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.

1981 BMW 635CSi grille © 2018 Andrew Buc; used with permission
(Photo © 2018 Andrew Buc; 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. 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.

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. (author photo)

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. (author photo)

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.

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.

A FEDERAL CASE

The 6-Series didn’t come to America until 1977. When it finally did appear, American buyers had the dubious pleasure of paying far more money for noticeably inferior performance. The initial federalized 630CSi model was heavier than its European counterparts, thanks to bigger bumpers that added nearly 5 inches (12 cm) to its overall length. The only engine choice at launch was a fuel-injected version of the 2,985 cc (182 cu. in.) engine making 176 horsepower SAE (131 kW). Despite its power-to-weight deficiencies, the U.S. 630CSi carried a starting price tag of about $23,500 (the equivalent of around $85,000 in 2010), nearly 50% more than a German-market 630CS. Admittedly, the 630CSi was around $4,000 cheaper than a Mercedes 450SLC, but neither was priced within the reach of mere mortals.

American critics liked the 630CSi’s looks and handling, but its towering price cooled their ardor. Most preferred the 5-Series sedan, which performed just as well, was far more practical, and cost a good deal less.

BMW, apparently stung by the criticism, hastened to introduce a federalized 633CSi in 1978, dropping the 2,985 cc (182 cu. in.) engine in favor of a smog-controlled version of the 3,210 cc (196 cu. in.) M30 six also used in the new 733i sedan. The U.S. 633CSi had only fractionally more power than the 630CSi — 177 hp SAE (132 kW) — but stronger mid-range torque gave it better real-world performance than the earlier car.

Still, many buyers had evidently reached the same conclusions as the magazine testers and U.S. 6-Series sales were modest. BMW’s American sales grew impressively throughout the late seventies and early eighties, but the big coupes represented a very small fraction of that business. Throughout the E24’s lifespan, the U.S. market accounted for less than 30% of total sales.

THE 635CSi

The European BMW 633CSi was a close match for a 450SLC in overall performance, but in 1978, Mercedes upped the ante with the limited-production 450SLC 5.0 (subsequently renamed 500SLC), which featured a new all-aluminum 4,973 cc (305 cu. in.) V8 with 240 PS DIN (176 kW). Since the new coupe was both lighter and more powerful than the previous 450SLC, the 450SLC 5.0 was decisively quicker than both its predecessor and the 635.

1980 BMW 635CSi front 3q (© 2005 Jim Gunnee; used with permission
In addition to its larger M90 engine, the BMW 635CSi had stiffer anti-roll bars, wider BBS wheels (albeit with the same 195/70VR-14 tires as lesser models), and front and rear spoilers that were claimed to substantially reduce aerodynamic lift. Anti-lock brakes became optional in 1979 and Bosch Digital Motor Electronics — controlling ignition timing as well as fuel injection — was added in 1980. (Photo: 1981 BMW 635csi – Car No8″ © 2005 Jim Gunnee; used with permission)

Given Von Kuenheim’s Mercedes envy, such a challenge could not go unanswered. BMW’s response appeared in July 1978 as the 635CSi, powered by a new six-cylinder engine called the M90. Similar to the M88 engine developed for BMW’s short-lived M1 supercar, the M90 was bored and stroked to 3,453 cc (211 cu. in.), although it retained a SOHC head and two valves per cylinder. The combination was sufficient for an output of 218 PS DIN (160 kW), a healthy improvement over the 633CSi. Linked to a new Getrag five-speed gearbox, the M90 engine gave the big coupe’s performance a shot in the arm: 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) was now possible in less than eight seconds while top speed climbed to nearly 140 mph (224 km/h), outstanding for the time. The following year, the 635CSi also got optional Bosch antilock brakes, again to maintain parity with Mercedes. (ABS was not available on U.S. 6ers until 1985.)

The 635CSi proved very popular, particularly in Germany, where it cost less than 10% more than the 633CSi. In its first year, the big-engine model accounted for nearly a quarter of production, rising to more than 50% in its second year. Starting in mid-1979, there was also a new base model, the fuel-injected 628CSi, replacing the carbureted 630CS. However, buyers who could afford a 6-Series were apparently unmoved by the smaller engine’s modest cost savings and slightly better fuel economy; BMW sold only 5,950 628CSi models between 1979 and 1987.

1981 BMW 635CSi rear 3q © 2005 Jim Gunnee; used with permission
The rear bumpers of European E24s were redesigned early in the 1981 model year, wrapping around the rear fenders for better parking protection. This U.K.-market 1981 still has the old bumpers, but it has the newer, slimmer rear spoiler, also new for 1981. Note the “Parsol” bronze window tint, standard on European E24s. At launch, BMW admitted that the bronze tint was selected mainly for aesthetic reasons and was somewhat less effective than the customary green tint. Untinted and green-tinted windows were no-cost options; the latter were normally included with air conditioning, which was optional on European 6-Series. (Photo: “1981 BMW 635csi – Car No8” © 2005 Jim Gunnee; used with permission)

THE 6-SERIES IN COMPETITION

BMW racing teams were slow to adopt the E24, since the old 3.0 CSL remained competitive in European Touring Car (ETC) competition as late as 1979. Group 2 versions of the 6-Series made their first foray onto the racetrack in 1980. In 1981, Helmutt Kelleners and Umberto Grano used 360 hp (264 KW) racing versions of the 635CSi, prepared by Ruedi Eggenberger, to tie for the ETC driver’s championship.

1975 (?) BMW 3.0 CSL 'Batmobile' © 2018 Andrew Buc; used with permission

The BMW 3.0 CSL “Batmobile,” so named because its assortment of spoilers was outlandish for its day, was the raciest of the E9 series and remained a surprisingly successful competition car into the late seventies. (Photo © 2018 Andrew Buc; used with permission)

In 1982, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) switched the ETC from Group 2 to Group A rules, which greatly restricted the number of allowable modifications. BMW Motorsport and Ruedi Eggenberger decided to switch to the smaller 528i sedan, which Umberto Grano used to win the 1982 ETC driver’s cup. The following year, however, Eggenberger switched back to the 635CSi, which Dieter Quester used to win the 1983 driver’s cup. The 6-Series didn’t fare as well in 1984 and 1985, but Axel Feder won the 24 Hours Nürburgring both years, driving a Schnitzer-built 635CSi. Finally, in 1986, Robert Ravaglia drove another 635CSi to the type’s third and final ETC championship.

The 6-Series also fared well in Australian competition. Driver Jim Richards won both the 1985 Australian Touring Car Championship and the 1985 AMSCAR series in a 635CSi and became Australian Endurance Champion in both 1985 and 1986.

While the racing 6-Series never quite equaled the record of the 3.0 CSL, its competition pedigree was nonetheless impressive. It also cemented the 6-Series’ role as BMW’s image leader, a role it arguably fulfilled better than the company’s intended flagship, the decidedly Mercedes-like 7-Series sedan.

1981 BMW 635CSi M90 engine © 2018 Andrew Buc; used with permission
The 3,453 cc (211 cu. in.) M90 engine of the early 635CSi was essentially a SOHC 12-valve version of the M88 engine in the BMW M1, needing conjoined cylinder bores to accommodate its 93.4 mm (3.67-inch) bore dimensions. This 1981 car has Bosch Digital Motor Electronics (DME), added to the big engine the previous year. In 1982, the M90 was replaced by the M30B34, which had a narrower 92 mm (3.62-inch) bore and the longer 86 mm (3.38-inch) stroke of the 3,210 cc (196 cu. in.) engine from the 633CSi, reducing displacement to 3,430 cc (209 cu. in.). The M30B34 was less racy than the M90, but was more reliable and somewhat cheaper to build. (Photo © 2018 Andrew Buc; used with permission)

M FOR MOTORSPORT: THE M635CSi AND M6

The civilian 6-Series got its first and only major makeover in mid-1982. Externally, it was almost unchanged, but BMW claimed that a host of minor revisions reduced its weight by 156 lb (91 kg) in European trim, slightly less in federalized form. The front suspension was new, still using MacPherson struts, but now with BMW’s unique twin-pivot lower control arms [Author’s note: discussed in our 2014 updated MacPherson strut article], developed for the first 7-Series. There was also a new rear suspension, borrowed from the latest (E28) 5-Series, which revised the geometry of the semi-trailing arms to reduce the big coupe’s penchant for trailing-throttle oversteer. The interior got a facelift as well, adding new gimmicks like a complex and expensive trip computer, a fuel economy gauge (a depressing and generally pointless accessory in the thirsty 6-Series), and a “Service Interval Indicator” with warning lights that signaled the need for routine maintenance.

1988 BMW M6 front cabin © 2018 Andrew Buc; used with permission
The BMW 6-Series got a mildly revised dashboard in 1982, including a revamped Active Check Control system, redesigned minor controls, and a new three-spoke steering wheel, replaced on later airbag-equipped cars with the four-spoke wheel seen here. Switches around the shift lever are for the electric windows. (Photo © 2018 Andrew Buc; used with permission)

1988 BMW M6 instrument panel © 2018 Andrew Buc; used with permission
Post-1982 E24 6-Series cars got a new dashboard with Service Interval Indicator lights (the multi-colored warning lights in the center of the dash) and a fuel economy gauge set into the bottom of the tachometer. M-spec cars, like this 1988 M6, omitted the fuel economy gauge to make room for the greater sweep of their 8,000-rpm tachometer. (Given the thirst of the M88/3 engine, it was perhaps just as well not to watch the gauge dip low in all but the gentlest driving.) (Photo © 2018 Andrew Buc; used with permission)

The 635CSi also got a new engine, although it took a careful look at the spec sheet to notice the difference. The earlier M90 engine, whose wider bore had necessitated conjoined cylinder bores, had been troublesome and was different enough from the smaller M30 to make it expensive to build. In late 1982, BMW replaced it with the cheaper M30B34 engine from the 735i sedan. Displacement decreased from 3,453 cc (211 cu. in.) to 3,430 cc (209 cu. in.), but power remained unchanged, at 218 PS DIN (160 kW). The new engine could now be mated with a new four-speed ZF 4HP22 automatic with lockup torque converter, providing better performance and better fuel economy than the old three-speed.

The bigger news came in September 1983 with the announcement of the M635CSi. This used a new 3,453 cc (211 cu. in.), 24-valve DOHC engine called M88/3, another derivative of the M88 engine from the M1 supercar. Developed by Horst Rech and Rainer Bratenstein, the M88/3 was the most powerful engine ever offered in a regular-production BMW, making 286 PS DIN (210 kW) at 6,500 rpm. The new engine was accompanied by a lowered and stiffened suspension and wider Michelin TRX tires. The sole transmission was a Getrag five-speed gearbox, linked to a limited-slip differential with a shorter final drive ratio than the standard 635CSi. Performance was appropriately ferocious: BMW claimed 0-62 mph (0-100 km/h) in 6.4 seconds and a top speed of 158 mph (254 km/h). Those figures made the M635CSi quicker than a Lotus Esprit Turbo and a close match with the substantially more expensive Porsche 928S2.

The M635CSi’s starting price in Germany was 89,500 DM (around $31,500), although BMW inevitably soaked export buyers for much more than that; in the U.K., for instance, the M635CSi started at £32,194, about $42,800 at contemporary exchange rates. Some critics found the M635CSi a little too hard-edged, but it was arguably the ultimate BMW of its era. (While we assume the M635CSi was added to capitalize on BMW’s racing success, it was not an homologation special; the competition cars were based on the standard 635CSi, not the M coupe.)

BMW didn’t develop a catalyzed version of the M88/3 engine until 1986, so North American buyers had to settle for a federalized 635CSi with 182 hp (136 kW) and a price tag of more than $40,000. In that form, the 6er was still quick — performance was comparable to that of the U.S.-market Jaguar XJ-S and Mercedes 500SEC — but well behind even the basic European 635CSi. As partial compensation, ABS was now standard on U.S. cars, many years after it was introduced elsewhere. A driver’s side airbag became available in Europe in early 1985; it didn’t arrive in the U.S. until 1988.

In 1986, BMW finally introduced a catalyzed version of the M88/3 engine, the S38. A North American version of the M635CSi, dubbed M6, bowed in December. Making 256 hp SAE (191 kW), it was inevitably slower than the European version, capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in a little under seven seconds and a top speed of 144 mph (231 km/h). It was still a deeply impressive car, with assured handling, strong brakes, and sharp steering response. It was alarmingly thirsty, however; its EPA combined mileage was only 15 mpg (16.7 L/100 km) — a mere 12 mpg (19.6 L/100 km) on the current EPA scale — and its $55,950 base price didn’t include a $2,250 gas-guzzler tax. Starting in 1988, American buyers could settle for a stronger 635CSi with 208 hp SAE (163 kW).

1987 BMW M6 front 3q © 2007 I, JLantzy (Jamie Lantzy) (CC BY 2.5 Generic)
The U.S. version of the BMW M635CSi, which arrived late in the 1987 model year, was called the BMW M6. Its S38 engine was based on the European M88/3 engine, but a slightly lower compression ratio (9.8 rather than 10.5:1) and the addition of a catalytic converter reduced power from 286 PS DIN (210 kW) to 256 hp SAE (191 kW). This one has been lowered significantly, with bigger, 17-in wheels replacing the stock metric-size 240/45VR415 Michelin TRX rubber. (Photo: “1986 BMW M6” © 2007 I, Jlantzy (Jamie Lantzy); resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license)

The emphasis on performance models is a little misleading because most 6-Series buyers opted for the standard 635CSi, about 60% of them with automatic transmissions. Just as significant for many customers were new options like rear air conditioning and all-leather interiors. The demand for luxury features was strong enough in many markets that in 1987, BMW launched a 635CSi Highline edition (marketed in the U.S. as the L6), offered only with automatic and featuring almost every option and luxury feature in the catalog.

1987 BMW L6 badge
Offered only in 1987 and only in the U.S. market, the BMW L6 was a concoction of BMW of North America, essentially a fully equipped 635CSi automatic. It listed for $49,500, about $2,500 more than the regular 635CSi. (author photo)

1988 BMW M6 rear cabin © 2018 Andrew Buc; used with permission
Although the 6er’s rear seats are well-trimmed, and many late cars even had the optional rear air conditioning seen here (added in 1986), they are not generously sized. Passengers taller than 5’10” (180 cm) are cramped for both headroom and legroom. (Photo © 2018 Andrew Buc; used with permission)

THE BATTLE OF THE BRANDS

Sales of the 6-Series grew steadily through most of its life. Total production rose from 4,933 in 1976 to a peak of 9,626 in 1985, with one brief, recession-induced retrogression in 1981. Sales only began to slip as production wound down, dropping to 1,064 units in 1989, the E24’s final year. Total production amounted to 86,216 units of all variants.

The 6-Series consistently outsold the Jaguar XJ-S, which never topped 6,000 units a year, but often fell behind its Mercedes-Benz rivals. The latter comparison is complicated, because Mercedes dropped the R107 coupes in 1981, replacing them with the bigger W126 SEC line, but retained the older R107 roadsters through 1989. The SEC coupes alone often outsold the 6-Series, and if we add SL roadster sales to the tally, Mercedes comes out ahead by a margin of nearly three to one.

The disparity is particularly noteworthy given that the Mercedes cost significantly more than the BMW. In Germany, a late-eighties BMW 635CSi cost around 80,000 DM (about $45,000), while a Mercedes 560SEC ran to nearly 140,000 DM ($78,000). The big-engine Mercedes were somewhat quicker than the 6-Series (barring the M coupes), although none was as nimble and none had the BMW’s enviable competition pedigree. However, the sales figures suggest that for buyers in this class, neither speed nor racing history was of prime concern, nor was price. As much as it may have pained Eberhard von Kuenheim, we can only conclude that Mercedes-Benz still held (and continues to hold) a clear edge in outright snob appeal.

1986 BMW 635CSi rear 3q © 2009 Benjamin de Campos; used with permission)
Despite the addition of the M635CSi (and, in Europe, the smaller-engined 628CSi), the BMW 635CSi accounted for the lion’s share of E24 6-Series production. Although this one has been “decked” (stripped of badges and rear spoiler), this U.K.-market 1986 car is a 635CSi with automatic transmission, the most popular combination. Note the way the bumpers wrap around the rear fenders; they were revised in 1981 to improve protection from parking lot shunts. (Photo: “My BMW 635csi” © 2009 Benjamin de Campos; used with permission)

BMW management apparently reached the same conclusion. When development of the E24’s successor began in the early eighties, it was conceived as a far more sophisticated, far more expensive car, aimed squarely at the top-of-the-line Mercedes. BMW eventually spent well over 1 billion DM (around €500 million) on the new coupe, the E31, which made its public debut in September 1989 as the 850i. Styled by Klaus Kapitza under the direction of styling director Claus Luthe, the 850i was striking, almost futuristic, powered by the 300 PS (221 kW) V12 engine from the E32 750iL sedan. Its price tag was equally striking: over 135,000 DM ($75,000) at launch, a hefty increase over the final E24.

The reaction to the 8-Series was remarkably similar to the reaction to the E24 14 years earlier. Critics were impressed by its styling and technology, but critical of its 4,200-lb (1,900-kg) bulk, lofty price, and the fact that it was not substantially more exciting to drive than the cheaper and more practical 750iL sedan. The E31 sold reasonably well, considering the state of the economy at the time of its launch, but many BMW fans pined for the old M635CSi.

BMW 840Ci front 3q © 2006 JanS (CC BY-SA 2.5 Generic)
The original 850i was supplemented in mid-1993 by a new 840Ci model, using the 3,982 cc (243 cu. in.) V8 and five-speed automatic from the contemporary 5-Series and 7-Series sedans. With 282 hp SAE (210 kW), an extra gear, and somewhat less weight than the V12 car, the 840Ci was just as quick and somewhat less expensive. (Photo: “BMW 840 Ci 1” © 2006 JanS; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 Generic license)

(Among the E24’s mourners, we suspect, were the engineers of the 1989-1997 Ford Thunderbird, which debuted around the time 6-Series production ended. The Thunderbird was much bigger than the E24 and was neither as well mannered nor as well finished, but the resemblance was hard to miss.)

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.

# # #


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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