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.
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. Up until that point, independent importers like Austro-American impresario Max Hoffman had handled BMW sales outside of Germany, earning lavish profits while the company (according to Lutz) made almost nothing. At Von Kuenheim’s direction, Lutz terminated those distribution deals 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.
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.
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.