Final Edition could signal the end of Merc’s smallest drop-top
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That looks utterly tremendous! Correct. My only disappointments are that I’m not at Spa, I’m not dicing for the lead and, very disappointingly, I’m not nearly as hirsute as I can only imagine a man who goes by the name of Georges Bosshard must have been. But at humble Blyton Park, dicing with little but my own confidence, I’m living the dream. So come on, what is it, what’s this car’s history? Back in the early 80s BMW was just beginning its dominance of touring car racing. Despite Jaguar having snuck the V12 XJ-S through ETCC (European Touring Car Championship) homologation regulations in 1982, it had been the comparatively under-powered 528 saloon that had walked away with the championship. The year after, BMW wasn’t taking any risks. In came this, the E24 635 CSI. Although a BMW project, Alpina helped with development of the 3.5-litre straight six engine, and it was built by Schnitzer Motorsport.
This particular car was bought and campaigned by an Italian racer, Giuseppe Briozzo. Post-ETCC it had a life of hillclimb and sprints before being bought from Italy a couple of years ago and undergoing a full restoration by classic racing specialists Geoff Steel Motorsport (who are now selling it on behalf of a client). This included tracking down the design of the original livery. Right down to the Penthouse branding on its rump. Is it rapid? By modern standards, it’s not ultra-fast. That said, with over 300bhp now, it develops more power than it did back in the day, and is faster around Donnington, too. It did 1m22.03s back in 1983, while since its restoration it’s done a 1m19.1s. But that is of no consequence whatsoever, because the experience of driving it is so magical. Initially it feels like a warhorse – muscular and heavy, precision and calmness needed to manage the five-speed dog-leg manual gearbox. But when you get on top of it, get a sense of its foibles and idiosyncracies, you realise just how beautifully balanced it is. There’s tremendous grip from the slicks, and so much from the fronts that the rears will eventually start to edge wide, but they do it so progressively and accurately that you drive the car with surprisingly small, neat inputs. Best keep your elbows out though, because the steering is heavy. I thought it would be an oversteer monster… I assumed so as well, but instead the Group A 635 CSI is a tightly controlled, stiff and stable racer. There’s plenty of steering heft to deal with, but the inputs needed are small and there’s so much information being fed back from other sources as well. The whole frame of the car feels alive and communicative, and the way the diff works is wonderful. There’s no push understeer, it’s not that tight, but under load you feel the torque being fed to either side, the car’s trajectory altering slightly as a result. It’s a delightful sensation. And it sounds utterly brilliant, that straight-six rasping all too quickly through each of the close-ratio gears. It’s redlined at 6,100rpm. You’re up there way sooner than you expect, time called just as the engine seems to be getting into its stride. The throttle’s terrifically sharp, the superb gearlever has a positive shift that’s much less cantankerous than I anticipated, but you do have to get used to the unservoed brakes and the immediate clutch bite to avoid hiccups off the line. I did a couple of sessions in it. After the first I thought it was cracking. After the second I felt like I was doing the 500 in it, I got into a real groove – it’s an indulgent, all-consuming experience. You said it’s for sale? For £375,000. It’s a lot of money, but for those who consider a track day supercar such as the McLaren Senna a fun thing for some circuit work, I reckon they might well have more pure enjoyment in this. Why? Because when the speeds aren’t too dizzying you get to concentrate more on the sensations rather than the next braking point. It’s a more lively and life-affirming car than any modern racer. Be fun on a track day… It would. But then imagine what it would be like surrounded by a gaggle of others at a historic race series? How cool would that be? And that’s what this is eligible for: proper racing, against Ford Capris, Rover Vitesses and the like. Awesome stuff.