Big Fish - 1983 BMW 635 CSi Group A
The late 1970’s and early 1980’s were a turbulent time for the world of motorsport. Two energy crises in 1973 and 1979 plunged the Western world into one of the darkest economic times ever seen. Amidst fuel shortages, layoffs, the death of disco and a crippled job market, there was little consideration for frivolous things like motor racing.
To the Federation International du Sport Automobile, this presented a major problem, as motorsport was their main source of income. Wisely, the governing body decided to adapt its policies to the changing times. One of the main reasons motivating this course of action was the rising costs of running a racing car.
The late 1970’s had seen the rise of the turbocharger, which had boosted power levels as much as it had strained budgets with its complex and unreliable nature. In order to keep costs down and get teams to rejoin, the FISA elected to tone things down quite a bit.
Another factor leading to this sentiment was the course touring car racing had taken in recent years. Under the howling mad Group 5 regulations, humble cars like the Ford Capri and Toyota Celica had transformed into massively wide, bewinged, flame-spitting turbocharged monsters. Although this made the cars very fast, impossibly powerful and spectacular to watch, they had completely lost their link to the road going equivalent.
This made them terribly suited to support the age-old motto of “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday. With no link to the regular models, the public was beginning to lose interest, and so were the manufacturers. Coupled to the harsh economic climate, this meant Group 5 was no longer a viable category to support. With this in mind, the FISA moved to redefine the pinnacle of touring car racing in radical fashion.
From the 1982 season on, the only cars eligible for top level touring car racing would be models of which at least 25,000 examples had been produced, 2500 of which were specialized versions intended for racing, while 500 Evolution examples could be made to improve the race car. Additionally, annual production of the car had to amount to at least 5000 units.
Along with the strict homologation requirements, the new regulations stipulated virtually all parts be interchangeable between the road car and its racing version. This included various specific engine and suspension parts, but most importantly forbade any aerodynamic development. Since the body had to comply to road legal standards, manufacturers and privateers alike were essentially forbidden from creating outlandish aero packages as seen in the days of Group 5.
The change to Group A came as a bit of a shock to the manufacturers active in Group 5, as they weren’t given very much time to adapt. For German luxury brand BMW, this meant they suddenly had to drop their wildly successful 320i Turbo Group 5 and revert to a mundane E28 5-Series, the 528i. The two-car BMW Italia team was very successful in the inaugural Group A European Touring Car Championship though, as the Eggenberger Motorsport-prepared cars managed to wrestle away the title from the much more powerful and faster Tom Walkinshaw Racing Jaguar XJ-S HE V12.
Although BMW had seen success with the lowly 5-Series, this had been largely attributed to classic German reliability. The 528i’s single lap pace was actually vastly inferior to the Jag’s, but the German sedan just kept on going whenever the big cat failed. BMW realized however that plain old reliability would not keep them firmly in winner’s circle.
So for the 1983 season, the company selected the venerable E24 6-Series as a replacement. The E24 had been around since 1976, but had seen relatively little action in the highest echelons of motorsport. Its main claim to fame came from a privately-prepared Group 2 variant, which took the ETCC title in 1981 with BMW Italia. The change to Group A put a stop to the car’s success however, forcing the teams running it to wait for the arduous homologation process to wrap up.
The 635 CSi promised to be well worth the wait though, as it presented big improvement over the mundane 528i. The older car had used only a 2.8L version of the M30 straight six engine, which produced a meager 240 horsepower.
In an effort to counter the 400 horsepower V12 Jaguar, the 3.5L M30B34 from the 635 CSi was taken as a starting point. Since BMW still hadn’t committed to a full factory effort, engine tuning was handled by specialists Alpina and Schrick, while final assembly fell into the very capable hands of Team Schnitzer.
The end result was 295 horsepower at 6900 rpm, which still gave the BMW a 105 horsepower deficit over the Jaguar. Luckily, Group A featured an equivalency formula based on engine displacement.
The size of the engine affected minimum weight requirements and maximum allowable tire width. With its 3.5L engine, the 635 CSi made do with 1185 kg (2612 lbs) minimum weight and 250-section tires on all four corners.
By comparison, this left the BMW with a 222 kg (489 lbs) advantage over its British rival with its massive 5.3L V12. Furthermore, the 635 CSi had the luxury of a five-speed Getrag 265/5 transmission, whereas the XJ-S had to make amends with a four-speed unit.
The weight advantage would pay dividends to BMW, as the 635 CSi could brake later, corner better, use less fuel and be easier on brakes and tires than the big Jag, This would especially be of benefit in the longer rounds of the ETCC, like the 24 Hours of Spa.
Again using its superior reliability, the 635 CSi became an immediate and very dangerous threat to the superior Jaguars. Furthermore, TWR fielded only two cars, whereas BMW could count on a veritable armada.
Along with semi-works Team Schnitzer and Eggenberger-BMW Italia, the 635 CSi was used by Hartge Motorsport, Juma, Motul, Chiazzaro, úAMK CSSR and GTM Engineering. As there were now other competitors in the top level Division 3 (over 2500cc), BMW stood a very real chance of defeating the fast but fragile Jaguars.
The tactic seemed to work, as BMW won six races to Jaguars four. The 635 CSi even managed to win on its debut with Team Schnitzer’s Dieter Quester (AUT) and Carlo Rossi (ITA) at Monza, before winning at Vallelunga with 1981 ETCC champions Helmut Kelleners (GER) and Umberto Grano (ITA) of Eggenberger Motorsport-BMW Italia. Between them these teams took five of the six wins scored by BMW, but the sixth was arguably the most special.
Sponsored by Belgian cigarette brand Bastos, Juma Racing Team fielded a BMW driven by local boy Thierry Tassin, partnered by veterans Hans Heyer (GER) and Armin Hahne (GER) in the most prestigious touring car race of all: the Spa 24 Hours. The team was a bit of an underdog, but perfect preparation and a healthy dose of luck gave them the win.
Rivals Jaguar suffered gearbox and differential failures, Schnitzer had to deal with a blown engine and a slipping clutch, leaving room for the new Rover Vitesse to fight its way to third. Meanwhile the Juma team only had to deal with a wheel coming off during the night, but were otherwise completely free of issues. This netted them a tremendously satisfying victory with 8 laps over the second-placed Team Schnitzer BMW of Dieter Quester, Manfred Winkelhock and Carlo Rossi.
By the end of the season Team Schnitzer’s Dieter Quester was crowned as European Touring Car Champion, and BMW received top honors as the winning constructor. This marked the beginning of a fantastically successful competition life for the BMW 635 CSi.
Hans Joachim Stuck and Dieter Quester finished 1-2 in the famous Guia Race of Macau, taking place on the scarily tight street circuit in one of the most densely populated area’s on the planet. It was the first Guia Race to be held under Group A regulations.
Although its was unable to defend its title against the improved Jaguar XJ-S in 1984, the 635 CSi moved on to other great things that year. In Germany a new series was launched to accommodate Group A cars after the popular Deutsche Rennsport Meisterschaft had switched to Group C prototypes following the banishment of Group 5.
This Deutsche Produktionswagen Meisterschaft was the immediate predecessor to the later Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft. Driven by Volker Strycek, the 635 CSi took the title despite failing to win a single race. Also in 1984, a 635 CSi entered by Auto Budde Team won the legendary 24 Hours of Nürburgring with Axel Felder, Franz-Josef Bröhling and Peter Oberndorfer. Helmut Kelleners and Gianfranco Brancatelli (ITA) took at the RAC Tourist Trophy at Silverstone.
The car’s initial successes proved hard to repeat in the highly competitive European racing scene, but the big shark found a new home Down Under. Over in Australia, the Confederation of Australian Motor Sport had decided to abandon its popular Group C formula, which featured spectacularly powerful high-strung touring cars.
Instead, CAMS moved to embrace the more international Group A rules to increase manufacturer interest in the Australian Touring Car Championship. The controversial switch caused an uproar from domestic fans, and caused Ford Australia to abandon the ATCC altogether. With Ford gone and Holden struggling to bring out a competitive Group A machine, a power vacuum had been created.
Local hero D|ck Johnson did his best by bringing over a Zakspeed-prepared Ford Mustang, but the team with the best cards was Frank Gardner’s JPS Team BMW. Unlike Johnson, the team had a replacement ready and waiting for Group A.
In the Group C days JPS had already been running a much more powerful version of the 635, so the changeover to the Group A machine was relatively smooth. The Group C version had never really been a serious contender against the mighty Ford Falcons, Holden Commodore’s and the nippy Mazda RX-7, but Gardner had been adamant about the models potential. While his cars were being beaten, he assured the press his day would come when Group A settled in Australia.
Frank Gardner couldn’t have been more correct. Johnson’s Mustang turned out to be a complete dog with even less power than the BMW despite its 5L V8, and Holden’s VK Commodore was years away from being a competitive platform. The only serious opposition came from Robbie Francevic’s imported Volvo 240 Turbo, which suffered from consistent reliability problems.
Under the strength of world-class drivers like Tony Longhurst, Neville Crichton (NZ) and eventual champion Jim Richards (NZ), the 635 CSi conquered the inaugural Group A ATCC with relative ease, the third time in its career that it had taken the crown on its debut. But it wouldn’t stop there. Later in the season it also wrapped up the Australian Endurance Championship.
Showing no signs of stopping, the 635 CSi’s reputation was elevated once more as it steamrolled the opposition in the New Zealand Touring Car Championship with Kent Baigent, yet another proved victorious in the Japanese Touring Car Championship with Naoki Nagasaka, again in the series’ first Group A season, and a third example took the European Hill Climb Championship with Francis Dosieres (FRA) at the wheel.
To top it all off, the big Beemer scored its second victory at the Spa 24 Hours, piloted by Roberto Ravaglia, F1-driver Marc Surer (CH) and F1-driver Gerhard Berger (AUT), while Axel Felder, Jürgen Hammelmann, Robert Walterscheid-Müller took the car’s second 24 Hour Nüburgring win, and Jim Richards/Tony Longhurst powered to a top step finish at the prestigious Castrol 500 at Sandown in Australia, and also took the AMSCAR title at Amaroo Park.
The following season saw a long-awaited update to the 635 CSi, in spite of the fact BMW simply refused to produce an Evolution version. Power was bumped up from 295 to 310 horsepower with the use of more aggressive camshafts, the chassis was strengthened and 16 inch BBS wheels gave room for bigger brakes.
The additions made the car perfect for the highly competitive European circuit. Against an armada of works cars from Ford (Sierra XR4Ti), Volvo (240T), Rover (Vitesse) and even Holden (VK Commodore), Team Schnitzer managed to replicate the successes enjoyed at the start of the Group A era by taking the 1986 title with touring car legend Roberto Ravaglia (ITA). In the process, the car won the Spa 24 Hours for the third time with Dieter Quester, Altfrid Heger (GER) and Thierry Tassin.
Although the changes to the car had made it a winner again in Europe, it took away its competitive edge over in Australia. Contrary to the ETCC, the ATCC didn’t feature rolling starts. Sadly, the aggressively cammed, high-revving 635 CSi was almost impossible to get off the line properly. As a result Jim Richard’s title defense was unsuccessful, leaving room for Robbie Francevic’s Volvo 240T.
By 1987, the old 635 CSi was clearly on its last legs, but it wasn’t done winning titles. Glenn McIntyre used his BMW to great effect in the 1987 NZTCC, and recorded the 635 CSi’s last ever national touring car title. With his win, McIntyre brought the car’s amazing career to a shining end.
By now it had become clear why BMW had declined to build an Evolution of the tired design, as a much smaller, nimbler and even faster machine was already waiting in the wings. This little car saw its debut in 1987, and would grow to overshadow its much bigger forebear despite its frankly inconceivably good record. That car was of course the now infamous E30 M3.
The BMW 635 CSi Group A kicked off BMW’s involvement in the brand new category in earnest. The company had desperately put together a kit for its 528i to avoid missing a season, and lucked out when the Jaguars kept being impeccably British Leyland.
Reliability wouldn’t keep them winning for long however, so BMW set its sights on the 1981 ETCC winner, the gigantic 635 CSi coupe. Together with specialists Schnitzer, Shrick and Alpina, BMW concocted a truly world-beating combination of parts.
Despite lacking power in comparison to its opponents, the big Beemer’s sheer tenacity, bulletproof reliability and lovely handling gave it the ability to conquer virtually every inaugural Group A season on the planet. With total race wins in the dozens and 12 major national and international titles, the BMW 635 CSi is one of the single most successful Group A touring cars of all time.