Just as Sir Stirling is the most famous racing driver never to win a world championship, so the Jaguar XJ13 is surely the most famous racing car never to have raced. Jaguar has reputedly turned down £20 million for it, so it was with some trepidation that I stepped across its wide sill and dropped down behind that triple-spoked, wood-rimmed wheel…
Its story is too long and depressing to be repeated at length here, but briefly the tale actually starts as early as 1955 when Jaguar foresaw the time when a replacement for its all-conquering D-type would be needed. Work began on a V12 engine, but the car it was to power never saw the light of day, as all thought of racing went up in smoke with the fire that gutted a large part of Browns Lane in 1957.
The project was shelved until 1964 when in total secrecy, Malcolm Sayer, the genius aerodynamicist who had shaped both the C and D-type racers, started work on a new project. That engine would find a home after all and would run for the first time that year. It was conventional but effective, using twin-overhead camshafts but just two valves per cylinder. Fuel was supplied by Lucas mechanical fuel injection. With distinctly oversquare dimensions, the 5-litre unit produced 502bhp at a deafening 7,600rpm, backed by 386lb ft of torque at 6,300rpm.
Had it a home to go to in 1964, the future of sports car racing might have looked very different; sadly the car in which it was designed to sit would not turn a wheel for another two years, two years in which the face of sports car racing changed entirely: in 1965 Le Mans was won by an elderly 3.3-litre Ferrari. By 1966 it required a 7-litre Ford GT40 to do the same job.
Underneath that incomparable skin lay the same kind of straightforward thinking that had brought such success to Jaguar in the past. The formula was to keep it simple and strong for reliability and safety and let the engine and Sayer’s aerodynamics provide the speed. It has worked for the C and D-types and there seemed little reason why the same should not work for the XJ13.
It could have been so good, but that two-year delay and its considerable heft (it weighed around 1150kg) meant that by the time it was ready the game had moved on and Jaguar decided, probably correctly to shelve the project.
So the only purpose-built Jaguar racing car to span the 30-year gap between the D-type and the highly successful 1980s Group C project was parked. The car did run, David Hobbs lapping the banked circuit at the MIRA Proving Ground at 161.6mph (150mph around there in a brand new car is utterly terrifying) and then again in 1971 with Jaguar’s chief test driver, Norman Dewis doing some film work. This time, things did not go according to plan and one of the magnesium alloy wheels failed at 145mph. Dewis remembers hitting the barrier, diving under the scuttle and flipping end over end twice and side over side three times before it came to rest. He walked away. Sir William Lyons wanted it scrapped but happily it was saved, the bodywork repaired or replaced by Abbey Panels (who’d made the original) and lives today as the priceless crown jewel of the Jaguar Heritage collection.
‘Even keeping clear of the last 2000rpm in deference to the engine’s age and the fact all the bits that exist for it were those thrashing around inside it, it is startlingly, shockingly fast.’
To drive it today is to take a tantalising glimpse into the world of what might have been. Not for nothing is its speedometer calibrated to 240mph and with that power and those aerodynamics it would surely have pounded down to Mulsanne at well over 200mph.
I didn’t go quite that fast at Goodwood, but I was still permitted enough revs to hear the full, complex and layered battle cry of the V12 which, you’ll probably not need reminding is related in no way at all to the similar configured engine that powered the E-type, XJS and XJ12 from the early 1970s onwards. This motor is not smooth and cultured, it is savage and raw, a pure racing engine and all the better for it.
It snarled up to the first corner, which I took perhaps too cautiously, and then devoured second, third and quite a lot of fourth gear before Molecomb. How fast is it? The F-type R coupe is the quickest Jaguar on sale today and has an impressive power to weight ratio of 328bhp per tonne. The XJ13? Try 437bhp per tonne. Even keeping clear of the last 2000rpm in deference to the engine’s age, and the fact all the bits that exist for it were those thrashing around inside it, it is startlingly, shockingly fast.
I treated Molecomb with the respect it undoubtedly deserves and gradually built speed until the final left hand curve, which it dispatched with a joyous, deafening howl as I poured on the power towards the finishing line.
Of course on one level it would have been wonderful for the XJ13 to have raced. But on another perhaps it’s better it did not. For while it never won a race, it just as surely never lost one either. Perhaps it could have shown the Fords and Ferraris a thing or two, but by 1966 the maths was dead against it and even Ferrari, which had won seven out of the previous eight Le Mans, proved powerless against the monster Fords. Truth is we will never know how the XJ13 would have fared and, under the circumstances, that is perhaps the best way for this particular story to end.