BY MARTIN WALSH
THE distinctive sound of the BMW M3 reverberating through the roads of Irish rallying had the X-factor for so many people. Long before the car actually came into view, fans knew the ‘Beemer’ was on its way. On full throttle its sound was unique.
The car bearing the registration plate GXI 9427 is iconic, but its current owner, Ballylickey’s Denis Cronin, was unaware of much of the car’s history prior to acquiring it a quarter of a century ago.
The previous year, 1994, Cronin, co-driven by Ciarán Kelleher, campaigned the ex-Liam McCarthy Opel Ascona 400 to a start-to-finish victory in the Marine Hotel Fastnet Rally.
Cronin outlined his vision at the time: ‘They (the BMWs) were exciting to watch, they had a bit more power in them.’
The car was acquired from Monaghan’s Eugene Meegan, who had a brief flirtation with the car that was previously driven by Armagh’s Andrew Nesbitt during the 1993 season, ending with a heavy crash on the Donegal International Rally.
This BMW M3 began its rallying life in the hands of one Billy Coleman as part of the Rothmans Rally team on the Circuit of Ireland Rally in 1987 only to stop with engine malaise. A few weeks later French ace Bernard Beguin drove the car to victory in the Tour de Corse Rally in the joint liveries of Rothmans and Motul. Another Frenchman, Francois Chatriot, also drove the car that same season. Continuing with some very distinguished drivers, Belgian Patrick Snijers took it to the 1988 European Ray Championship culminating in wins on the Manx International and two Belgian rounds.
Two years after its first taste of the Circuit of Ireland, the car was back on the Emerald Isle on the toughest Irish rally of them all with Bertie Fisher guiding it to sixth place on the Easter classic before winning the Manx National Rally a few months later. The late Fisher also won in Killarney in 1990 before the car was subsequently sold to Kilkenny’s Bill Connolly, whose sole win with the car was in Clonakilty on the 1991 West Cork Rally.
Cronin’s debut outing with the car was only a few miles further west on the 1995 Marine Hotel Fastnet Rally but it was a brief encounter as he explained.
‘We retired with a broken gear stick. A lot of things weren’t right with the car. In fact, it took us about two years to get it right,’ he said.
The Ballylickey man followed with a deeper reasoning.
‘After buying the car we didn’t really have the money to spend to do all the things that needed to be done.’
In a way he had misgivings.
‘In fact, when I bought it first I wondered what had I done as the car I had (Opel Ascona 400) was much faster. It was nearly impossible to drive it really,’ he explained.
But all wasn’t lost, a car with such a pedigree needed some ‘tender loving care’ and Glengarriff’s Jerry O’Sullivan (McGrath) was the right man in the right place. He immersed himself in the project with an infectious enthusiasm.
‘Were it not for Jerry, it wouldn’t have worked at all, he was superb, he spent hours on end getting it right,’ Cronin said.
He was the stable diet unlike the co-driving role that, for a variety of reasons included the aforementioned Ciarán Kelleher, Bob Kelly, Paul Nagle and Helen O’Sullivan, who accompanied Denis Cronin to second spot in the 1999 West Cork Rally and became his regular co-driver thereafter and his fiancée a little later.
In 2005 Cronin commented, ‘The car was improving all the time’, but the rallying demographic had changed and four-wheel drive was in vogue. However, there was a silver lining.
‘It was easier to get information about the car,’ he said.
Not so much from those that had driven M3s but from the engineers that had set them up.
‘People like Michael Dundon, who was part of Bill Connolly’s service team, and Mickey Eiffe, who was responsible for Austin MacHale’s car, provided us with the important settings.’
A National Rally Championship attempt in 2000 went relatively well for a time and were it not for throttle linkage problems on the Circuit of Munster and differential woes in Cavan, they would have been in a very strong position.
A high-speed crash on the Tipperary Stonethrowers had consequences and caused extensive damage.
‘It was totally my fault. I took the corner as an easy left when in fact it was a square left – the car took the full impact in fifth gear at about 80/90 mph, it bounced back about six feet,’ he recalled.
The Fastnet in 2003 was one of its last competitive outings and while Cronin then acquired the ex-Tom Holton Toyota Celica ST205, the BMW M3 remained in Ballylickey. He reckons his best results in the BMW were second places in the West Cork and the Circuit of Munster, both in 1999. However, there were ones that got away.
‘We should have won the Cork ‘20’ in 1996,’ he opines. In fact, that event was notable by the list of leading retirements as Gabriel Snow (Escort Cosworth) went on to claim the spoils.
‘We were ahead of him by some 30/40 seconds and then I got sick and we had to settle for second. It wasn’t until after that I realised that I was allergic to the fumes of the cars around me.’
Cronin has no intention of parting with the famous GXI 9427 – unlike one person that purported to have the car and put it in a well-known auction.
Akin to the fact that he was unaware of the car’s great history, Cronin was alerted to ‘sale’ of a BMW M3 bearing the same registration plates. The auction rooms were brought up to speed and the sale took a speedy U-turn in terms of registration plates.
Meanwhile, the real GXI 9427 remains part of the West Cork rally fabric.
‘It should be doing some form of rallying really, but you don’t really want to drive it on. I don’t have the freedom to go wrecking it,’ Cronin said.
‘It was a most enjoyable car. At one point we had 22 rallies without a problem. Previously, in another car I went three years without finishing an event.’
Cronin concluded: ‘The sound really attracted me, they were a stand-out car.’