Jaguar’s XJR9 Is a Bonkers British Racer and Le Mans Legend

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Sir John Egan, the man who pulled Jaguar out of the state-owned morass that was British Leyland, was a shrewd salesman. He knew Jaguar had enough money to launch the XJ40 sedan in 1986, but not a lot more. He realized the company’s long-term future, therefore, lay in persuading one of the global auto giants to fund the ongoing R&D needed to improve the XJ40 and build a replacement for the aging XJ-S, as well as invest in the news that Jaguar would be returning to Le Mans in 1986 with a factory-backed team, and aiming for an outright win, delivered exactly the sort of image-building media coverage Egan wanted.

Built and developed by Tom Walkinshaw’s TWR Racing Team, and painted in the distinctive purple, white, and yellow of the team sponsor, the Silk Cut Jaguar XJRs became a mainstay of one of sports car racing’s golden eras, battling the ubiquitous Porsche 956s and 962s and the Sauber-Mercedes C9s for honors in the Group C Championship—and, of course, at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The Silk Cut Jags failed to deliver victory in 1986 and 1987, but in 1988, the XJR9 driven by Jan Lammers, Johnny Dumfries, and Andy Wallace crossed the line just 2 minutes and 36 seconds ahead of the second-place Porsche 962 driven by Hans-Joachim Stuck, Klaus Ludwig, and Derek Bell to claim Jaguar’s first outright win at the La Sarthe circuit since 1957 in one of the fastest and closest-fought races ever held at Le Mans. And it was powered by a V-12 that, though highly modified and producing 750 horses from 7.0 liters, could trace its DNA back to the XJ13’s powerplant.

Ironically, the 1988 Le Mans was the only race the winning car, chassis number 488, ever finished. Under the terms of the contract with TWR, it was immediately retired and handed back to Jaguar. Today, it’s basically as it finished the race, right down to the wing settings and gearing. The only major difference is the wheels: The XJR9s all ran Dunlop Denlock tires, which required unique rims. As the Denlocks are no longer made, chassis 488 now runs on BBS wheels and hand-cut Dunlop slicks.

The 1988 season was a high-water mark for the Jaguar Silk Cut team, with XJR9s winning six of the 10 Group C races and securing the World Sports Car Championship. Egan’s image-building strategy worked—too well. Though Jaguar had been privatized, the British government retained a so-called “golden share” in the company that gave it the right to block a takeover. But with General Motors and Ford both desperate to spend serious money acquiring Jaguar, the government agreed not to exercise its golden share.

“We had a choice in the 1980s: to keep making antiques or to create a design and development process that would allow world-class products and quality,” Egan, who subsequently left Jaguar to run the British Airport Authority, said. “Ford’s initial aggressive takeover was premature in that we were talking to other companies. When they contacted us, we realized the game was up. We wanted to be sure we got a good price for shareholders.”

He sure did: The year after chassis number 488 stormed to a historic win at Le Mans, Ford Motor Company paid an astonishing $2.5 billion—many times more than the company was actually worth—to buy Jaguar outright. Everyone loves a winner.

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