A Silk Cut Jaguar means a lot to a British sportscar fan. It represents a resurgent British racing programme against the might of Porsche and Mercedes – one that even made national TV headlines and the front pages of the newspapers. Jaguar XJRs raced in the World Sportscar Championship and at Le Mans between 1984 and 1993, during the glory period of Group C and the World Sportscar Championship.
The livery defines the Jaguar Le Mans programme of the '80s: whichever variant, the purple, white and yellow Jaguars were instantly recognisable and attracted rabid support from the British (and international Jaguar) fans. British Racing Green trim provided a nod to winning Jaguar sportscars of the past.
It's also in the lines of the car: uncompromising in its mission, the XJR-8 was a guided missile pointed at Le Mans. Long, low and sleek, with the rear wheels enclosed to help with airflow, the Group C, 7-litre, normally-aspirated V12 Jaguar came in two aero guises: the definitive high downforce (high wing, double element, as seen here) and low downforce (low wing, single element) configurations. As with most of the XJRs, it was penned by renowned race-car designer Tony Southgate.
It was a sign that Jaguar were back. They had dominated the 1950s, with five victories in seven years; other British marques with Le Mans successes, such as Bentley and Aston Martin, wouldn't be back at the sharp end until the 21st century, but in the early 1980s the time everything was in place for the Big Cat to return.
Tom Walkinshaw Racing Ltd developed the majority of the XJRs on behalf of Jaguar; they'd been working with Jaguar since the 1970s, with notable success in touring cars. TWR picked up the sportscar contract after Jaguar had seen the success that American privateer Bob Tullius was having with his Group 44 IMSA GTP Jaguars: two run-outs at Le Mans had produced strong class results, but only factory funding would take the programme to the next level.
The XJR-8 was raced for one year only. In 1987 it took on the World Sportscar Championship and smashed the competition. Brazilian driver Raul Boesel won at Silverstone, Brands Hatch, the Nurburgring and Spa (and was second in Fuji) on his way to taking the WSC Drivers' title. Another four of the ten rounds that year were also won by an XJR-8 (Porsche 962 variants won the remaining pair of races), giving them the Team's title as well as second, third and fourth positions in the Drivers championship.
Only at Le Mans did things not go the way of the Big Cat: three low-drag XJR-8s took the rolling start, and car #4 was comfortably second after 18 hours of racing, but dropped back after suffering gearbox trouble and eventually finished fifth.
The engine stats alone are enough to make you sit up and take notice. Like the more recent Aston Martin effort (ignoring the ignominy of the AMR-One…), the song of the V12 made for a unique identifying sound that pulled it way from the lower roars of the rival Porsches. The 7-litre V12 produced 720bhp at 8,000rpm – the low revs meant that the power was there as soon as you hit the pedal, and it made a great noise. At top flight down the Hunaudieres straight, the XJR-8 would be blasting along at almost 220mph. Frightening stuff.
The XJR-8 evolved into the following year's XJR-9 and 9-LM – five Jaguars took the start at Le Mans in '88, and despite more gearbox trouble Jan Lammers took an epic win sharing with Andy Wallace and John Dumfries. Two years later a further evolution, the XJR-12, also won. The XJR-8 on display at Beaulieu is actually a replica show-car, but a 'live' version (Boesel's winning car, in fact) races on in Historic Group C events. With Mercedes and Lancia Group C cars often running alongside the Jaguars and Porsches in these races, plus the second tier C2 cars, the chance to see these cars at full pelt in their natural environment should not be missed.