Before The Mighty M3, BMW Found Touring Car Success With The Stately 6er
Photography by Will Broadhead
Oh the 1980s, the era that taste forgot, with its catalog of design errors and fashion faux pas. Thankfully in the decade that gifted us stirrup pants, glass blocks for building materials, and black and gold accents on seemingly everything, the FIA was around to bestow upon us a new racing category that would capture the public’s imagination and give a certain German manufacturer the opportunity to continue racing its CS coupes to success. Enter stage left: Group A touring cars and BMW’s 635 CSi.
The Group A class was introduced by the FIA in 1982 and was similar to the rules that governed both the British and European Touring Car Championships of the time. A minimum production of 5,000 cars per year was required to campaign a racing version, as was a back seat. Modifications to engines, brakes, and transmissions were within the rulebooks, but unlike the wild silhouette cars of the decade prior, these looked very much like the cars you could buy on Monday. The class suited the E30 and E24 BMW’s perfectly, and provided an opportunity for the Bavarians be successful once again after Porsche had begun to trump the last of the CSLs with their turbocharged wares.
The car in front of you today started its life as a BMW 630 road car, but after being delivered new to Sweden in 1983 it was converted into a 635 Group A-spec machine. The big coupe went to the BMW works team at the Schnitzer tuning house, who prepared the factory’s racers with Alpina-modified 3.5L straight-six motors, as well as chassis, gearbox, and suspension work that was allowed within the rules (in terms of transmission and brakes, this meant anything went, as modifications were all but completely open). The team at Schnitzer were of course no strangers to BMWs, having extensively prepared racing cars from and for the marque since the late 1960s, and the 635s would give them and BMW success in the European Touring Car Championship in 1983 and ’86.
This particular car, after an initial engine install from Schnitzer, would then gain BMW Motorsport parts, including upgrades to axles and transmission components, and would later benefit from an engine rebuild at Alpina as well—in other words, it’s been breathed on by all the big names. It is a great example of the Group A rules in action; regulations that were designed to allow fans to see cars competing that they could reasonably conceive of owning for themselves, while offering racers the chance to drive in a competitive, top-level class without the costs and complications attendant to Group B and Group C racing.
This car had its fair share of track time. Campaigned extensively from 1983 to 1988, mostly by the original owner, Tuisku Urpiala, the 6er was regularly on the podium in the Finnish Touring Car Championship. Indeed in the 1986 campaign, Tuisku finished 3rd in the championship overall and would himself finish up his motorsport career in 2013, at the respectable age of 74 years old—an impressive racing résumé by anyone’s standards! Unfortunately, this car’s career did not have the same longevity, and competed in its last race in 1988, after a comparatively short but successful life on track. Supplanted by the E30 M3 in touring car championships around the world, the end of the E24’s competitive streak all but coincided with the end of the road-going version’s production.
The E24 was a fabulous road car in its own right of course, but in race trim it is truly something to behold. Carrying over the same handsomely elongated lines, the classic angular grille, and those square flanks—but with all of the fat jettisoned—it reminds one of a heavyweight prizefighter: big, but with a level of agility that belies its size. Particularly with the Alpina-honed straight-six, pulling that trimmed-down frame along with somewhere around 300bhp, driving reports of the time state that it was a beautifully balanced car, if a little heavy on the tiller.
There was no true successor to the E24 until 2004 saw the release of the E63 6-Series, and although the release of the 8-Series coincided with the end of the first 6er’s production and embodied many of the same principles, in reality it is a separate model line.
We’re not here to harp of luxobarges though, so let’s get back to the car at hand. She would sit dormant after the end of the 1988 season before being sold to a new owner in Sweden. But save for a brief track day—somewhat fittingly in 2004 when the second-gen 6-Series was released—it remained unused and in darkness, a sad retirement for a car that had enjoyed such a competitive life.
Thankfully the popularity of cars from this era and heritage race series to use them in has exploded in the last decade, and this car is now ready to race again once the right owner can be found (and with the attachment of the air box, which the eagle-eyed amongst you must have noticed is missing in the photographs). I say thank goodness that these historic series exist, for this car is the perfect candidate for vintage racing: new enough to be truly fast, yet old enough to not require a doctorate in engineering and computer science to get it started up. I look forward to seeing this car strutting its stuff on race tracks again soon, in amongst the Jaguars and Fords and Volvos and other Bimmers it would have boxed with in its heyday, for as nice as it is to pour over its details in a workshop, it is a sanitary setting that merely acts as a cage for cars like this one, as though one were examining an animal in a zoo. This one deserves some space to run.