For reasons of economy, the new coupe, known internally as the E24, would share the platform of the next-generation big sedans, the 5-Series, known internally as E12. Inevitably, senior management initially wanted the coupe to be taller and more sedanish, embodying more of the Mercedes-like gravitas that Von Kuenheim so eagerly sought. BMW’s more performance-minded executives managed to dissuade them, but the E24 nonetheless ended up bigger and heavier than its predecessor. The greater size was dictated at least in part by the demands of U.S. crash standards, but we suspect it was also influenced by a desire to match its principal upper-class rivals: Jaguar’s new XJ-S and the Mercedes R107 (350SL/350SLC and 450SL/450SLC) coupes and roadsters.
The E24’s exterior was designed under the auspices of Paul Bracq, a former Daimler-Benz stylist who replaced Wilhelm Hofmeister as director of design in 1970. BMW also commissioned an alternative proposal from Giorgetto Giugiaro’s Italdesign, but the board eventually selected Bracq’s in-house proposal. Bracq updated the basic themes of the E9 on a larger and noticeably bulkier scale, with an aggressive, shark-like nose inspired by the 1972 BMW Turbo show car. Von Kuenheim supposedly favored Bracq’s design because it had greater aesthetic continuity with other BMW models, something that — probably not coincidentally — was also a hallmark of Mercedes-Benz design.
Mechanically, the E24 differed from the 3.0 CS more in detail than in concept. Like its predecessor, the body shell was built by Karmann, although bodies were then shipped back to the BMW works in Dingolfing for final assembly. (BMW took all production in-house in 1978, seeking better quality control.) The big coupe still used MacPherson struts in front, semi-trailing arms in back (now with coil-over shocks, shared with the 5-Series) and vented disc brakes all around. The standard transmission was the same four-speed Getrag gearbox used in the E9, although the optional three-speed automatic was a new and much improved ZF 3HP22 (a Simpson gearset transmission), replacing the E9’s elderly Borg-Warner unit. The base engine was the same 2,985 cc (182 cu. in.) six used in the last 3.0 CS with a single four-barrel Solex carburetor replacing the previous dual-carb arrangement. In this form, it made 185 PS DIN (135 kW), slightly more than before. A new option was the 3,210 cc (196 cu. in.) six from the flagship 3.3 Li sedan, with Bosch L-Jetronic electronic injection and 200 PS DIN (141 kW).
There were bigger changes inside, where the E24 got a new “cockpit-themed” dashboard layout, with a gimmicky Active Check Control system for monitoring fluid levels and other functions. More useful was a redesigned heating/ventilation/air conditioning system, addressing a major shortcoming of the E9. Despite the aggressive new styling, it was clear that the E24’s emphasis was on comfort and luxury rather than outright performance.
THE BMW E24 6-SERIES
In the mid-seventies, BMW began rationalizing its model designations, adopting the now-familiar formula of type number followed by engine displacement in deciliters. Since the mid-size sedans were now called the 5-Series, the E24 coupes became the 6-Series.
The initial 630CS and the injected 633CSi models were introduced to the press in February 1976 at an event in Marbella, Spain, and made their public debut at the Geneva auto show in March. Like their predecessor, both coupes were quite expensive, starting at 40,600 DM (about $16,000 at contemporary exchange rates) for the 630CS and 43,100 DM (about $17,000) for the 633CSi. Thanks to the strength of the Deutschmark, prices were even higher in most export markets. In the U.K., the 633CSi cost £3,473 ($2,100) more than a Jaguar XJ-S and £1,106 ($615) more than a Mercedes 450SLC — ambitious indeed, given that the 6-Series could not match its rivals’ V8 and V12 engines.
Critical response to the E24’s styling was positive, although its larger dimensions and greater weight dismayed many observers. Memories of the first OPEC oil embargo were still vivid in 1976, and some critics wondered why BMW hadn’t opted for something a little trimmer, perhaps based on the new E21 3-Series. (We suspect that Von Kuenheim would only have authorized something like that if Daimler-Benz had done it first.) In any event, the European models had competitive performance; a manual-shift 633CSi could do 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in a little over eight seconds, with a top speed of about 130 mph (210 km/h), quicker than the 450SLC, but slower than the 12-cylinder XJ-S.
Contemporary reviewers had mixed feelings about the early 6-Series’ handling. Like previous BMWs, the 6er had well-balanced controls and precise steering, but it was not exactly agile, a function of its considerable mass and pronounced front weight bias; static weight distribution for the 633CSi was nearly 57/43. As before, BMW’s semi-trailing arm suspension demanded caution, particularly on slick surfaces, and some testers felt the XJ-S offered a better balance of ride quality and cornering power for the price.
For most critics, though, the principal hangup was the price. The complaint was not so much that the 6-Series was expensive — Ferraris and Aston Martins cost far more and no one ever complained about that — but that the 6-Series was so much more expensive than a 5-Series sedan. In 1977, a 528i sedan cost 26,850 DM in Germany (about $10,700); it handled just as well as, if not better than, the 6-Series coupe and was actually quicker, mostly because the sedan weighed about 200 lb (91 kg) less than the coupe. Other than style, the only thing the 6-Series offered for the extra money was the exclusivity provided by its higher price.
As a result, 6-Series sales got off to a modest start, totaling just under 5,000 units in 1976. Nevertheless, its lofty prices — and BMW’s earlier reorganization of its export operations — quickly made it a profitable car.