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

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.

1977 Mercedes 450SL front 3q
One of the 6-Series’ principal competitors was the Mercedes R107 series: the SL roadsters and SLC coupes, introduced in 1971. The SLC coupes ended production in 1981, but the roadsters continued into 1989, selling remarkably well, considering their dated design and lofty prices. A 1977 450SL like this one cost around $22,000, about $77,000 in 2010 dollars. (author photo)

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.

1988 BMW M6 Active Check Control © 2018 Andrew Buc; used with permission
The BMW Active Check Control system provided a “pre-flight check” of various engine and electrical functions. You activate the system by pressing the test or check button (bottom center) with the engine running. If all is well, each light will illuminate; if something is wrong — or if a bulb is burned out — the appropriate light will remain dark. On early (1976–1982) E24s, the lights were amber and green, not red, and were arranged a bit differently. Note the SRS light; a driver’s side airbag (supplemental restraint system) became available on the 6er in 1985. (Photo © 2018 Andrew Buc; used with permission)

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.

1979 BMW 633CSi side © 2007 Galant (CC BY-SA 2.5 Generic)
In European trim, the BMW E24 6-Series was 4.5 inches (11 cm) longer, about 3 inches (7.5 cm) wider, and some 250 lb (114 kg) heavier than the final 3.0 CS, although its wheelbase was only fractionally longer, at 103.5 inches (2,630 mm). Its overall length, 187.2 inches (4,755 mm), was nearly identical to that of the Mercedes 450SLC, although the BMW was still somewhat shorter than the hulking Jaguar XJ-S. This is an early 633CSi, identifiable by the early-shape rear bumper and 14-in BBS alloy wheels. (Photo: “BMW 633 CSi Side” © 2007 Galant; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 Generic license)

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.

15 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.

  10. For BMW to nearly double their sales from 1966 to 1969 was pretty impressive. But I assume that a lot of the production capacity came from their acquisition of Glas.

    1. Capacity, certainly. I confess I don’t have a clear idea of what their production capacity was before that acquisition, although it appears they were not using all of whatever it was.

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