Guest contributor: Ellis Maher on his E24 6ers
The Magnificent Six
I own a brown car, a 25-year-old brown car. Traditionally, brown isn’t high on the list of colours you want to be seen driving around in. Sure, it’s metallic, reasonably tidy, and even has a certain slickness to it, but it also easily lends itself to all manner of ridicule from ‘friends’ and ‘loved ones’.
Nevertheless, you don’t get a choice of colour with second-hand cars, and for me that’s always worked out quite well.
My brown car is a 1986 635CSi— BMW’s original big coupé, and a car that was built by ze Germans from 1976 to 1989. This is my second 6-Series. The first one was green— slightly more acceptable than brown, but only slightly.
In its ’80s heyday, the E24 6-Series personified popular culture’s whole ‘greed is good’ sentiment, tied with the implication perpetuated time and time again by BMW’s own marketing campaigns that a BMW motorcar is ‘superior’. The 6-Series was the first BMW that ever caught my eye, and that was largely due to the fact that Bruce Willis drove one in Moonlighting. My knowledge of BMW in those days was not due to racing pedigree or bored & stroked power output, but was more tied to the unattainable desire for a ridiculously priced commercial production luxury car. In fact, BMWs in general really didn’t do much for me, but that 6-Series… that was a pretty cool looking car.
When I bought my first Sixer – the green one – I was 23 years old and the car was 17. It was a 1977 633CSi, and to this day it is still the best car I’ve ever bought.
The thing about owning a BMW, regardless of how old it may be, is that everyone assumes you’re rich. Here in Australia, these cars were ridiculously expensive when new— in 1977, a 6-Series was around $40,000 AUD (adjusted for inflation, approximately $184,043 AUD – $178,543 USD – in 2010— Ed.). Import tariffs imposed by the Federal Government (aimed at sustaining the local vehicle manufacturing industry) subjected any imported car in those days to a massive price hike— so much so that BMW Australia withdrew the 6-Series from sale here three or four years after it’s launch, deeming them too expensive to be viable in the Australian market. It wasn’t until the mid ’80s that they were once again available in Australian showrooms, capitalising on their success in [local] motorsport.
Nonetheless, in 1986 they still cost a small fortune. An Australian-delivered 635CSi was upwards of $120,000 AUD, at a time when the average locally-built family sedan would cost around $15,000. Because they were so expensive, and because they weren’t available here for a significant chunk of their 13-year production run, E24s are somewhat rare in Australia compared to the US and European markets. And because of that expense, those that are here tend to have been reasonably well-maintained by their owners.
So back in ’93 when I saw the green one driving through town with a For Sale sign in the window, it was the first time I’d seen one in the flesh and I couldn’t help but follow it to find out more. I was expecting a price tag as long as a phone number. What I discovered was a car that was 17 years old; that looked a million bucks; that had a recently rebuilt engine, a rumbling stainless exhaust, and some interior upgrades; and that went like the clappers, all at a reasonable, affordable price. After a week of umming & aahing, and with the absolute blessing of the significant other, I bought this 17-year-old two-door sports car.
When I’d tell people my car was a BMW, they’d look at me with surprise. How could someone so young have a BMW? Did you win the lottery? When I’d tell them it was a green, 1977 BMW, they’d picture some aged, hulking, battered, kermit-green sedan.
But this car… this car was easy on the eye. It didn’t look anywhere near its 17-plus years. This car looked great in green. Consistent with that cashed-up BMW mentality, the car became known as Moneybags Green.
The car was dripping in charisma. It had retro chrome, gutsy suspension, a loud and throaty exhaust, and a muscle car feel. The interior wasn’t plush – basic leather, an analogue clock, and 1977 power steering – but it was a driver’s car that ate up the highway. It took me to work, it took me on holidays, it took me to weddings and to funerals. It survived break-ins, break-downs, flat tyres, and flat batteries. But it was a bulletproof car, and when it would roar to life it was a car like no other. This car was the single best purchase I have ever made— it was my daily driver for the next 14 years and, without question, it became a part of who I am.
By 2007, my car was 30 years old. It still looked a million bucks, it and it even came in third at a show n’ shine, but it was getting pretty tired. 30 years on the road is a lot of driving. It’s a lot of pulling up at stop signs, bouncing through potholes and hanging on through glorious sweeping bends. 30 years and it qualified for ‘classic’ status, but classic status for this daily driver also meant ‘unreliable’ and ‘often kaput’.
I decided I’d look for a newer model Sixer, still with that timeless silhouette but with an interior and ride more in keeping with that luxury sports coupé style these cars brag about. After a few months of casual glances at online car ads, the brown car appeared— a 1986 635CSi. Reasonably priced and well looked after, I had the benefit of a bit of knowledge and insight as to what to look for in an E24 6-Series BMW.
This brown car was sleek and imposing; it had presence and menace. The paint was practically flawless, the suspension lowered, the interior sparkling clean and distilled in luxury. Before I knew it I was shaking the seller’s hand. I couldn’t believe I was buying a brown car.
Compared to the soft and cruise-y ride of the 633, the 635 is much more refined, with a consistent feel of certainty to its acceleration. The brakes are fantastic by comparison, and the steering and suspension are much more taut, firming up the car’s overall handling and giving it a more surefooted feel when driven enthusiastically.
It’s not a hefty car – you don’t manhandle it through the bends – but it is a car that lets you feel its presence on the road. Effortless power, awesome handling, marvellous brakes— the thing goes like a damn bullet train. The exhaust makes a deep and meaningful rumble, the car tears up sweeping bends and sticks to corners like a yellow line, and it catapults you forward when you plant your foot down.
The E24 is a supremely rewarding GT cruiser. It’s no light, nimble, zippy sports car but it does offer generous handling characteristics and inspiring acceleration, and it itches to go harder the more you push it. This big brown car has powered me around Wakefield Park Raceway; has fanged around the Eastern Creek Skidpan; and takes me to work, to the shops, and to the coast with grunt, comfort, and character. It has impressed me to no end since the day I first saw it.
I am constantly amazed at the colour and how it catches the light. It’s deep, rich metallic brown paintwork displays hues of a tungsten silver in bright sunlight, it’s flared guards and sharknose styling are menacingly accentuated in shadows. When you park in the street you can’t help but glance back at the car as you walk away. Brown it may be, but it works; it makes brown look good.
None of us is getting any younger, but some of us are aging better than others. Throughout its entire 13-year production run the 6-Series’ exterior styling hardly changed, and today it is still considered one of the high points of automotive design. There are plenty of people who share this sentiment and know there is much more to appreciate in BMW’s history before it was all about iDrive, magnetic tow technology, and run-flat tyres. The 6-Series is a benchmark coupé. It has aged gracefully and continues to represent a timeless and classic part of automotive history.
Words and images: Ellis Maher
1986 BMW E24 635CSi – Mink Brown (Nerzbraun)
1977 BMW E24 633CSi – Reseda Green (Resedagrun)