This one-time cattle-rustling route, Putty Road in the Hunter Valley, delivers the sort of driving mix that demands you harden up.
First published in the June 2013 issue of Wheels magazine, Australia’s most experienced and most trusted car magazine since 1953.
Everyone knows that road-building is an engineering science, right? One requiring careful surveying, lots of tedious compacting, well-planned drainage, skilled surfacing, and, ideally, several champions in fluro vests looking on as one bloke actually does some work.
One Last Dance - June 2013
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But occasionally you encounter a road that feels as though it incorporates an element of art with the science of its construction. Sections of the Putty Road, linking Windsor on the banks of the Hawkesbury River in Sydney’s north west, with Singleton, in the Hunter Valley, is that sort of stretch. Here you’ll encounter the sort of artistic sweeps and flamboyant flourishes that feel as though they must surely have been put there for the purpose of pleasure, rather than merely connecting two points on a map.
These days, on weekends, at least, the iconic Putty Road seems to exist solely to adrenalise talented motorcyclists and to soil the underwear of the thousands of others who carve its sometimes treacherous mix of black-top brilliance. Naturally that also makes it a great place for a keen driver in a BMW M-car.
The BMW 1M Coupe gets a start here because it’s now sold out in Oz, and surely destined for cult/collector status. One last fang seemed like the best way to say goodbye. Plus there’s the fact that, just like some of the motorcycle riders you’ll find on the Putty Road, it’s just a little bit unhinged.
Its head-kicker intentions are obvious the moment you take in its stance; almost as wide as it is long, thanks to the pumped guards and extra track width. You may already know that the M Division binned as many of the standard 1 Series bloke-bits underneath as it could and replaced them with M3 suspension, brakes, 19-inch wheels and the M-differential. Out came the single-turbo six of the 135i; in went the 250kW version of the N54 twin-turbo six fitted to the Z4 35is.
The moment you settle into the supportive seat, there’s a rightness to the driving position, pedal weights, shift action and the kransky-fat wheel. Through Windsor, the broad rubber and firm, non-adjustable suspension relays surface reports with thuds and thumps, yet the ride is less jarring than a regular BMW 1 Series on run-flats.
This town was apparently built as the ‘grainery’ for Sydney back in the days of early settlement. Some colonial architecture remains, but Windsor appears to be more of an excellent town for 17-year-olds to get pierced, pregnant and collect the baby bonus than a place to check out some really exciting grain-storage facilities.
Once through neighbouring Wilberforce, fast sweepers unfurl and your right foot can go down. The twin-turbo six doesn’t have the ultra-hardwired throttle response of an atmo M engine, but it is beautifully smooth, hugely torque-rich and wickedly punchy. The note starts off bass-heavy and full, but quickly transitions to a sonorous, slightly turbo-muted howl. Thing is, the car feels just as quick when short-shifted, rather than wrung out. The 7000rpm redline gives headroom, but there’s no extra power past 5900. A modern M, then, rather than a traditionalist.
Over the Colo River it’s just us and a diving flock of cockatoos out to break the tranquillity. We let rip around soaring sandstone cliffs, sniff out the limits of grip, and generally shatter the peace. Then hard on the brakes to slow for the Colo Caravan Park and the deserted neighbouring buildings, where the remnants of failed small-business dreams hang in the air among the eucalypts.
Past Colo Heights is a Putty high point, where it climbs, twists and plunges. The surface is glassy hot-mix; sweetly cambered in your favour. The road wraps around towering escarpments, and huge views of the valley open up around every bend. This section is like a sinuous welcome mat that’s been rolled out to invite you to indulge. It’s tight enough to demand a car that’s compact and agile, with a front-end you can push into a proper dialogue with the surface. Sub $150K, short of a Porsche Boxster or Cayman, the 1M feels pretty close to ideal.
The steering is quicker than the standard 1 Series – 2.2 turns v 2.9 – allowing you to virtually think it in to turns, and roll the wrists over in this tighter stuff. And Porsche’s two-seater has got nothing like the sort of mid-range, post-apex punch the baby M-car rips out. It’s this almost thuggish grunt delivery that dominates the 1M experience, and blows Newton metres in the face the linear, rev-hungry V8 screamer in the $55K-dearer M3. If the M3 is a precision instrument, then the 1M is a Fender bass that begs to be slapped.
But even in this smooth section of the Putty, the torrent of turbo torque is in a constant battle with the rear Michelins, at least with the ESC in its default setting. Switching it to M-Dynamic mode gives (mostly) enough latitude. Turn it off and the combination of big torque and quick steering demands precise corrections or you risk being slapped right back.
About halfway between Windsor and Singleton in the Garland Valley sits the predictably named Halfway House Roadhouse – or what’s left of it. It burned down back in 2009, yet when we pull in it appears to be still smouldering. Turns out it’s just local sculptor and egg-’n’-bacon-roll entrepreneur Dave Thurston cooking away happily next to the gutted the shell of the original building. Dave is a portly, bearded sculptor/artist type who lives behind the charred skeleton of the roadhouse. To supplement his income from building whacky animal sculptures from scrap, Dave slings sambos and cold drinks to bike riders and curious tourists. Above us towers his giant stainless-steel piece called Unity; a large-breasted, cod-piece wearing creation that appears to be pulling a move from a Village People video. Even Dave’s barbie is in on the action – it’s a steel horse, with smoke drifting from its chimney head. “Cooks the best bacon and egg rolls you’ve ever tasted,” he claims, before going on to explain how he came to settle here.
He tells us he bought this place because he had a dream about a burnt-out roadhouse, and believed it was somehow a pointer to his future, so he sought guidance from a spiritual friend as to what it meant. At least I think that’s what he said, because like most blokes, I tend to vague-out the moment anyone starts talking about dreams and spiritual advisors. But yes, his barbecue rolls are very good, and the inventiveness and use of materials in his sculptures totally captivating.
We climb back into the now-baking BMW, drop the windows and give it full noise in the first four gears, purely for quick cabin ventilation. But pulling big speeds brings big risks. If there is an issue with the Putty – and I know I could be castrated for saying this and turned into a biker’s moll – it’s the vast section that scythes between the Garland and Howes Valleys. Here the road is so open and unbending that, unless you’re a nut-bag rider with 120kW between your legs and amphetamines behind the eyes, it’s more a pleasant drive in the country than a steely test of chassis and nerve. Naturally the temptation is there to peg the 1M wide open and hope the local cops are on doughnut duty up in the Hunter; instead we settle for something short of impound velocity and try to ignore the tyre and wind noise. And the exhaust drone.
Yep, for all its practical aspects – rear seat, boot space – the 1M has still got a couple of key shortcomings that limit its usefulness as an all-rounder. The exhaust drone at freeway cruising speeds is one. Curiously BMW generally provides a button for everything, including things you don’t want or need buttons for, but a flap to settle the exhaust note down is not included on the 1M. Then there’s the suspension calibration. It delivers fantastic body control on smooth surfaces, but forces the chassis into a discomfort zone when it’s hammered over the lumps and bumps that are unavoidable on Aussie backroads.
By the time we emerge out of the long shadows and into Singleton, I’ve got mixed feelings about this car. It’s fast, engaging, and, relative to the BMW M3, semi-affordable. But compared to true M purebreds, it feels more like a beaut parts-bin special than a holistic whole. The 1M coupe may be a ‘spiritual successor’ to the original E30 M3, but the driving experience is way removed from it. Nor does it have enough suppleness in the chassis to deal with everything the snottier parts of the Putty can throw at it. In this car-versus-road battle, call it a win for the road – just.
Fuel up before you hit the Putty Rd, because there’s no servo on it before Singleton heading north. There was nearly no eatery, either – the Grey Gum Cafe found itself in a legal stoush with Singleton council over road access into its premises back in late 2011. In a win for common sense and burger lovers, though, owners Kim and John Grace successfully overturned the closure order, and business is booming.