behind the seats, although here it was tuned to 450 horsepower. At about 2,300 pounds, the car could go from zero to 60 in 3.2 seconds. It also had a top speed of 191 miles per hour.
The car’s carbon fiber, kevlar body, and monocoque made it the first ever road-going car to use that kind of construction (the McLaren F1 would be the second). And its “throttle by wire” was one of the first to ever be fitted on a production car. It also had a full-independent suspension, keeping the same heavy-duty AP Racing brakes that the endurance car wore.
With a $960,165 asking price ($1.6 million today), the XJR-15 may have been street legal. Jaguar, though, also wanted them to race. Unsurprisingly, past and present racing drivers were given priority — but there was an incentive. In 1990, Jaguar Sport launched the Jaguar Intercontinental Challenge, which supported three Formula 1 races. A Spec series, the XJR15s would race in the cities of Monaco, Silverstone, and Spa. The winner at the end of those three races would win $1 million, essentially getting his car for free. It would be won by German driver Armin Hahne.
In August 1991, Road & Track ran driver Tiff Needell’s overall impressions of the car:
With the XJR-15, high-tech is out. The only things the driver can change are the stiffness of the front anti-roll bar — there isn’t a rear one — and brake balance front and rear. That’s it. Just get in and drive.
Despite its new bodywork and exclusive XJR Blue paint, the XJR-15 was always a race car first. In a move that foreshadowed the McLaren F1, TWR even built five LM examples, with revised aerodynamics and the engine tuned to 700 horsepower competition-spec. Despite being inspired by Le Mans cars, the XJR-15 LMs were quickly snapped up by wealthy Japanese collectors. None have publicly come up for sale since.
By 1992, the XJ220 would finally be launched. That same year, though, the XJR-15 program would come to an end with just 53 cars built, including the LM examples. Naturally, it was quickly forgotten, as was the XJ220 once the McLaren F1 arrived. Within a few years, the Jaguar supercar that was based on a Le Mans winner was little more than a footnote in automotive history, until it would bizarrely find a second life in Japan.
When talking about forgotten supercars, the Nissan R390 GT1 often comes up. This is largely thanks to its brief but memorable appearance on the endurance racing circuit, as well as its inclusion in the groundbreaking Gran Turismo video games.
Nissan wanted to quickly break into endurance racing, and partnered with TWR and Southgate to help build their cars. Instead of starting from scratch, they used the XJR-15 as a starting point. If you look at the two cars, there are unmistakably strong similarities between the chassis and cabin design of the two cars. Five years after disappearing, the Jaguar would serve as an invaluable starting point for Nissan’s endurance racing team, starting a lineage that carries on today.
With 1990s nostalgia just starting to set in the collectors market, the XJR-15 may be ready for its third act. This example, an all-original 1991 model, is being sold by British exotics dealer Jeremy Cottingham for around $500,000. With the McLaren F1 fast becoming one of the most valuable cars in the world, and the XJ220 finally gaining traction in the market, the XJR-15 perfectly splits the difference between the two. It’s an important (if forgotten) part of Jaguar’s performance history, and its Peter Stevens-designed lines make it one of the McLaren F1’s ancestors.
The XJR-15 may have only been around for a short period of time, but nearly 30 years on, it’s no less impressive than it was when it first launched.