Over the coming weeks and months you’ll notice a slight change in the way we present the Speedhunters Garage to you.
Understandably, this remains one of our most popular topics. Because as much as we love watching nutty Swedish fabricators cram twin-turbo V10s into Volvos, it’s just as entertaining to see our own struggles with basic tuning and maintenance. Real people, real problems. That vibe.
So rather than focus on individual cars – which often lay dormant for months while parts, money and life all get in the way – we’re going to shift the focus more towards each individual’s ‘garage’ as a whole instead.
That doesn’t mean it needs to be centered around something exotic or super rare. It can be the daily hack, the partner’s car you’ve borrowed because yours is broken (true story), or the hire car that BMW have stuck you in because your M-car needs more warranty work (also true). That last one sounds a bit niche, but for some of you it’ll ring eerily true.
We want to give you readers a more regular insight into the automotive catastrophes we call projects, because rarely do these things ever follow a linear line of progress. Unless you’re terrifyingly methodical like Paddy, but I fear he’s the exception to the rule around here.
That also means making you a part of the discussion, too. We all know someone buried in a lockdown-based project with no visible finish line, so why not share their experience on a global platform? Like Brandon’s incredible Z31 project here.
To kick-off this new way of thinking, I’ve nominated myself for the simple reason my past Speedhunters Garage updates seem to contradict everything being listed above. Owning an R34 GT-R and a road-legal Ferrari race car isn’t very man of the people, is it? However, further digging into this silly obsession of mine isn’t going to help that stereotype.
That’s because, like many of you, I have a terrible habit of embarking on weird, broken or downright ambitious projects with no real plan of how to make ‘em right. Buy now, figure out later. Words nobody should live by yet words I may as well tattoo on my forearm as a reminder while hovering over ‘Make Offer’ on eBay.
I don’t think Speedhunters has the bandwidth to cover that kind of discussion, so let’s move swiftly onto my actual garage update. Consider this a snapshot from the past 12 months seeing as March 2020 seems to have lasted more than a year already.
In an industry where garage culture can be exploited or used as a means of flexing wealth, I still view it as being something really quite personal. The car (or cars) you own provide a snapshot of you as an individual. There’s a reason why you bought it. A reason why it’s now broken. And a reason why it’s being completely revamped. We’re all guilty of being quite critical over certain cars or tuning styles, but they’re still someone’s pride and joy.
On the flip-side of that, I do love nothing more than telling a good story. And if there’s one thing this weird mix of cars has, it’s a whole load of stories. Both good and bad.
Back in March 2020 I had an E61 BMW M5 Touring, something I’d owned for many years and swore I’d never sell. True to my word, I didn’t. But what I hadn’t factored in was it spontaneously combusting shortly after lockdown kicked in.
The fire service handled it brilliantly, right up until a man driving a Toyota RAV4 drove over their water hose ripping his rear bumper off. Have a look at the picture above and you can just about see where it all went wrong.
What caused it? Impatience from his side, but for the M5 it turned out to be a split power steering hose. Flammable fluid and a heat source don’t mix well, and on the E60/E61 M5 the rubber steering hose is located right under the exhaust manifold.
An independent report found the hose had failed from the inside out, yet a follow-up email from BMW Customer Service declared it a general wear and tear item. I’d always thought wear and tear meant an angry wheel bearing or wobbly track rod, but every day’s a school day when liability is involved.
A week prior to this Bavarian BBQ, I’d decided a road-legal Ferrari 360 Challenge race car would be a sensible thing to finance. Right before a global pandemic kicked in. You can read a bit more on this backwards train of thought over here.
Fast-forward a few months and a Brabus W126 560SEL popped up on eBay. It’d been sat in a barn for 15 years, was listed as a Cat-C (which means it’d been crashed and repaired), didn’t start and had rust on every panel. It’d also been seized and auctioned off after its previous owner’s company went into liquidation. And that’s ignoring the fact the speedo reads 462,000km.
That’s a whole orchestra of alarm bells, all of which seemed to be ringing at a frequency I couldn’t quite make out. Because it appeared far too interesting and cheap not to take a punt on.
If I’m being honest, it’s a complete financial catastrophe already. One day it’ll be golden, but I fear by then petrol will be a commodity traded only on the dark web.
A little yin to that yang, I did actually sell a car this year too. An annoyingly good one at that. For the past eight years I’ve had a 99-spec Mazda RX-7 Type RS, and over that time it even made the odd appearance on Speedhunters.
It’d been faultless for nearly 20,000 miles, up until a dodgy engine refresh in 2017 led to years of finger-pointing and excuses. Tuner #1 rebuilt the engine, and unbeknown to anyone had plumbed the wastegate incorrectly. Engine run in, tuner #2 proceeded to do a full-bore power run on their dyno thus discovering a (lack of) boost control. Boost goes in, apex seals come out.
That’s a story probably best left off the internet, but it did teach me the importance of using one company to handle everything where possible. In this instance, Stu and Jaydee at Rotor Torque came to the rescue. After sourcing and porting a new 13B motor from Mazda, the RX-7 was mechanically the best it’d ever been. Which ironically made it the perfect time to sell.
Bit of a waste, then? Kind of. But after three years of setbacks and expense I’d fallen out of love with it. While I’d had many great journeys before that, it felt like now was the time for someone else to enjoy the car, safe in the knowledge it wouldn’t shat itself 30 miles down the road.
This did lead to one of the most stressful situations imaginable, the post-sale eBay search. Back home, discussion had turned to bathroom improvements which, much like the 560SEL advert, seemed to be discussed at a frequency I couldn’t quite hear. So, five days later, a DR30 Skyline turned up at the house.
Early ’80s RS-Turbo Skylines are getting quite tricky to find now, and ever since photographing Adachi-san’s RS-X in January 2019, I’ve loved the idea of owning one. But even with the talented team at Newera Imports on the case, good (affordable) examples in Japan were all but non-existent.
Which is why I still can’t believe one in perfect condition came up for sale 30 miles away from my house. After a fairly throwaway comment in a DR30 Facebook group – which literally read ‘is anyone selling a Skyline anywhere in the world’ – the second comment unearthed the car above. I’ll do a proper story on that once it’s covered a few more miles.
Speaking of Skylines, how many cylinders is my R34 GT-R currently running on? Weirdly, all of ‘em. There’s actually a turbo update coming next, and for once it’s all massively positive after nearly two years since the engine’s big rebuild.
Before we go into the actual point of this story, there’s an old Mercedes S600 AMG which needs a special mention – easily the most entertaining car I’ve ever owned. Originally built by Sasaki-san of Brilliant Exhaust in Japan, its F1-style soundtrack has been triggering many shaken heads and wobbly fists all around Northamptonshire for years.
I could bore you with how much the exhaust can cost and how many views it generates, but we’ll leave that to the land of YouTubers. Instead, here’s a 15-second clip of it skidding around Longcross Test Track from early 2020. No five-minute intro, no merch plug, just two tonnes of screaming S-Class shredding its tyres. That’s how Speedhunters rolls.
It’s a massive privilege to own such a weird bunch of cars irrespective of how many actually work (not many), but they’re all relatively sane compared to the one I’m about to go into more detail on – a 1985 BMW M635CSi.
Over the last two years it’s covered the grand total of 23 miles. Because, unsurprisingly, what started life as a cheap non-runner has spiralled massively out of control during lockdown. And I’m both terrified and excited to see where it ends up.
This story starts back in 2018 at a shop called CNC Motorsport (formerly AWS Motorsport). I’d been asked to photograph their collection of BTCC/Group A touring cars for Top Gear magazine, but what made this visit particularly lethal was the fact they’d all been rebuilt and recommissioned by CNC Motorsport.
I love the engineering and performance associated with modern motorsport, but nothing beats the ’80s/’90s era in my eyes. It felt like the perfect balance of cutting-edge technology without losing the very essence of being road cars; race on Sunday, sell on Monday. An engine built to do 9,500rpm but indicated with a tiny red sticker on the tacho.
Of all the cars there, the Group A BMW 635CSi was in a league of its own. I’m a complete BMW fiend – or rather German cars from this era – and the fact a luxury grand tourer could be made to go racing puts it into stratospheric levels of cool. The kind usually associated with the TWR Volvo 850 Estate.
Over 13 years BMW produced nearly 86,000 E24 6-Series with seemingly as many trim levels and engine sizes. So, while a mint M635CSi or Motorsport Edition demands strong money, you can still pick up a bargain provided you don’t mind an auto box and a bit of welding.
This was my thinking immediately after leaving CNC Motorsport. Right up until an evening on carandclassic.co.uk revealed a seemingly genuine M635CSi going cheap. We call it an M635CSi here in the UK, but in the US, Japan and other territories it was badged an M6. Though luckily for us Brits, we got the full-fat M88/3 motor found in the BMW M1 and E28 M5.
As you’d expect, the advert was filled with yet more alarm bells. It’d been listed for months, it had two low-res images (both of which appear to have been drawn by a dog), and its description was brilliantly vague. You know the kind of vague when questioned if you had a good night after arriving home at 5:00am? That king of vague.
Still, like a divorcee firing up Tinder for the first time, I was happy to overlook all of these issues in the tiny hope it might actually work out.
‘Hi Mark. The car isn’t mine, but I do know who owns it…’
Good start. Just send me the overseas bank account details now and I’ll prepare an outraged Facebook post.
‘I own a few barns and do car storage. It’s been here for several years. The owner has reached a point where he doesn’t want to keep paying storage but hasn’t the time to get it working either.’
It turned out the E24’s owner lived several hundred miles away, travelling for weeks on end for work. Neither he nor the barn owner really did social media which is why the advert seemed so suspect. But you know what? Had it been listed properly on eBay or Pistonheads it’d have been snapped up instantly for a whole lot more cash.
We settled at around £15,000, half of which HSBC loaned me for kitchen improvements and half of which was money actually saved for kitchen improvements. All to buy a car that didn’t work with naff-all history.
In these situations, I tend to go straight to the worst-case scenario and anything better is then a bonus. I’d assumed the engine was toast, and with the E24 being just a few miles from RK Tuning, I trailered it over to get Ron’s take on it. Luckily for me, Ron used to dabble with the Bosch Motronic system long before he focused in on Skyline GT-Rs.
The original advert said it’d been dry stored, which was bollocks. I found this out when removing the ECU, which was submerged in water. That, along with a faulty AFM, were the only reasons it wouldn’t start. ECU refurbished, AFM replaced and one set of HT leads later, the M635CSi coughed back into life.
Even more unbelievable was the fact it passed its MOT first time. The advisories might have been listed over two pages, but it actually drove like a proper car now. Even the electric sunroof worked. Rust? Yeah, it had some of that, but according to the MOT it hadn’t yet reached the point of no return.
Getting the car back from Ron brought with it a separate dilemma. The cheapest genuine M635CSi for sale was over £30,000. This one now owed me and HSBC around £18,000, so the obvious choice would be to sell it for £25,000 and make a quick, decent profit. Pay back the loan, actually fix the kitchen and have some cash left over to buy a cheap 628CSi instead.
If that was the red pill, my decision involved chugging an entire bottle full of blue ones.
According to those other adverts, the M635CSi is an appreciating classic. Maybe even an investment opportunity. And there lies the issue with interesting car ownership in 2021.
If a car cannot be used or enjoyed for fear of altering its value, what purpose does it serve anymore? I’m all for enjoying something without losing money on it – that’s the absolute dream. But it really shouldn’t become the defining characteristic of any car’s ownership.
And it’s this kind of self-righteous attitude which has led to so many half-working, half-finished cars in my garage. Sure, a basic 630CSi would make more sense as an E24 track car, but how much better would a proper M635CSi be?
Thankfully, a man called Alan Strachan also agreed with this philosophy. As the boss of CNC Motorsport – the very shop I’d visited three years ago which triggered this E24 track car idea – it seemed fitting to go back to ground zero and let CNC deal with the nuclear fallout. Alan has only two requirements when a car leaves his workshop: it must be solid, and it must be fast. If it fails on either of those, he’ll rectify it.
I’d love to be in a position to cut Alan a huge cheque and say ‘make it a race car’ – because lord knows this garage update already alludes to that kind of lifestyle – but the reality requires a whole lot of patience and saving.
Not least because the more bits we removed, the more work we discovered. But the moment I stood on my high horse and decided not to sell it for a quick profit was the moment I committed to seeing this build right through to the end.
Think of it as a Clubsport-spec E24 rather than a dedicated track car. It’ll be caged and stripped out, but it’ll also mechanically be in better condition than when it left the factory in 1985.
That’s why for the past year and a half the focus has solely been on the underside, chipping away at small bits in between Alan’s proper work.
There has been pretty serious progress though. Every component underneath has been removed, sandblasted and powder-coated. The interior’s been gutted along with the glass and seals, and all that rust in its early stages has been removed and welded up.
That does mean we’re close to starting all the fun stuff. Alan’s measured and cut the rollcage – his own design built to Group A specification complete with removable door bars. The loom is being stripped of unnecessary wiring and the centre-lock hubs machined for the BBS wheels too.
Seeing all of these individual components come together is properly exciting. I’ve never built a car from the ground up before and truthfully, I probably won’t do it again in a hurry. But when it’s done, it’ll be a proper riot both on and off the track.
Engine-wise, with the exception of an exhaust and an oil cooler it’s staying completely stock. 286bhp is more than enough for something from the ’80s, and the last thing I need is another car with an engine determined to detonate itself on a weekly basis.
Here’s the big question though: what’s the ETA? Your guess is as good as mine currently. It’ll be finished when it’s err… finished. Which is why it’s also a prime candidate for the new Speedhunters Garage ethos as it’ll be a few months before any more progress is documented. If I had to guess? I reckon late 2021, but if it goes beyond that timeframe so be it.
What has been refreshing is leaving a project to progress at its own rate, even if that has been financially dictated. We’re all guilty of rushing builds and setting unrealistic deadlines for shows and events, but the truth is nine times out of 10 the result is usually some form of compromise.
But ultimately, who needs to worry if a car is ready for a certain deadline? The show organiser? The stand you’re on? Or the people you want to hit like on your ‘gram upload?
The moment something like that influences your enjoyment of a car is the moment you need to stop and ask if it’s really worth the hassle. That’s not suggesting there’s a right and wrong way to enjoy a car; it’s about whether that process brings you actual happiness. If the rush, cost and faffing around is all you have to say about a car’s inception, what have you achieved?
I’ll never learn; I’ll carry on embarking on stupid projects for as long as cars exist, and for many it’ll seem like a total waste of time and money. Which is fairly accurate.
But I properly enjoy it; not just the finished bit but the whole process from scouting a car, unearthing its issues and building it back up over time. And if the internet didn’t exist tomorrow, I’d still end up doing the exact same thing. Which is just as well because I’ve got an entire garage full of broken tat to sort.