Back to the DTM origins in a BMW 635CSi

Back to the DTM origins in a BMW 635CSi

For BMW, the end of the 70s was marked by incredible progress in all motorsport areas. Bruno Giacomelli and Marc Surer won Formula 2 titles in March-BMW cars belonging to the Bavarian constructor’s Polifac Junior Team (1978, 1979). In 1978, BMW launched the road version of the M1 supercar, announcing the Procar championship that thrilled the fans at the F1 European rounds in 1979 and 1980. The Bavarian giant was aiming even higher and went into Formula 1 with Brabham in 1982, claiming the title in the exceptional BT52 car designed by Gordon Murray for the 1983 season. Behind the official factory efforts, a passionate group of privateers brought the 635CSi model into the new DTM series. As costs were rocketing in the DRM (leading to the switch to Group C regulations in 1982 and ultimately to the extinction of the series), DTM was an affordable option, providing tight and exciting racing right from the start, in compliance with Group A regulations.

Choosing a production car made the 635CSi an obvious choice for the privateers, even though some drivers opted for the 323i or even 528i. The first race in March 1984 at Zolder, had a 24-car grid with 11 BMWs (out of which seven were E24s) and a plethora of other models, such as Opel Manta, VW Golf GTI, Alfa Romeo GTV6, Rover Vitesse, Ford Capri or Audi 80. Such a wide range of vehicles made for exciting races and audacious attempts to improve performance. The “garagistes” were fading in Formula 1, but DTM was a new playground for improvisation during those early years. The series gathered a large audience and gained popularityas teams that chose a BMW quickly found themselves at the top.

60844_4591999730089_1588854788_n

During the 15-races season (12 meetings, 3 double headers), Volker Strycek’s consistency in the 635CSi run by Team Gubin paid off, as he became the first DTM champion, even though he didn’t manage to win a race. There were still plenty of stage triumphs for the BMW 6-series, as Harald Grohs won 4 races and could have even clinched the title. Grohs was stripped of the win in Jim Clark Memorial at Hockenheim, the ITR beginning a habit of not giving the win to the second placed driver (as seen last year in Norisring as well). Kurt Konig, Udo Schneider and Prince Leopold of Bavaria brought three more 635CSi models in the top 10 at the end of the season, proving that the E24 was the class of the field in ’84.

1505104_10202645119280856_1786706499_n

In a nostalgic bridge over time, I had my first run in the 635CSi driven by Prince Leopold at the Austrian DTM round in Spielberg, where BMW scored a sensational 1-2-3-4, for the third time in their DTM history. The other two were a symmetrical matter, the first and the last page of BMW’s Chapter 1 in the DTM (1984-1992). The first race in DTM history saw a fleet of 635CSi models dominating the field in Zolder, driven by Grohs, Schneider, Strycek and Prince Leopold. 30 years later, Prince Leopold still hustles the old beast around the tracks of the modern DTM, showing other people around in a glimpse of the good old days.

His Royal Highness still has fond memories of those years, when the privateers ran free, before the factories saw the DTM as a wonderful oppportunity to market themselves and confront their egos. There was a time when rivalry ended the moment you took off your helmet. You had fun with the other drivers between the sessions and there was still room for more fun, on your own, at the wheel of the streamlined coupes. The audience related to the cars, as they bared resemblance to the ones they could buy from their local dealer. It was always fun to go a race and visually examine the parking lot for those who tried to replicate the vintage racing liveries on their day-to-day cars.

The E24 was much larger than the E9, sharing the platform of the 5-series (E12, then E28). Visually, it showed continuity with the previous BMW sport coupes, as Paul Bracq’s in-house design was preferred, instead of the design proposal of Giorgetto Giugiaro.  A remarkable feature of the design can be traced when you compare the last models that were produced in 1989 and the first ones from 1976: there were practically no changes to the exterior styling, proving that Bracq had drawn an inspired, streamlined car that stood the test of time.

ravaglia zolder 1985

The handling of the street car was a mixed affair: steering was precise, but the weight distribution was quite biased towards the front (57/43). This issue was an area that needed fixing when it came to racing the E24. In 1978, BMW responded to the progress made by the Mercedes 500SLC, launching the new 635CSi with a 6-cylinder 3,453cc engine. Later on, there were further improvements in terms of gearbox, anti-lock brakes and overall performance, as Alan Henry of Motorsport Magazine stated when testing the car in 1982:

The latest model has excellent braking. The ABS instils confidence, especially in the rain. A suspension redesign has reduced the tendency for sudden transition to oversteer, and in the dry we found the 635CSi reasonably forgiving. Hurrying through country lanes, the 635 doesn’t feel particularly big, the ZF power steering sustaining a pleasant amount of feel. The six-cylinder engine is an absolute joy. Particularly noteworthy is the way it covers the ground between 80 and 110 mph, in third and fourth gears. It goes without saying that paint finish and trim levels are of a very high order.

In 1983, there was a new addition to the higher end of the E24 range: the M635CSi, featuring a 286hp engine from the M1. The famous Paul Frère spoke in very high terms about this model:

It’s fast, civilized and the engine is beautifully smooth. And the car feels quite stable at high speeds. It is an excellent high-speed touring car and I very much like the prompt responsiveness of the normally aspirated engine. In addition, the ride characteristics are not at all harsh, while the handling is the best of all the BMWs we had here for this test.

On the racetrack, the 3.0CSL was still competitive until the end of the 70s. Its replacement, the E24, started to run in 1980 and became the class of the European Touring Car Championship one year later, when Kelleners and Grano tied in the lead of the standings with a pair of 360hp E24s. There were two more crowns in the ETC for Quester (1983) and Ravaglia (1986) and two straight wins at the Nordschleife 24h in 1984 and 1985, in the hands of Axel Feder. During the early 80s, the 635CSi’s outings on track were a major image boost for the Bavarian manufacturer. There were two special 635CSi Art Cars, painted by Robert Rauschenberg and Ernst Fuchs.

I spent my college years wandering around in my first car, an E28. Shark-shaped bonnet, chrome finishing, BBS rims, excellent handling and stability – it was love at first sight. I was hanging out with the oldtimers club, getting a closer look to the E12, E21 and E30, before buying a second E28. There was a sublime continuity in design and a familiarity whenever you looked at the dashboard of those BMWs, with the central console oriented towards the driver, as if you were controlling a plane. There was no way back for a 20-year old, and generalization quickly took over me: THAT was the way a car should look, feel and handle. The only missing piece of the 70s and 80s puzzle was the coupe superstar, still confined to the walls as a poster: the E24.

As there are just a few E24 models in Romania, I never had the chance of driving it. It became a latent aspiration to own such a car, to dedicate all the time and money it might require in a full restoration project. It was somehow appropriate to step into the 635CSi for the first time on a racetrack, not in a parking lot of a dealership. I first saw the BMW Classic shiny pair (E24 and E30) at the Hungaroring. The two most poignant things were the baritone sounds and the twitchy back-end when flooring the throttle at the exit of turn 3. Prince Leopold later told me that he’s never pushing more than 75% with a passenger alongside, but as I watched the streamlined coupe going past, it sure seemed a lot closer to the limits.

20140803_151634

My second visit at a DTM round this year was in Spielberg. The moment I entered the paddock on Friday morning, the E24 was already there, smiling at me. Still in the shadows, the 635CSi had another two days to wait passively and silently. Thousands of people stopped by, taking photos of the legendary vehicle. But this was no rolling chassis in a museum, it was ready to roar on Sunday in the hands of BMW brand ambassador Prince Leopold of Bavaria. Waiting for my turn seemed endless, as the 6-series tackled the Styrian hills with great aplomb. Finally, I was the last to step in it, for three intense minutes.

There was a certain time, watching F1, when I found the new Austrian track quite dull, always in the shade of the old Osterreichring. Prince Leopold wiped away those convictions in an instant, showing me the personality of each corner while hustling a racecar with no power steering. The straights gave my brain an opportunity to immense myself in the sound, as tones changed dramatically with every gear change. Suddenly, there was no more time to analyse sounds whenever we were approaching the 100m marks and 70kg of force were pressing the brake pedal. The exhaust was really hot, creating a certain rough atmosphere that I particularly enjoyed, like a recreation of an historic scene. As the hot pipe was down in the middle, I had to move my legs closer to the door. That was a conscious and controllable movement, one that my head and neck could only dream of during the fast corners of the Ring. I just let my body loose, like a leaf in the wind of all the G-forces, keeping my brain busy recording every single instant of the run.

It was all over really soon, and I felt some comfort when shaking hands with the Prince: he had a certain joy in his eyes. It was great for me to see that I wasn’t only at the receiving end of such great emotions. There’s no particular pleasure in driving a taxi, but the 635CSi is no ordinary Taxi and you could sense the thrill of driving it. Speaking about Denny Hulme and many other drivers, it has been said that racing was their way of expressing feelings. For the first time, I witnessed such an expression on a circuit, as the E24 seemed a rejuvenation potion for the Prince, a quantum leap towards 1984. Later that day, our paths crossed and he asked me, with a large smile:

Did you notice when we went on two wheels in turn 1?

There was definitely more than 75% in that run and I couldn’t be more grateful for such a realistic insight of what racing was like in 1984. When we were approaching turn 1, I had my only runaway thought during those 3 minutes: how awesome would it be to have some 20 BMW 635CSi on the grid, in a revival series? It was a real shame to see one sole event of the Procar revival back in 2008, and I can’t imagine a better way of celebrating 30 years of DTM than a re-run of the first race, with all that diversity on the grid and the 635CSi as emperor.

Seeing how hard the E24 can still tackle any strip of asphalt and knowing that back in the day there was a small gap between the road version and the track-prepared car, I can only speed up my future projection of one day owning a 635CSi. And who could stop me from replicating the X-ray Original Teile livery, to match my first run in the 6-series, on the flowing, hilly scenery in Austria?