Status-Seeking Missiles: The BMW E24 6-Series Coupes

When the first E24 BMW 6-Series appeared in 1976, many BMW partisans dismissed it as an overpriced, overweight boulevardier, inferior to the company’s sporty sedans. When production finally ended 13 years later, fans mourned the E24’s passage and derided its successor, the E31 8-Series, as a high-tech pretender. This week, we look at the history of the 1976-1989 BMW E24 6-Series.

1983 BMW 635CSi grille (© 2010 Nathan Phoenix; used with permission)
(Photo © 2010 Nathan Phoenix; used with permission)

CHASING MERCEDES

BMW ended the 1960s in remarkably good shape for a company that had been on the brink of receivership only a decade earlier. Its total production climbed from under 75,000 in 1966 to 147,841 in 1969, with solid profits and a generally glowing reputation. The future looked bright.

Nonetheless, the early seventies were a time of great internal transition. Gerhard Wilcke, who had been chairman since 1960, retired in September 1969, followed in 1970 by styling director Wilhelm Hofmeister and in 1971 by production chief Wilhelm Gieschen. The company’s new chairman, Prussian aristocrat Eberhard von Kuenheim, subsequently forced the resignation of sales boss Paul Hahnemann, replacing him in January 1972 with former Opel executive Bob Lutz. There was also a major shift in BMW’s export distribution philosophy. Previously, independent importers like Austro-American impresario Max Hoffman had handled BMW sales outside of Germany, who Lutz later claimed were earning lavish profits, while the company made almost nothing. Lutz and von Kuenheim terminated the existing distributions agreements and took export operations in house.

Von Kuenheim recognized that BMW’s volume was still small, so he moved to maximize the company’s per-car profits with a concerted assault on the loftier price classes dominated by Mercedes-Benz. BMW had made some inroads into Mercedes territory in the sixties, positioning its cars as sportier alternatives to their Benz rivals, but von Kuenheim was troubled by the fact that the three-pointed star still carried greater prestige than did BMW’s blue-and-white roundel.

1973 BMW 3.0 CS pillar roundel
Former BMW sales boss Bob Lutz asserts that then-chairman Eberhard von Kuenheim actually contemplated redesigning BMW’s familiar spinning-propellor logo, a move that seems all but unthinkable today.

The result was a protracted internal debate over BMW’s direction. The engineers and sales force wanted to maintain the existing sporty image, which had always been a good marketing hook and suited the engineers’ personal tastes, but von Kuenheim wanted to take the brand in a more dignified, stately, and Mercedes-like direction. The sportive faction eventually won out, a victory that culminated in 1974 when Lutz commissioned new U.S. ad agency Ammirati & Puris to distill BMW’s brand values into a now-familiar slogan: “The Ultimate Driving Machine.” Like most marketing taglines, it was ultimately meaningless, but it served to express the difference between BMW and its upper-crust rivals.

BMW’S CONTRADICTORY COUPES

Paradoxically, the weakest examples of BMW’s brand values were its ostensibly sportiest models, from the lovely but commercially unsuccessful 507 roadster to the Model 120 and E9 coupes of the late sixties. The latter were a case in point; they were attractive cars, but they did not perform or handle any better than their sedan counterparts and their substantially higher prices invited comparisons with rivals like the E-Type Jaguar and Porsche 911. In such elevated company, road manners that were outstanding for a contemporary sedan seemed decidedly less impressive. That’s not to say that BMW’s coupes were slow or handled poorly, but in concept, they were more Teutonic Eldorados than truly sporting vehicles.

1973 BMW 3.0 CS front
BMW modernized the 1964-vintage CS coupes in 1968, when the nose was redesigned to accommodate the big six-cylinder engine. The later E24 6-Series preserved the earlier coupe’s forward-jutting grille in theme, if not in detail.

As we have seen, BMW’s eventual solution was to launch an aggressive racing program, in the hope that the reflected glory of the competition cars would compensate for the production cars’ soft edges. BMW’s 3.0 CSL coupes dominated touring car competition throughout the 1970s, which in turn bolstered the desirability of the standard 3.0 CS despite the street car’s rather sedate performance. The strategy worked so well, in fact, that when BMW finally replaced the E9 coupes, many critics perceived their successors as less sporting, even though their performance was if anything incrementally superior.

LE BRACQMOBILE: BIRTH OF THE NEW BMW COUPE

By the mid-seventies, the E9 coupes were becoming very dated. Although they looked good, their structure dated back to the Neue Klasse sedans and the four-cylinder 2000 CS of 1964 while their design themes owed a great deal to the Bertone-styled 3200 CS of 1961. More seriously, proposed U.S. rollover crash standards threatened to outlaw the E9’s lovely pillarless hardtop roof. It was clearly time for a ground-up redesign.

13 Comments

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  1. Thank you for the well-written article on the BMW 6-series. As an owner and fan of this model, I have a few corrections to make to the text as presented:

    1. The 1977 Mercedes 450SLC as pictured is really just a 450SL with removeable hardtop in place. The SLC had a slightly longer roofline with a character line down the side of the pillar to differentiate itself from the roadster.

    2. Another picture caption states that headlamp wipers were standard fit on U.S. 6-series models. This is untrue. The U.S. 6-series never offered headlamp wipers even as an option, these were only available on Euro-spec models. It should also be noted these are very troublesome and are rarely found in working condition.

    3.Another photo caption mentions the “power seat controls” to the left of the on board computer. These are actually switches for the heated seats option, with 2 levels of intensity available. Power seat controls on cars so equipped are located near the parking brake.

    4. The next photo caption mentions Michelin “TDX” metric tires that many 6-series were equipped with. The correct term is Michelin “TRX” tires. These tires were perhaps worthy of more discussion as they have high prices and very limited availability today due to their odd size and outdated nature. This is why most 6-series models seen today feature wheels and tires from other models of BMW’s with more standard sizing.

    5. Another portion of text says a drivers side airbag became available in 1985. When referring to U.S. cars, this is not the case. U.S. cars were only fitted with the second generation BMW airbag wheel and not until the 1988 model year.

    These corrections may be nitpicky, but they are important in understanding the story of the 6-series and especially how trim differed wildly by sales market.

    1. Thanks for the corrections! The TRX/TDX glitch was a typo (now fixed), and I’ve amended the text to reflect these notes.

      The 450SL was misidentified by the dealer selling it — it’s entirely possible they weren’t clear on the distinction between the SL with hardtop and the SLC, either.

  2. Very well-researched and written article. As a 6er owner and enthusiast, I appreciate the tribute.

    You’ve got a “subscriber!” Keep up the excellent work.

    Cheers,
    Matt

  3. Great article on one of my favorite BMWs. I do have one small correction: the MN12-platform Thunderbird that looks so much like a scaled up 6-series began production as a 1989 model.

    1. Ahah, you are quite right. I’ve made that correction in the text.

  4. The early model 6ers can also be identified by their steel side view mirrors, plastic folding mirrors came along with the E28 based models in 1983 if I remember correctly.

  5. thanks for the article (and the further articles e.g. about the Porsche 928)

  6. These cars are actually good. They are not ostentatious like the 21st century BMW 6 series. Love these!

  7. Nice article it’s still fun to drive and maybe even better as mine is no status symbol just fun
    If you wanted the best and unique you got it

  8. My first BMW was a gift in March 2015. 1984 633CSi automatic transmission. A month later, I rescued a 1983 from the junkyard. My 1967 Mercedes 250s is nice, but my 6 is a daily driver. I drove Fords my entire life and I’m now restoring Euro cars at my own pace. The engineering and design are amazing.

  9. As a young kid growing up in the StLouis Area, My dad had (3)bimmer 1988 m5, 1982 e24, 1987 325i e30, along with 3 son. After passing he actually gave the cars to us. Of course i was the middle son i got the e24. The was recked being seting in brother garage for 6 years or more, and the e30 my brother teenage is driving that one. To my suprise he have put over 3,500k into the it. New tires,piant job, muffler plus cat and header.He put some blisten shocks on it, did i mention the engine work, it was rebuilt.

    Now, for the e24, im restoring it with the OEM. I started last year around this time, i’m still have a long way to go. my problem is, i can’t find a dashboard for my car. living down here the south, in the terrible sun, totally desroyed the dash. But now i have a garage where i store the car daily. I have looked everywhere, UK, Canada, USA, and even in Germany, i even looked in the junk/salavage yards.

    What do you guys think, you can’t buy a new one becuase BMW stop making them, and if i do find one it’s in the junk yard (it’s just that… JUNK) worse shape than the one i have.

    byrdwl2003@yahoo.com/willie.byrd@dayzim.com

    1. try a dash topper instead which slips directly over your old one.
      There are many available for your E24.

    2. Why don’t you check with the auto upholstery shops? Some of them can recover them for you. It would probably be better then all the used ones.

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