Black Beauty: The Australian 'JPS' BMW 635 CSi
During the 1980s the world-famous black and gold colours of John Player Special joined forces with BMW Australia and its six cylinder 635 CSi coupe to create their own brand of international sophistication and excitement.
BMW’s presence in the simmering political cauldron of Australian touring car racing was never far from controversy. As you’ll discover, these ranged from accusations of blatant rule manipulation by race organisers in favour of the German marque to an ugly bust-up between former team-mates to suspicions of sabotage at Bathurst!
For all its European glitz and glamour, though, JPS-Team BMW was just as home-grown and authentically Australian as any of the local teams it competed against. And more than a match for the best Europe had to offer.
Under highly experienced team boss and race driver Frank Gardner, the local cars were built from scratch in a workshop located in Sydney’s northern suburbs, using the best components and engineering resources available locally and overseas.
The absence of a single outright victory during the JPS BMW 635’s four years of competition from 1981 to 1984 was more a reflection of the car’s unsuitability to Australia’s unique Group C touring car rules than any lack of expertise or commitment by the team.
This was spelt out emphatically in 1985 when Australia switched to the internationally recognised Group A regulations. With the brilliant Kiwi Jim Richards at the helm, the JPS BMW 635 CSi blitzed the Australian Touring Car Championship and Australian Endurance Championship with a degree of dominance that will never be forgotten.
The Group C era
The BMW 635CSi created immediate unrest before its debut in 1981 when organisers of Amaroo Park’s popular 3.0 litre touring car series (which had been run each year since 1975) announced that for 1981 the series’ engine capacity limit was to be increased from 3.0 to 3.5 litres.
At about the same time, the announcement came that the Craven Mild Racing Team under Frank Gardner’s management would be entering a factory-backed BMW in the series for Allan Grice to drive.
The new beast from Bavaria would not be competing in the familiar Craven Mild cigarette livery, though. The team was switching to the gorgeous black and gold colours of another WD &HO Wills cigarette brand, John Player Special or JPS, made world famous by its sponsorship of the Lotus F1 team.
While it was great to see another manufacturer entering the series, all hell broke loose when it was announced that the car BMW planned to race was none other than the five-speed, fuel-injected 3.5 litre 635 CSi coupe!
The howls of protest from the 3.0 litre brigade could be heard far and wide. There were unsubstantiated screams of a conspiracy between the new JPS-Team BMW and series organiser, the Australian Racing Drivers Club, of blatantly manipulating the rules just to get a new manufacturer into the sport.
The protesters’ fears about the German car’s potential also proved to be well founded, as the SOHC two-valve-per-cylinder inline six cylinder-powered Beemer looked comfortably quicker than its rivals on its way to comfortable wins in two of the four rounds.
To many observers it looked like Grice had plenty in reserve on those occasions but was keeping the racing close for the benefit of spectators and TV viewers.
As it turned out, Grice didn’t win the series due to niggling mechanical failures in the other two rounds, but the black and gold coupe’s menacing potential to chase bigger scalps was obvious.
This perception was enhanced by the car’s impressive performances in the long distance races, where Grice scored several top five outright finishes in the 1981 Endurance Championship.
He was also on track for another class win and top-five finish at the Bathurst 1000 until a brake pad problem caused a rear wheel to lock at the end of Conrod Straight, forcing Grice to spin off into an enormous sand trap where the car remained buried up to its door sills for several laps.
The second season for the JPS-Team BMW started with an acrimonious split between Frank Gardner and Allan Grice, with Gardner taking over the reins of the team exclusively with backing from BMW and major sponsor WD & HO Wills.
Part of the team’s restructure included finding a replacement for Grice, which Gardner found in Kiwi star Jim Richards. This appointment would pay great dividends for the black and gold squad, particularly when Australia moved to international Group A rules several years later.
Gardner said he chose Richards because he needed more than just a fast and experienced driver.
He also needed a committed team player who would continue to give his all in a car which had no realistic chance of winning a touring car race outright under the 1982 rules.
Although the black and gold BMW looked identical to the previous year, the sport’s governing body CAMS had increased the 635’s racing weight by a crippling 140 kgs as it introduced minimum weight limits across the board for all cars based on their road-going production weights inclusive off all luxury equipment.
This hardly seemed fair or logical given that the German coupe ended up lugging around a similar weight to that of the V8 Commodores at the time, yet only produced around 320 bhp from its 3.5 litre inline six compared to around 400 bhp from the top Holden and Ford V8 contenders.
Due to months of pending legal action following the ugly split between Gardner and Grice, the JPS BMW team was sidelined for the first half of the season anyway. Grice eventually dropped his case against the German manufacturer mid-year, after deciding he could not fund the legal challenge required to successfully topple such a corporate giant.
With the potential court case behind them, Richards finally got to buckle himself into the team’s original 635 at the final round of the ATCC at Surfers Paradise, where he finished fourth.
And in a brand new 635 coupe finished just in time for the annual long distance Australian Endurance Championship races, Richards teamed with UK-born international David Hobbs (who drove with Grice the previous year) to finish fifth outright at Bathurst.
A sobering statistic from that otherwise excellent top-five result was that despite having a trouble-free run in the new car, the JPS BMW finished a crushing six laps behind the winning HDT Brock/Perkins V8 Commodore SS. So if BMW was going to genuinely challenge for an outright victory at Bathurst, the solution was simple – they needed more grunt.
CAMS looked to even out the performance of the various marques (Ford, Holden, BMW, Mazda, Nissan, Chevrolet, Jaguar) competing for outright honours at Bathurst and the traditional end-of-year endurance racing season by inviting teams and manufacturers to submit requests for mid-season performance upgrades.
Being short on engine power, JPS-Team BMW set its sights on homologating the four-valve-per-cylinder DOHC cylinder head shared with the marque’s exotic mid-engined M1 sports car which had the potential to achieve close to 400 bhp in Group C specification.
If approved, this would finally put the black and gold Beemer on close to equal terms with the V8 Commodores in both power and weight, as the crippling minimum weights imposed at the beginning of the 1982 season had been progressively lowered based on weight reductions in the road cars.
JPS-Team BMW again waited out the 1983 ATCC on the sidelines, knowing they were on a hiding to nothing without the more powerful 24-valve engine. After much lobbying and political play, the new cylinder head was approved in time for the endurance racing season, along with the latest fully adjustable suspension components and single centre-lock wheel nuts direct from BMW’s European Group A touring car program.
After a close-fought second place at the Sandown 400, which Richards actually led for a while, all of a sudden the sinister black BMW (being co-driven this year by team boss Frank Gardner) was being described as a ‘dark horse’ for the Bathurst 1000, with for the first time, a genuine chance of outright victory against the V8 Commodores and Falcons.
The bookies odds shortened further in the days leading up to the 1983 Great Race, with Richards easily making the Hardie’s Heroes Top 10 qualifying shoot-out to nail fourth spot on the grid. He was also clocked on radar at more than 160 mph (256 km/h) on Conrod Straight - a speed matched only by the two Commodores and turbocharged Nissan Bluebird that qualified ahead of him.
Richards and Gardner knew they could win the race. It was the JPS 635’s time to shine. The car was fast and beautifully balanced with a full tank of fuel on board.
It would also do more laps than the thirstier V8s and turbos between pit stops, which given a trouble-free run would add up to a winning advantage.
However, the BMW dream was shattered on the first lap of the race when Richards, running comfortably in third place, detected a misfire in the 24-valve engine. Within moments the engine was running on only three cylinders with barely enough power to limp back to the pits.
As team boss Frank Gardner and his JPS mechanics pounced on the stricken car, the cause of the crippling engine problem was soon traced to a fuel tank awash with a choking mix of fine sand and metal filings that had been sucked through the car’s entire fuel injection system.
After attempting a hasty clean-out to get Jim back in the race, the problem returned after only a handful of laps, leaving Gardner no choice but to withdraw the car.
To this day, there are those unwavering in their belief that the menacing black coupe was deliberately sabotaged by someone with malicious intent, even though no evidence has ever emerged of this taking place. How the fuel tank became contaminated will remain a Bathurst mystery.
The JPS BMW 635CSi would never again reach the same heights of competitiveness in Group C as it did in the build-up to Bathurst in 1983, because the switch to the more powerful 24-valve DOHC engine brought with it a chronic handling imbalance.
The problem was not identified at Sandown and Bathurst in 1983 due to their expansive layouts, but on most other tighter tracks around Australia the front tyres would quickly overheat and lose grip.
The problem was traced to the inherent nose-heavy design of the 635. With the bulk of its long and relatively tall inline six cylinder engine mounted directly above the front axle line, the greatly increased speeds and higher g forces created by the more powerful 24-valve engine also increased its ‘levering’ effect under acceleration, braking and cornering forces.
This was made even worse by the increased weight of the 24-valve DOHC cylinder head, which not only added to the car’s nose-heavy attitude but also raised its already high centre of gravity and polar moment of inertia. The end result was that the front tyres were put under much greater weight transfer stresses than ever before and simply could not cope.
A drop in ride height would have helped but the car could not be lowered any further under the rules, so JPS-Team BMW was stuck with the problem as it battled through the last ATCC held before Australia switched to the new international Group A rules in 1985. The JPS 635 CSi’s greatest days were just around the corner.
The Group A era
It all came together for BMW in the first year of Australian touring car racing under Group A. Jim Richards and his beautiful new 635 CSi pretty much wiped the board, winning seven of the 10 ATCC rounds and four of the five Australian Endurance Championship rounds. The only disappointment was again missing out on a Bathurst 1000 win which was there for the taking.
Such a remarkable burst of success after so many years of struggle against the Commodores, Falcons, Mazdas and Nissans in Group C resulted from a combination of peerless preparation and new Group A rules that appeared to be almost tailor-made for the German coupe.
Group A’s index of performance was designed to allow as many different makes and models of car to compete on a level playing field, using a sliding scale that matched a car’s cubic engine capacity (cc) with a maximum fuel tank size (litres), tyre width (inches) and minimum weight (kgs).
The 635 CSi’s 3.5 litre fuel-injected six cylinder engine was now producing about 300bhp with a return to the lighter and lower SOHC two-valve cylinder head.
Combined with an athletic 1185 kg minimum weight, 11-inch wide tyres and a lower ride height to drop the car’s centre of gravity, it was pretty much the ideal combination for the new class given the hefty weight increases and reductions in engine power experienced by the Commodore V8 runners.
JPS-Team BMW also had direct access to an expansive inventory of homologated Group A racing components from BMW Motorsport in Germany, which since 1982 had been campaigning the 635 CSi in European Group A.
These goodies included a vast choice of gear sets and diff ratios plus engine, drivetrain and suspension components specially developed to withstand the punishment of long distance racing including the prestigious Spa 24-Hour race in Belgium.
Gone were the huge spoilers, wheel arch flares and fire-breathing V8s of the Group C era, replaced by cars that appeared much closer to stock standard under Group A.
Removal of these fiberglass body appendages revealed the beautiful lines and flowing symmetry of the standard 635 CSi coupe, looking resplendent in its elegant black and gold JPS paintwork.
The Sydney-based JPS squad hit the ground running at Bathurst in 1985, having fielded a brand new 635 CSi in full Group A specification at Bathurst the previous year for internationals Denny Hulme and Prince Leopold Von Bayern.
Richards and team-mate Tony Longhurst certainly looked the goods in qualifying, with the Australian prepared car out-pacing their closest rival - another 635 CSi prepared by gun European BMW factory team Schnitzer for European stars Roberto Ravaglia and Johnny Cecotto – by more than 1.5 seconds!
Richards and Longhurst also had superior fuel economy compared to their faster but thirstier Jaguar V12 and turbocharged Volvo competition. By one third distance they were leading the race and right on track for victory until oil spilled from another car at Hell Corner put Richards off the road and buried up to his door sills in a sand trap.
It was the same oil spill and sand trap that snared the second JPS BMW entry of George Fury and Neville Crichton only moments later!
Richards/Longhurst recovered to finish a fighting fourth but the sight of those two black and gold Beemers stuck in the sand for four agonising laps, as victory slipped from their grasp, is an image that will haunt BMW executives forever.
The second and last Group A season for Jim Richards and the brilliant black and gold 635 CSi was in stark contrast to 1985. In fact, in some way it felt like a return to the character-building days of the Group C program.
The rapid pace of development in the category saw the emergence of new factory teams from Nissan and Volvo, with both makes powered by turbocharged engines; new age technology that would soon overwhelm the category and within two years make all non-turbo engines virtually obsolete.
With BMW’s future firmly focused on development of its new Group A weapon – the amazing four cylinder ‘pocket rocket’ M3 – the 635 CSi now found itself struggling against the strength of its new competition in 1986.
Through brilliant driving and a string of high placings, Richards still finished an excellent third overall in the ATCC and won the final driver’s title held for the final Australian Endurance Championship.
In 1987 the flying Kiwi would move to the new JPS BMW M3, but that’s another story. The fabulous era of its predecessor, the JPS BMW 635 CSi coupe, had come to an end but the spine-tingling howl of its inline six and the mirror glass finish of its black and gold livery will never be forgotten.