Curbside Classic: 1986 BMW 635 CSi (E24) – She’s A Little Bit Dangerous, She’s Got What It Takes To Make Ends Meet

(first posted 1/27/2017)     “Personal Luxury Car” – A term that doesn’t have a set-in-stone definition, but one that historically described a prestigious two-door luxury coupe typically positioned near the top of a brand’s lineup, emphasizing driver comfort and personal image often at the expense of passenger space and functionality.

It’s a term that is largely meaningless today in a world where single individuals, even those who prioritize image and drive pricier cars, are more often than not driving sedans that can comfortable fit a family of four and their gear, or driving upscale SUVs/CUVs/pickups that are positively gigantic, and still rarely haul more than two occupants.

In the decades from the 1950s through the 1980s however, the personal luxury car coupe was the type of car you drove if you wanted the world to know that you were infrequently (if ever) burdened with hauling kids around, and that you had a little bit extra disposable income (likely a result of not having children) to treat yourself on a car that was for you and your enjoyment.

Somewhat paralleling the rise of the personal luxury car, albeit a few years behind, was the rise of foreign imports in the U.S., particularly on the coasts. As the overwrought brougham era reached its zenith in excess by the mid-1970s, many Americans began growing weary of the vinyl roofs, opera windows, loose pillow velour seating, and road isolation that had decidedly become the norm in everything from personal luxury coupes to upscale compact cars.

While not exclusive, by and large it was the rising demographic of upwardly-mobile baby boomers, working white collar jobs in major urban areas who fueled the rising demand of luxury imports in the 1980s. With levels of income unimaginable to their parents’ generation, these commonly referred to “Yuppies” (a term that unfortunately is often used in a derogatory manner instead of more colorful insults, despite its origins as a purely descriptive acronym) correspondingly possessed very different attitudes regarding money.

Their significantly higher buying power, discerning tastes, and desire to display their wealth and success drove the demand of luxury goods through the roof during the decade of excess to the point where many Americans’ everyday lives looked like a scene straight out of Dynasty, minus the physical altercations.

Everything from designer clothes to consumer electronics to the business of interior designers soared in popularity, but it was the imported European luxury car which was the ultimate display of status. While these new-to-wealth, status-seeking 20- and 30-somethings were far more likely to be buying slightly more economical and practical 3 Series and 5 Series, they nonetheless elevated the glamorous appeal and notoriety of BMW to so many like minded individuals.

For the more upper-crust new money and progressive old money types alike who were predominately maintaining their social status, it was much more “exclusive” cars like this BMW 6 Series that succeeded the role previously occupied by cars such as the Eldorado and Continental Mark Series as the preferred choice in the small yet profitable personal luxury market.

Originally introduced as a 1976 model in Europe and a 1977 in North America/Japan, the BMW 6 Series (“E24” internally) was the direct replacement for the E9 “New Six” CS coupe (sold as the 3.0 CS/CSi/CSL and 2.5 CS). Apart from a slight 4-inch increase in overall length for the European models, overall E24 dimensions were only fractionally different from the E9, owing to the car’s similar long and low appearance. Despite this, the E24 looked like a bigger car, which can be attributed to its blockier, slab-sided sheetmetal and more imposing front end.

Visual changes were fairly minimal over the car’s 13-year lifespan, primarily limited to engine upgrades and enhancements to interior appointments and amenities. The E24’s most significant change came under the skin in 1982, when the car was given improved suspension components shared with the new E28 5 Series sedan. The interior and exterior also received mild facelifts, though to the untrained eye were virtually indistinguishable from before.

6 Series interiors were, in true BMW fashion, an example of form followed by function. While occupants could happily ensconce their shoulder-padded bodies into the available finely-stitched Nappa leather seats, the sporting nature of the car was easily evidenced by the seats themselves, with their thick side bolstering for both front and rear, and orthopedic shape design.

Sports seats added further adjustments, including an extendable seat cushion for added thigh support, something BMW continues to include in all of their current cars equipped with available sports seats.

As for the design of the interior itself, the E24 presented drivers with a highly driver-oriented cockpit layout. All controls and gauges were within easy reach and view, with the multi-tiered center stack angled towards the driver. Typical for BMWs and many European cars of this era, power window and seat controls were located in the center console for easy access, also allowing for compartments under the door panel armrests.

And while there was no sea of wood trim adorning the dash, extensive use of high quality leathers, plastics, and carpeting made clear that this was a confident luxury car, just a highly Teutonic one.

Mechanically, the 6 Series was powered exclusively by BMW single overhead cam inline-6s from either the M30 or M90 family of engines. The E24 model range consisted of the 628, 630, 633, and 635, with the last two digits indicating displacement in nearest liters. The only exception to this was with North American-market M 635 CSi models, which were badged simply as “M6”, and a special Luxury Edition 635 CSi, which was badged as “L6”. All E24s continued to carry the “CS” suffix, with fuel-injected models carrying the “CSi” suffix.

Output in European-spec cars ranged from 181 horsepower at 5800 rmp/173 lb-ft torque at 4200 rmp in the 628 CSi to 282 horsepower at 6200 rmp/251 lb-ft torque at 4500 rmp in the M 635 CSi. In order to meet emissions requirements and run on lower quality gasoline, North American-spec cars typically had lower compression ratios, and thus lower output than their European relatives.

The North American-spec 635 CSi in particular posted a rather shortchanged 182 horsepower when compared to the 215 horsepower it had in Europe, but hey, it still had “the look”, which was good enough for many buyers. For those who did care about truly taking advantage of the E24’s full potential, the 6 Series proved a popular grey-market import.

Notwithstanding slightly lower output than European versions, the 6 Series were very capable cars for their time. The inline-6s of the 635 and M6 offered vastly better acceleration (7.7 seconds for the 635 CSi; 5.9 for M6, both U.S.-spec) and a higher top speed than the heavier Mercedes-Benz 560 SEC and Lincoln Mark VII LSC, which were equipped with slightly torquier, but lower horsepower V8s.

But merely raw power and straight-line acceleration aren’t enough to make a car The Ultimate Driving Machine©. BMW’s have always been best known for how they make use of this power, through their tight, tactile, and connected feel, delivering an ultimate driving experience few other cars can match. The 6 Series was the clear enthusiast choice for personal luxury car buyers, arguably offering best-in-class handling dynamics.

(Backed my car in for a quick comparison shot – BMW coupes of different eras, separated by 30 years)

The “original” E24 6 Series was indefinitely a very BMW-esque take on the idea of personal luxury. It may not have been quite as plush as most competitors, but what it lacked in opulence, the 6 Series more than made up for it with its performance. In the U.S. market, BMW might not have been the most synonymous brand for “personal luxury car”, but for those who wanted to look the part and not give up any performance with their large luxe coupe, the 6 Series was the optimum choice.

Photographed: South Shore BMW, Rockland, MA – December 2016

Related Reading:

1985 BMW 635 CSi

1987 BMW M6