When Oppurtunity Arises - JPS Team BMW 635 CSI

The Group C years of the Australian Touring Car Championship was dominated by Ford and Holden. In 11 of the 12 years that the ATCC was run to Group C rules, a Falcon or Holden driver won the championship. With the Holden Dealer Team and Dick Johnson Racing dominating with Holden and Ford respectively in the 1980s, other major teams started looking for alternatives. JPS Team BMW was one of them.

The predecessor to JPS Team BMW was Allan Grice Racing. They ran Holden Toranas in the ATCC and Australian Sports Sedan Championship under the Craven Mild Racing banner.  Being one of the most successful privateer teams,  the factory Holden Dealer Team actively worked against them, with suggestions that HDT were attempting to sabotage CMR. As a result, Grice never achieved the success he could have during his time in a Holden.  With team manager Frank Gardner, he switched to a BMW 318i Turbo partway through the 1980 ASSC

Allan Grice Racing became the factory BMW team in 1981, when Gardner took ownership. A Group 2 BMW 635 CSi that had previously competed in the 1980 European Touring Car Championship was imported from Germany and converted to Group C specifications. At the same time, Craven Mild was replaced as the title sponsor by John Player & Sons. The team was officially titled JPS Team BMW.

In 1981, the team elected to focus on Amaroo Park’s AMSCAR series for Group C touring cars with engine capacities up to 3.5 litres. This excluded the V8 Falcons and Commodores, and gave the 635 the largest engine in the series. Allan Grice drove the team’s one car to second place behind Steve Masterson’s Ford Capri.

At Bathurst, Grice was joined by BMW factory driver David Hobbs. Channel Seven elected to fit the 635 with their only Racecam for the year.  They qualified 12th, but made their way up to fifth, before Grice found himself in the sand trap, losing six laps. The race was stopped after lap 12 following a six car accident that blocked the track, but they were still able to recover to second in the 6 cylinder and rotary class and seventh overall.

After Grice left the team in 1981, he was replaced by Jim Richards. A new car was also built, with the old one retained as a spare. Once again, JPS Team BMW sat out of the ATCC in 1982, but made a single round cameo at Surfers Paradise. Richards finished third.

Hobbs returned to Bathurst in 1982 to partner Richards. 1967 Formula 1 world champion Denny Hulme and 1980 Australian Formula Ford champion Stephen Brook drove the second car. The class structure changed for 1982, placing the 635 in Class A (3,000cc and over) with the V8 Falcons and Commodores. Richards and Hobbs finished fifth, the highest placed non-Holden.

JPS Team BMW chose not to compete in the ATCC for a third year  in 1983. After not receiving any concessions from CAMS, handed to manufacturers each year, they felt that it was not worth competing. They instead continued to focus on the AMSCAR series and the Australian Endurance Championship, which the BMW was better suited to. A new 24 valve cylinder head from the M635 was homologated, boosting power from 300 to 390HP and giving them the straight line speed to match the Ford and Holden team. Tyre wear and weight distribution remained issues however.

Richards’ ordinary results at Amaroo Park and Oran Park meant that the other manufacturers didn't see them as a threat. When teams representing Ford, Holden, Nissan and Mazda engaged in a protesting battle at Sandown, a common occurrence in Group C, BMW was ignored. Richards finished the race second behind Allan Moffat's RX7, as the leading Ford, Holden and Nissan teams failed to finish. The team that nobody was paying attention to was suddenly seen as a realistic Bathurst contender.

It didn't work out that way. Despite having retired from racing, Gardner nominatd himself as Richards’ co-driver, believing that since he'd done all the testing he had an intimate knowledge of the car. Richards qualified fourth in the shootout and maintained that position in the opening laps, before suddenly starting to drop back on lap three. Returning to the pits, it was found that dirty fuel was to blame . The entire fuel system was replaced and the car sent back out, but it only lasted another three laps before retiring. Gardner claimed their race had been sabotaged, but couldn't provide any evidence.

1984 would be the team's first full ATCC season. Jim Richards was only driver running a BMW in what would be the last Group C season. The BMW performed well and there were some good results. A pole position at Lakeside, and a third at Surfers Paradise were highlights in a year where Richards finished fifth in the championship.

A solid ATCC was followed by a disappointing AEC. A broken diff put them out of the race at Sandown. At Bathurst, Group A cars were allowed to compete in Australia for the first time. Alongside the Group C 635 of Richards and Longhurst, a Group A car was entered, driven by Denny Hulme and Bavarian Prince Leopold von Bayern. The weekend started going wrong when Prince von Bayern, unfamiliar with the circuit, crashed the Group A car during a practice session. The repair job put the team behind schedule preparing the Group C car that was supposed to be competing for outright victory. Richards ended up being off the pace in qualifying, and despite lapping faster than the previous year, could only manage sixth. During the race, Richards and Longhurst’s usually reliable BMW suffered a blown engine, retiring on lap 39. The Group A cars were significantly slower than the older Group Cs. Hulme and von Bayern qualified 3rd in class, 49th overall. Hulme and von Bayern had a much better race than Richards and Longhurst, finishing 2nd in class behind the Tom Walkinshaw Racing Rover of Jeff Allam and Armin Hahne, 15th overall.

Despite having the talent and budget to match the top teams and drivers, the 635 went four years without an outright win. A reflection of the Group C rules favouring the big engined Fords and Holdens. 

The switch international Group A rules would be extremely beneficial to JPS Team BMW. Gardner had always maintained that when Group A came to Australia, the BMW 635 CSi would come into its own. No one believed him. This was his chance to prove everyone wrong. Holden was forced to develop a new race car from scratch, and Dick Johnson was forced into an underperforming Zakspeed Mustang. BMW simply converted their car to the same specifications as their European counterparts.

The car lost some power going from Group C to Group A, attributed to having to revert from the M88 24 valve head to the 12 valve head. Power dropped from 400 to 300hp, but it was lighter and lower, and the Australian team had access to the technical resources of BMW in Europe.

Two 635 CSIs were entered for Richards and Crichton. The team also ran a 323i in class B for Tony Longhurst. Crichton received Richards’ 1984 car for round 1 at Winton, converted to Group A specification, and Richards drove the car that debuted at Bathurst the previous year.

Jim Richards won the first Group A ATCC race at Winton in 1985

Jim Richards won the first Group A ATCC race at Winton in 1985

1985 represented a massive turnaround for Richards and JPS Team BMW. After not winning a race in four years, Richard won a record six straight ATCC rounds. If that wasn't enough he won every round of the AMSCAR series.

Having entered a Group A car at Bathurst the year before, JPS Team BMW were well prepared for the 1000 in 1985. Richards and Tony Longhurst qualified comfortably on pole. They lead the race early before being caught on an oil spill at Hell Corner, as did the sister car of George Fury and Neville Crichton. They recovered to fourth, four laps behind John Goss and Armin Hahne’s TWR Jaguar  XJS.

Bathurst was the only race of the 1985 Australian Endurance Championship that Richards didn't win. Wins at Amaroo Park, Oran Park, Sandown and Surfers Paradise Richards a commanding championship victory, with nearly double the points of second placed Tony Longhurst.

1986 was a much tougher season for JPS Team BMW. BMW had shifted its focus to the M3, leaving the 635 CSI to fall behind the competition from Volvo and Nissan. Richards received a new car, with an extra year of development, but it wasn't enough. A single race win for Richards and third in the championship was all the team could manage.

Richards still won the AEC, ahead of George Fury in the new Nissan Skyline RS. It was not the dominant showing of the year before, with the championship won on consistency.  Fury won four races but missed Amaroo Park and didn't finish at Bathurst. Richards, on the other hand, won at Amaroo and scored solid points at every other race.

Despite not being as successful as the 1985 car, Richards still spoke fondly of the 1986 car. “It was the best 635 I drove,” he says. “It had a little more power and it had another year’s development. You had to drive them hard though!”

1986 was JPS Team BMW’s last year with the 635 CSI. In 1987, they switched to the M3, winning one last championship before Gardner retired from motorsport. The team was sold to Peter Brock and continued as the factory BMW team with Brock and Richards driving.

Where are cars now? The original Group C car, converted from a European Group 2 car, resides at the National Motor Racing Museum at Bathurst. After Crichton drove it at Winton in 1985, Richards' 1983-4 car was sold to privateer Jim Keogh, who continued to race it in the ATCC. After passing through a number of owners, it was bought by Peter Sturgeon in 2009, who had it restored to Group C specification. The car Crichton drove for the remainder of the 1985 season is now owned by Jim Richards, who also owns his M3 from 1987.

The 1986 car was sold to Canberra car dealer Ray Gulson, who continued race it, and built a second car from a shell and parts bought from Gardner. The ‘86 car was later restored by BMW for display in its own museum. It and the car assembled by Gulson ended up in the Bowden collection in 1999.

Moving from Holden to BMW in 1981 was a big risk, but one Frank Gardner's team had to take to become a championship winning team. For four years they quietly worked away at it and when the rules changed they took full advantage where others faltered.