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

OLD SOLDIERS NEVER DIE

Eberhard von Kuenheim stepped down as BMW chairman in 1993, although he remained on the board until 1999. His replacement, Bernd Pischetsrieder, continued the company’s expansion, not always with positive results — the expensive and ill-fated acquisition of Rover Group being a key example. Since BMW had still not managed to equal Mercedes-Benz’s prestige, Pischetsrieder attempted to buy some, acquiring Britain’s storied Rolls-Royce brand effective January 2003.

After the E31 finally expired in 1999, BMW temporarily departed the big-coupe market, although the smaller 3-Series coupes continued apace. In the fall of 2003, however, BMW launched a new 6-Series, known internally as the E63 (E64 in convertible form). Based on the Chris Bangle-styled E60 5-Series, it was significantly cheaper than the departed 8-Series, no longer chasing the big Mercedes CL-Class coupes. Despite its controversial (we’d say hideous) styling, it was far more popular than any of its predecessors, although Mercedes coupes still held the edge in snobbery.

1987 BMW L6 front 3q

The BMW L6 was little more than a footnote in the history of the E24 6-Series, but it embodied the basic conundrum with which its maker wrestled and continues to wrestle: whether to build hard-edged sporting cars or chase status-seekers more interested in image and glitz than actual performance. (Glitzy though the L6 may have been in some respects, this car’s chrome wheel arch trim is not stock.) (author photo)

The E24 is an interesting study in how perceptions can shift over time. When it was new, critics generally derided the 6-Series as an overpriced exercise in style over substance; even Car and Driver publisher David E. Davis, Jr., one of BMW’s most vociferous American supporters, didn’t like it very much. By the mid-nineties, fans remembered it fondly as a paragon of BMW-ness. The E24’s competition career undoubtedly added to its luster, however irrelevant that performance was to the production cars, but we suspect that its greatest advantage was the lukewarm response to the E31, which made memories of the old 6-Series shine that much brighter.

The E24’s performance is quite ordinary by modern standards, but its styling has aged well — better, we think, than the early XJ-S or 450SLC — and it has a certain panache that separates the classic from the merely old. In its day, a 5-Series sedan was a much better value, but the “6er” will be collected long after the last E12 and E28 sedans have succumbed to rust. The passing years have highlighted its virtues, even as its original deficiencies fade from memory. Aging gracefully is not easy, for people or for cars, but the original 6-Series has managed that difficult feat surprisingly well.

FIN


NOTES ON SOURCES

Our sources for the history of BMW in the early seventies included Jan P. Norbye and the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, BMW: Bavaria’s Driving Machines (Skokie, IL: Publications International, Ltd., 1984); Richard A. Johnson, Six Men Who Built the Modern Auto Industry (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 2005); and Bob Lutz, Guts: 8 Laws of Business from One of the Most Innovative Business Leaders of Our Time, Second ed. (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2003).

Other information came from The Unofficial BMW E24 Website (“dnd,” www.e-24. ru/ eng/, accessed 31 December 2009); Mike Covello, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-2002, Second ed. (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001); Frank de Jong, “History of the European Touring Car Championship & Other International Touring Car Races,” 2001, homepage.mac. com/ frank_de_jong/index.html [now www.touringcarracing.net], accessed 31 December 2009; L’Editrice Dell’Automobile LEA, World Cars 1979 (Pelham, New York: Herald Books, 1979); Andreas Müller, “BMW 5er Baureihe E12,”www.infinite-power. de/f-bmw5e12.htm, 24 June 2007, accessed 30 December 2009; the Productioncars.com Book of Automobile Production and Sales Figures, 1945-2005 (N.p.: 2006); and the Wikipedia® entry on the BMW 8-series (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BMW_8_Series_(E31), accessed 30 December 2009).

We also consulted the following period road tests: Ron Wakefield, “A New Coupe from BMW,” Road & Track June 1976; “Autotest: BMW 633CSi,” Autocar 16 October 1976; “BMW 630CSi Road Test,” Road Test July 1977; “Autotest: BMW 635CSi: Bavarian elegance,” Autocar 6 January 1979; “Autotest: BMW M635CSi,” Autocar 28 April 1984; Larry Griffin, “BMW 635CSi: Use it as a fast car is used in Europe: as a small plane,” Car and Driver February 1985; “Autocar Test Extra: BMW 635CSi,” Autocar 20 April 1988; and Jack Nerad, “Power Trip! BMW M6 vs. Porsche 928 S4,” Motor Trend April 1988, all of which are reprinted in BMW 6 Series 1976-1989 Ultimate Portfolio, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2003); and “Road Test: BMW 630CSi,” Car and Driver, May 1977 (Vol. 22, No. 11), pp. 41-47, which is not.

Data on historical exchange rates of the mark to the dollar came from Harold Marcuse, “Historical Dollar-to-Marks Currency Conversion Page,” UC Santa Barbara, 19 August 2005, www.history.ucsb. edu/faculty/marcuse/ projects/currency.htm, accessed 5 December 2009. Inflation estimates came from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Inflation Calculator, data.bls.gov/ cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl. All figures are approximate and are offered solely for illustration purposes; this is an automotive history, not a treatise on historical currency trading or the value of money, and nothing in this article should be taken as financial advice of any kind!


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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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