1988 BMW 635CSi Highline E24

1988 BMW 635CSi Highline E24

It might be over 30-years since E24 production ended but it’s still got Six appeal by the barrel load, is this one of the best classic BMWs ever made? Words: Bob Harper. Photography: Jason Dodd.

It seems fitting that the BMW with the longest production run is one of the models that seems to be most coveted among both fans of the marque and the wider classic car community. The E24 6 Series is one of BMW’s greats that is seemingly loved by all and is being increasingly sought after as a useable and entertaining classic. It was, of course, the successor to the much-loved E9 CS coupé and when the Six was initially introduced there were some concerns that the newer, bigger, heavier machine might have traded some of its sporting prowess for more of a GT approach. The same reservations were raised at the launch of the E24’s successor, the mighty 8 Series E31…

1988 BMW 635CSi Highline E24

Despite these worries the new 6 Series was heartily lauded on its arrival in the UK in 1976. The great Mel Nicholls writing in Car magazine said, “A sporting coupé with handling second to none; better and more refined and more enjoyable than any other BMW yet. This one, for me, is the definitive BMW.” Praise indeed from someone who was happy to admit he wasn’t BMW’s most ardent fan.

After setting solid foundations in the 1960s, expansion into the luxury sector seemed to be the way forward for BMW and the 6 Series was its first foray into the upper echelons of motoring. BMW in-house designer Paul Bracq, whose elegant design was chosen over Giugiaro’s proposal, created the distinctive styling that has found so many fans over the years. The energy crisis of the early ’70s saw many car manufacturers cancelling plans for large luxury cars, but BMW was by now accustomed to looking beyond the immediate situation and planning for the future.

Unveiled to the public in March of 1976 at the Geneva motor show, prior to its launch in the summer, the 6 Series was unmistakably a BMW, with its narrow kidney grille and prominent quad headlights. The design element that would endow the E24 with its “shark” nickname was Bracq’s reverse angle front grille area, which, when combined with the long and lithe coupé body, gave the 6 Series an appearance rather similar to the predatory fish. The overall exterior design was very clean and simple, with a swage line running from nose-to-tail along the car’s flank, visually lengthening the profile, while tasteful chrome detailing added a touch of visual flair. Inherently coherent, the E24 was undoubtedly one of BMW’s best pieces of design and even today it’s hard to find any fault with the car’s styling.

By today’s standards the interior may look somewhat spartan, but in the ’70s this was the height of luxury, and UK cars were well specified with electric windows and air-conditioning on the range topping models.

Rear seat accommodation was a trifle tight, but far better than the 8 Series E31 that followed it. A commodious boot could swallow plenty of luggage for that week in the South of France.

Beneath the surface, the 6 Series used a number of elements from the E12 5 Series, though slightly updated for this new model – fuel injection made an appearance in the two larger capacity six-cylinder engines and the recirculating ball steering reduced the amount of assistance as speed increased. The 6 Series was also the first model to feature BMW’s check control, with its bank of warning lights for various systems. The first few months of production were difficult for BMW, as assembly at the Karmann works had resulted in sub-standard levels of quality. BMW brought assembly in-house, to the newly refurbished Dingolfing plant and decided to just use Karmann for the supply of unpainted bodies in white.

At its launch in 1976, the 6 Series range-topper was the 633CSi utilising the venerable M30 straight-six mated to Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection. This meant 200hp and 210lb ft of torque – good enough for an 8.1-second 0-60mph time according to Autocar for the four-speed manual model. The magazine was hugely impressed summing the big Six up thus; “BMW are, with this new model, moving into the sort of market where buyers will justifiably expect great things. We can only say on conclusion of a test we have thoroughly enjoyed, that owners are not likely to be disappointed. It is a very impressive car indeed.” And so it should have been with an on-the road price of £14,163 – the average UK house in 1976 was worth around £11,000!

Despite the plaudits BMW uprated the E24 after a scant couple of years, releasing the 635CSi in 1978, the most overly sporting non-M E24. With a 3.5-litre engine retaining the 12-valve, SOHC layout of the previous models the extra capacity giving 218hp and an equally impressive 224lb ft of torque. A further update occurred in 1982 when the 6 Series moved from the E12 chassis to that of the then new E28 5 Series and these revised models can be spotted by their wrap around rear bumpers, updated suspension and the fitment of the service indicator board along with a host of other revisions.

The last update for the E24 occurred in the latter part of 1987 for the 1988 model year with the launch of the ‘Highline’ 6 Series that we have here today. But before we have a look at these two gorgeous examples it’s also worth noting that while the 635CSi E24 was obviously designed as a road car it’s important not to forget that it was a very competitive race car too. It had big boots to fill as its predecessor, the iconic 3.0 CSL Batmobile E9, won umpteen Touring Car titles, many of which were run several years after it had ceased production. Some had hoped that the M635CSi would be BMW’s weapon of choice but it was never produced in large enough numbers to meet homologation requirements which left the 635CSi E24 as BMW Motorsport’s weapon of choice.

In reality it was a trifle underpowered and relatively heavy for a Touring Car but nevertheless the 635CSi was a great stopgap while BMW Motorsport readied the E30 M3 for its glittering competition career. In total the 635CSi won three European Touring Car championships, two DTM titles and occupied the top step of the podium at the Spa and Nürburgring 24 hour races, twice at the ‘Ring and three times in the Ardennes. Not bad for what was essentially a luxury GT.

So to the Highline models. By the time of the E24’s second major update it really was getting rather long in the tooth, having been soldiering on for nigh on 12-years, but that didn’t stop BMW from majoring on the luxury side of things for the car’s last hurrah. Externally there were larger impact bumpers and the large metric-sized alloys that had previously been the preserve of the M635CSi. Inside it was a vegan’s nightmare with swathes of leather – it literally adorned virtually every surface including the seats, door cards, dashboard and headlining – and BMW claimed that each 635CSi used 27 square metres of finest Bavarian hide.

Under the bonnet there had been some changes too with a further updated version of the M30 straight-six, as fitted to the E32 735i. Capacity was now 3430cc and thanks to the latest version of Motronic power was rated at 220hp along with 232lb ft of torque. The standard transmission was a ZF four-speed switchable auto with the five-speed manual being a no cost option. Most things were standard including electric sports seats with driver memory, metallic paint and air-conditioning and if you opted for the manual a limited slip diff was fitted too. If you went for the auto an LSD was available for an additional £402. Other options of note included heated front seats (£226), Servotronic steering (£189), cruise control (£324) and a handsfree car phone for an eye-watering £1,668.

In keeping with the car’s upmarket feel the price had taken a considerable hike from 1976 levels with the Highline 635CSi weighing in at £36,860 in 1988 – BMW almost sticking with the ‘car costs the same as a house’ theme as the average house price in ’88 was around £43k. Performance was impressive for its day with 0-62mph coming up in 8.4-seconds for the auto, with the manual shaving a second off that time. Top speed was a decent 140mph while BMW claimed an average economy of 24mpg under the less stringent testing regimes of the good old days.

But what about the two examples we have here? They’re both owned by Sam Pitchford from Elms Automotive, with the Diamond Black car being his own personal machine while the Royal Blue example is currently for sale. They’re both low mileage minters with a combined mileage of less than 100k – no wonder they look so perfect!

Sam explains how they came to be in his possession; “I’ve always wanted a 635CSi and I went to Scotland to buy it in 2014. I’d just been left a little bit of money when my grandmother passed away and I thought I’d like to do something with it rather than putting it towards the mortgage and I bought the Six from a guy who’d owned it for 24-years and had loved it but didn’t use it any more as he was getting on in years. My maiden voyage was central Scotland back to Kent, five or six hundred miles – it could have ended very badly but it was absolutely brilliant. So, I’ve had that one for seven years and I’ve done a fair bit to it, although it was in a nice state of repair anyway, it’s got super low mileage and that was one of the things that really appealed to me.

“It’s one of the best-looking BMWs,” says Sam with a grin, “And they’re just such fun to drive. I do use mine – I think I’ve done the best part of 1000-miles this year, I’ve taken it on holiday and plenty of other places. I keep it nice but I have it to use it, not store it like a piece of art. I think they’re all the better for it when they are used,” he says.

Through being involved with the BMW Owner’s Cub Sam heard about the Royal Blue example – another low mileage car that had originally been owned by an MP who had been in Mrs Thatcher’s cabinet. “It was a London car so it was quite good in terms of the usual problems like corrosion, it didn’t suffer from that, but it had a few of the London parking dings and scrapes so I’ve suppose I’ve recommissioned it – it’s not had a bare metal respray, but it’s been gently titivated back into a state where I’d want to own it. Sadly, I can’t afford to keep two of them so it’s up for sale through my company Elms Automotive.”

Sam admits that he was lucky with his black 635CSi, buying at a time when the E24 wasn’t quite as coveted as they are today. For many years the Six was undervalued but they’ve come into their own in the last few years with values rising significantly for good cars. And when you take into account the car’s merits and attributes it’s not hard to understand why.

It’s an old school bruiser with a huge amount of charm. It looks sensational, especially today when so many cars have the same homogenous look, and it really stands out from the crowd. Despite having been conceived in the 1970s it still feels modern enough to be perfectly at home with modern traffic conditions and entertaining when you want it to be. There’s a real sense of occasion when you slip behind the wheel with the cossetting cockpit and that long sculpted bonnet stretching away in front of you.

The M30 straight-six is a peach too, packing a decent punch and making some glorious noises while doing so. Of course, its performance would be put to shame by a 120d these days, but when you’re piloting a classic there’s far more to the experience than outright speed. And that’s where the Six’s chassis comes into play with nicely weighted steering which while not the fastest is full of feel and feedback, especially when compared to more modern machinery. BMWs from this era are known for being playful and the 635CSi is no exception – grip was lacking back when it was new thanks to the woefully inadequate TRX tyres, but more modern versions are much more suited to giving some more grip before they start to slip. The bottom line is that it’s a hugely entertaining car to drive, whether you just want to sit back and cruise while enjoying the decent ride and the tuneful engine or you ramp it up and delve a little deeper into its performance portfolio. When the Highline was new back in 1988 it was tested by Autocar and while it could have been dismissed as a creature from a bygone age – the E24 was 12-years old by then – the magazine was hugely impressed with the car’s continual development. The handling was judged to be “well-balanced” the ride was “impressively supple at speed” and the engine’s performance was “effortless”. It summed up by saying; “As a mile-eater the 635CSi is a superb car. It handles well, cruises quietly and comfortably all day at autobahn speeds, and detail development over the years has kept it competitive.” And that résumé still stands today. A good E24 is a glorious machine – both to look at and to drive – and it’s great to see it finally receiving the sort of recognition it richly deserves.

THANKS Sam Pitchford Elms Automotive Tel: 01795 393787 Web: elmsautomotive.co.uk

TECHNICAL DATA 1988 BMW 635CSi Highline E24

  • ENGINE: M30B35 straight-six, 12-valve
  • CAPACITY: 3430cc
  • MAX POWER: 220hp @ 5700rpm
  • MAX TORQUE: 232lb ft @ 4000rpm
  • 0-62MPH: 8.4-seconds
  • TOP SPEED: 140mph
  • ECONOMY: 24.6mpg
  • WEIGHT: 1575kg
  • PRICE NEW: £36,860 (1988)

They’re both minters with a combined mileage of less than 100k – no wonder they look so perfect!

By the time of the E24’s second major update it really was getting long in the tooth

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