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228

It doesn’t look like the BMW 635s that raced in Europe, but this Australian Black Beauty was a crowd favourite when it faced the home-grown V8s

Black and gold. With the possible exception of pale blue and orange, is there a more evocative colour combination than the livery of John Player & Sons? Right at this moment I very much doubt it.

We’re in Silverstone’s cavernous ‘Wing’ pit complex amongst the hustle and bustle of preparations for the coming weekend’s Silverstone Classic meeting. The place is packed with all kinds of race cars, from semi-lightweight E-types and Cobras to DFV F1 cars and Le Mans prototypes, yet all eyes appear to be on us. Or rather the mouth-watering BMW 635 CSi we’re here to drive.

Everyone loves a 6-series touring car, but to fully understand the frenzy surrounding this particular example you need to rewind to the early 1980s and travel to the other side of the world, for it was in Australia that this unique car was created and made its name.

As you doubtless know, tin-top racing in Australia revolved around the bitter rivalry between the home-grown Fords and Holdens. However, much like any good pub brawl, outsiders were welcome to join the punch-up. BMW got involved through its association with Allan Grice Racing, who switched from being Holden’s most successful privateer team in the late Seventies to running a BMW 318i Turbo in 1980, then becoming BMW’s factory touring car effort in Australia for the 1981 season.

This was the last few years of the Group C era. No, not the FIA’s sports prototype regulations revered by fans of endurance racing, but the Confederation of Australian Motorsport (CAMS) Touring Car regulations, which were introduced in 1973 and ran until the worldwide adoption of Group A regs in 1985.

As ever, Ford and Holden teams were intent on knocking seven bells out of one another with their big-banger V8s, but added spice came in the shape of challengers from Nissan, Mazda and the Grice BMW squad, which had recently been acquired by team manager Frank Gardner, and assumed the name JPS Team BMW on the back of a new sponsorship deal for the ’81 season.

Performance parity between the main V8-engined ATCC protagonists wasn’t an issue, but when the Mazda’s rotary, Nissan’s turbo-six and BMW’s naturally-aspirated straight-six rocked-up, achieving anything close to a level playing field became a perennial problem. All of which explains Gardner’s reticence to pitch the outgunned 635 CSi into a full-on ATCC campaign in the team’s first season.

As a result the Group C 635 swerved wheel-to-wheel combat with the Falcons and Commodores, preferring instead to compete in the 1981 AMSCAR series, which was open to touring cars with engine capacities no greater than 3.5 litres. With the big capacity Fords and Holdens barred, and the BMW just squeaking under the capacity limit, Grice (who remained as the team’s development and race driver) bagged an encouraging second in the championship in the Group C 635’s debut season.

Grice left the team altogether in 1982 and was replaced by Kiwi tin-top ace Jim Richards. A new Group C 635 was built, with the original JPS Team BMW car (which was converted from a 1980 European Touring Car Championship Group 2 car) retained as a spare. Once again the team dodged the unequal battle in the ATCC, but Richards and the 635 – by now nicknamed ‘Black Beauty’ by the team, fans and media alike – made a one-off ATCC appearance at Surfers Paradise, scoring an impressive third place.

BY 1983 the 635 benefited from a major homologation breakthrough in the shape of BMW’s new M-power 24-valve motor. First seen in the M1 road-going supercar and Procar racer, power leapt from circa 300bhp to anywhere between 400bhp and 440bhp depending on who you talk to. This gave the 635 the poke to at least try to get on terms with the V8s.

Still the team preferred AMSCAR and the Australian Endurance Championship to the ATCC, though like any touring car team worth its salt, JPS Team BMW would contest Bathurst, the jewel in Australian touring car racing’s crown. Like so many cars that promised so much, the Group C BMW would prove to be a frustrating tale of ifs, buts and what might have beens.

Not that this matters at this present moment in time, for having tried the driver’s seat for size I’m waiting patiently for my shot behind the wheel. While Black Beauty is prepped I grab the opportunity to chat with Jim Richards, who’s here to race the car this weekend. True to his ‘Gentleman Jim’ nickname he’s a genuinely lovely bloke, happy to talk about a car and a period for which he clearly holds a great deal of affection.

“In Australia, Group C was the rule framework for touring cars right through from the early ’70s until Group A took over in the mid-80s. The BMW was up against the Commodores and Falcons. To be honest we were well outgunned by them for power, even when we got the 24v motor. We had a pole position in the rain and a couple of podium finishes, but the car’s natural finishing spot was usually fourth or fifth place.

“Funnily enough it always felt best at Bathurst. It suited the track every bit as well as the Fords and Holdens so we were genuinely in with a shout. We qualified fourth in 1983 and were running fourth in the race, but we had a dodgy batch of fuel and some grit or another contaminant seized the fuel metering unit after just a few laps. We went back the following year, but the motor dropped a valve, so we retired from both Bathurst races. It was a real shame as we could have done well.

“When things switched to Group A in 1985 I got a brand new car built by the factory in Germany. My Group C car was converted to Group A spec in Australia and did one race in the hands of my team-mate, but I never drove it. I enjoyed much more success in the Group A car than the Group C car, but I’ve still got fond memories of the old girl. She always looked fantastic – still does as a matter of fact – and there’s still not much to touch the sound of that motor!”

SPEAKING OF which, the rhythmic punch of barely silenced six-cylinder being revved interrupts our confab in the finest possible manner. A friendly wave from the mechanics suggests I ought to put balaclava, HANS and helmet on, so I scurry towards the car and jump in.

Like all touring cars from this golden period, the Group C 635 looks and feels very much like a race-prepped road car and not some freakish silhouette racer created by Computational Fluid Dynamics, Finite Element Analysis and Tenuous Marketing Spin.

Yes, the colossal wheel arch extensions and jutting chin spoiler (I hesitate to use the term splitter as I’m not sure it had been invented in the 1980s) are fabulously OTT, but they are very much bolt-on items. Open the driver’s door and there’s a simple, hefty roll cage, race seat, some supplementary instruments and a distinct lack of carpets. But the road car door trims, full-width soft-touch dashboard and other recognisably showroom-spec items cement the fact that you’re strapping yourself into a car that anyone familiar with a BMW 6-series would recognise. Albeit one that has nipped into a telephone booth to put on a cape and wear its underpants on the outside.

As a consequence the driving environment is an incongruous mix of the prosaic and the purposeful. The seating position is straightforward, placing you unfashionably high compared to today’s c of g-obsessed norm, but perfectly positioned to work the big steering wheel and slot the gear lever through its dog-leg five-speed gate. The pedals aren’t ideally set up, at least for me, but I suspect the floor-hinged throttle pedal is something to do with that.

The star of the show is unquestionably the 24v straight-six. From the moment you place your right foot on the loud pedal you know you’re sitting behind something special. Throttle response is instant, each twitch of my right foot filling the garage with an angry, serrated brrapp that crinkles the faces of bystanders into a graphic wince of pleasure and pain: something only car nuts like us can explain or claim to enjoy.

With some warmth in its bones and vital fluids I get the thumbs-up to head out on track. Deep breath. Depress the weighty clutch, pull left and back on the surprisingly light gear lever to slot first gear, bring the revs up until the side-pipe snorts out a steady holler, then feed the clutch in and we’re away in this precious one-off.

It’s always a strange feeling as you burble down the pit lane in an unfamiliar car. Of course there’s the anticipation, signalled by a gentle adrenal effervescence in your gut, but there’s also a heightened sensory connection as your dial yourself into how the car feels, sounds and smells. It’s like a strange courtship process: speed dating in the literal sense.

ONCE UP and out onto the circuit the sound is immediately something remarkable – a honeyed howl that masks a steely edge. It pops and bangs on the overrun and emits a delicious snort as you slot the next gear home. It feels quick too. Not the instant thump of a large-capacity engine, but a fabulous ever-increasing rush as you wind in the revs to 8000 and beyond. A few laps in and it’s already confirmed itself as one of the best naturally aspirated race engines I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing.

Given the size of the slick tyres I’m expecting it to turn with a bit more enthusiasm, but it has a tendency to push wide of your chosen line, especially once you try and chase the throttle. Richards mentioned it was a bit nose-heavy, and you can feel that at every turn, most frustratingly in Silverstone GP circuit’s slower, tighter corners.

With a bit more heat in the rubber and a growing confidence that, understeer aside, there are no nasty vices it’s possible to push a bit harder. Not with more aggression, but with more intent, working the brakes harder and deeper into the corners to keep the nose pinned as much as possible, then feeding in the power so as not to immediately work through the front-end’s limit of grip.

You also need to be mindful of the tail, for although the cornering attitude is largely governed by the front end, you can get the tail sliding if you’re too quick with the throttle. Clearly the trick is to try and tread the line between those two states, balancing front-end grip and rear-end traction so that you can carry good speed and maintain some balance from turn-in to corner exit.

Focus on that and almost imperceptibly the 635 begins to go well, holding and then catching cars that earlier in the session seemed to fill the mirrors before bullying their way by. Driven thus you can appreciate why this car was more suited to the longer-distance races, where tyres and brakes would need to be carefully managed. It’s a satisfying process to chip away, especially when you find ways of carrying speed while remaining smooth, though the temptation to hang the tail out must have been devilishly hard to resist. I return to the pits with a big smile and wishing I could have another go.

The elephant in the room is that despite its winning looks and seductive soundtrack, Black Beauty didn’t enjoy significant success in period. Indeed as Richards described earlier, it wasn’t until 1985 when the JPS team switched to Group A that the 635 CSi and Richards really hit their stride, with a winning streak that took him to the ATCC title in record-breaking style.

Black Beauty remained in Group A spec for the next 30 seasons, passing through successive owners (and liveries) before ending up in New Zealand having been acquired by touring car aficionado Peter Sturgeon in 2006.

It’s at this point the story takes a fantastic twist, as Sturgeon – also present for the Silverstone adventure – explains: “I bought the car in Group A spec, but it wasn’t until I called Jim to see if he’d be willing to race it for me that the whole Group C thing came to light. The JPS cars are famous back home, having had such tremendous success in the Group A days, but when I looked into the Group C version I was hooked! It looked so good, and everyone who saw the car race said it sounded even better. I knew it wasn’t so competitive in that spec, but that didn’t matter so much to me. It was the chance to make something unique and bring a much-loved car back to life. Having Pip Parker work on the restoration project is the icing on the cake. He worked on it in period for Frank Gardner and the JPS BMW Team, and I really don’t think it would have been possible to do if it wasn’t for his knowledge and contacts. Finding all the right bits – particularly for the motor – was a hell of a job, but we got there.

“It’s been a real labour of love for all involved. I love seeing it race, Pip loves working on it and Jim gets a kick out of driving it. Bringing it to the UK for the first time is something really special. It’s great to see it get so much attention from the fans, and for you blokes at Motor Sport to drive it and tell its story.

“I suppose if you’re being brutal there’s no great significance to the car results-wise, but it was the only Group C 635 ever built with the 24-valve motor, so it’s unique in that sense. I thought the ultimate evolution deserved celebrating, so when the time came to decide on how to restore the car we felt we had to put it back to its Group C glory.”

And that right there is the magic of this car, for it bewitches people who would ordinarily want a car in its most competitive form. Motor racing is an emotional sport, but the pursuit of pace is cold and calculating. That’s why cars only ever tend to move forwards development-wise. Given its disappointing performances in the 1983 and 1984 seasons the Group C 635 could, no, would, have faded to a distant memory, a machine lost to mists of time.

Thankfully Sturgeon didn’t subscribe to that logic, preferring instead to resurrect and celebrate this car for its looks and soundtrack alone. After a painstaking restoration process it has been racing for five seasons back in Australia and New Zealand, and now for the first time in its life, in Europe too.

It might have fallen short of its potential, and ultimately been overshadowed by its less powerful, better balanced successor, but this mysterious, magnificent machine is an absolute joy, not to mention one of the most charismatic and curious BMW competition cars of all time.

IMAGE: AUTOPICS.AU