The List Will a BMW M635CSi E24 drive live up to a reader’s childhood passenger-seat memory? Your dream drive made real The memory of chasing down a BMW M635CSi E24 while sat beside his dad in his Rover SD1 Vitesse left Chris Dodds with a lifelong quest to test drive the mighty Bavarian. Words Andrew Noakes. Photography Charlie Magee.
‘You can give it full beans’
COVER The List Reader Chris Dodds once chased after a BMW M635CSi E24 one memorable day in the Eighties. Now we’ve caught one for him, how will he fare behind the wheel?
Reader takes on the mighty 6-Series E24 M635
Drops of condensation dribble down the front window of Ralph’s Café, distorting the view out to the row of cars parked nose-on to the pavement in the busy Sussex town of Forest Row. There’s the usual line-up of anonymous modern metal, dominated by black and blue SUVs. But in the middle sits a long, low shape conspicuous in bright red and garnished with chrome highlights.
The forward-slanted nose carries a familiar blue-and-white roundel and on the grille there’s a bold M – and this is a car that dates back to an era when that was more than just a trim level. It’s an Eighties icon, a high point of BMW design and desirability – the mighty M635CSi. Classic Cars reader Chris Dodds has been itching to drive one, and we’re about to put him behind the wheel to find out just what the big Bavarian is like.
Chris is sitting opposite me in Ralph’s, tucking into a prawn sandwich and explaining why the BMW is on his list of dream classics. ‘Dad always had cool cars,’ he says. ‘I remember as a kid being sat in the front seat of his Rover SD1 Vitesse on a B-road in Devon having a right old ding-dong with one of these BMWs. The Rover was one of the last, a twin-plenum, so it was pretty quick and it seemed a bit more stable in the corners. But on the straights the BMW was off…’
The owner of this striking Zinnoberrot M635CSi, Kevin Johnson, passes Chris the keys with a smile. ‘I’ve had it about four years now,’ Kevin tells us. ‘I had a standard 635CSi many years ago. It was the colour that drew me to this one – you get white and black, and the odd blue, but red is rare. It doesn’t get used as much as it should do and I keep thinking I’ll get rid of it though I’ve spent quite a lot on it, so I’d lose out. But every time I get in it I enjoy driving it, and that’s what it’s all about.’
Outside, Chris is soon taking in the details of the shape, a masterful blend of elegance and aggression by BMW’s design chief Paul Bracq. ‘People look at it. Everything just looks right,’ he says. ‘It’s long but like my Saab 900S it’s really narrow compared to a modern car. The chrome and plastic complements it, whereas today you get cars that are either just caked in fake chrome or just have massive plastic bits sticking out. The wheels, even though they are pretty big, just set it off.’
Chris pulls open the long, heavy driver’s door and sinks into the sports seat. He grabs the adjustment lever to push it back and make space for his 6ft 5in frame. ‘There’s plenty of legroom,’ he says. ‘That’s one thing I always worry about whenever I get in a car.’ It leaves little legroom in the back, though. ‘It’s always like that with me – but it’s not my problem,’ he grins. Just as well we’re not carrying any passengers today.
The backrest proves a bit trickier to adjust – it flops until near-horizontal at the first pull of the adjustment lever, leaving Chris off balance for a few moments as he tries to get the seat back angle to where he wants it. Headroom, predictably, is tight but the recess provided by the sliding sunroof provides him with just enough cranial clearance. The electric roof glides back at the push of a button. ‘Let’s hope it closes,’ he says with a smile. Sunroof mechanisms are a common failure on the E24 6 Series, but thankfully Kevin’s car isn’t one of those affected.
‘This is all very BMW,’ he says, surveying the tall, black dashboard with its characteristic driver-focused layout. ‘The way the dashboard curves around – you certainly don’t get that in a Rover, where you sometimes can’t immediately find the switch you’re looking for.’ In the BMW the centre stack is angled firmly towards the driver to make it easier to reach the heating controls and a radio/cassette unit that Chris finds familiar, ‘The old plastic Blaupunkt – I remember my Mum’s Volkswagen Golf cabriolet had exactly the same system.’
He’s impressed by equipment that was advanced for its time but now just adds to the oh-so-Eighties ambience. ‘There’s a multifunction computer here with hundreds of buttons – just brilliant.
It clearly tells you something but whether you need to know it, I’m not sure. It looks like it works, though – the Rover has a multi-button calculator thing but only the MPG button works.’
Chris casts an eye over the large speedo and tacho dials that dominate the instrument panel, approving of the ultra-clear white-on-black markings. ‘The dials are exactly like BMWs are now,’ he says. ‘If you’re a car geek like me you could tell what car it is just from the buttons and switches and stuff.’
He also points out another curiosity on the far right of the dashboard – a check panel with a push button that reports the status of all the light bulbs. To demonstrate he turns the key in the ignition and then pushes the button, and the array of red LEDs lights up. ‘There, it’s looking like Knight Rider now,’ he chuckles. Pre-flight checks complete, Chris fires up the BMW. ‘It’s really, really long,’ he says as he edges it cautiously into the Sussex traffic, but soon the M635CSi is making him feel at ease. ‘It’s surprisingly easy to drive considering it’s such a big car,’ he says. ‘I just can’t get over how narrow it is. In the Rover driving up a country lane with things coming the other way I’d be a bit worried there wasn’t enough room, but not with the BMW. I could drive it in and out of town – it’s no trouble, and the visibility is much better than a modern car. Narrow pillars help with that, but the way the boot line drops away means it’s hard to see judge where the rear corners are, which could make parking tricky.’
The clutch takes a bit of getting used to, he reports, though it’s more manageable than you might expect of an Eighties machine with more than 280bhp at its disposal. ‘If you’re used to cars with heavy clutches it’s nothing out of the ordinary. It’s definitely not as heavy as some cars I’ve driven,’ Chris says. ‘There’s quite a bit of travel before it bites but once you’re in that zone it’s quite nice. The gearchange is much slicker than the cars I’m used to – in my Saab 900S it’s like stirring porridge.’ It’s a weighty, deliberate change but at least Chris doesn’t have to get used to an unusual gearbox gate. ‘I was a bit worried it would have a dog-leg ’box, but it doesn’t. It’s really easy to get into reverse, too – so many cars aren’t.’
The M635CSi has a 24-valve engine derived from the racing CSLs, via the E26 M1 supercar, which develops a useful 75bhp more than the 12-valve six in a non-M 635. It’ll happily spin its Continental SportContacts in second gear given a bit of damp asphalt and a good prod of the long-travel throttle pedal. We turn off the A272 in search of some quieter roads and Chris has fun blasting along a country lane, with the big six snarling away and the crisp throttle response aiding downshifts. ‘It likes to rev,’ he says. ‘You feel you can keep your foot down. It’s got just enough power. Some cars you feel you can’t get to the top end of them because they are so powerful. With this you feel you can rev it through the gears and while you have to be on top of it you feel like you can give it the beans. It’s not intimidating. Although,’ he adds as an afterthought, ‘if it was raining heavily I might feel different about it.’
But as we head deeper into the Ashdown Forest, where the traffic is thinner and the roads become twistier, Chris is less enthusiastic about the BMW’s handling. The E24 6 Series shared its suspension with the E12 5 Series saloon, and focuses too much on high-speed stability for Chris’s preference. ‘It’s an autobahn car. I’d rather drive it quickly in a straight line than through a series of tight corners. I wouldn’t really want to throw it around – it’s a big car and I don’t think I’d feel comfortable.’
He reckons the BMW prefers the smooth roads Germany specialises in, and over-reacts to the kind of lumpy tarmac prevalent in Britain. ‘You can feel a lot of movement even in a straight line,’ he says.
‘It tramlines and moves around a bit. That’s where you feel the difference between this and a new car. You do have to drive it.’ But the BMW is a sharper car to drive than his Mercedes-Benz SL, ‘That’s a real wafter. When you put that into a corner you feel you’re on the Playbus, but this is a lot tighter.’
The brakes are another area where there’s a clear difference between classic and modern – the BMW’s middle pedal needs a good shove. ‘You have to brake earlier and be a bit careful, but that’s just normal for this age of car. You feel like you can drive it – you’re not worried about not stopping,’ Chris says.
Between us we try to come up with some credible potential rivals for the BMW, but it proves trickier than we’d imagined – everything we can think of is too slow, too expensive or too restricted in its space and practicality. Says Chris, ‘At the time these would have been seriously expensive bits of kit.’ He’s right. In 1986 even the non-M 635CSi E24 was Porsche 911 money at £27,995, and the M635CSi was a whopping £7455 more – a difference that would have bought an entire Peugeot 205GTI. At a base price of £35,450 the M-car cost more than a Ferrari 328GTB, though it looked good value against the Ferrari Mondial, Porsche 928 S2 and Mercedes-Benz 500SEC C126, which were all over £37,000.
‘There’s nothing British, really, of that era,’ Chris says. ‘Astons are just crazy money. The Jaguar XJ-S is closest, but I’d much rather have the BMW. I think I’d have one over a Porsche 928 or 911 – I’m not a massive fan of Porsches but you’ve got to appreciate them for what they are.’ A Mercedes E-class coupé is another possibility, but Chris dismisses that too, ‘It’s exclusively a cruiser – it’d be even less chuckable that the Six.’
As Chris hands back the keys after a memorable day behind the handsome leather-wrapped wheel of the M635CSi he sums up the experience, ‘It was definitely a surprise, how easy and manageable it is to drive. I really enjoyed it. Nice looking beast, too. The first thing that comes to mind with me when buying a classic is whether it would be a good car to take to Le Mans. My brothers, my Dad and I have been going every year since 2000. This has got all the credentials – it’s spacious, comfy, it’s got a big boot, it sounds nice and it’s a bit of a head turner.
‘It’s definitely the sort of car I’d buy. It’s the right era and it’s been very well looked after. But also it’s usable, and it does stand out – you don’t see many of them on the road any more. I think it will only go up in value and it’ll get more and more exclusive as the knackered ones fall off the road. It’s a cool car.’
Thanks to: BMW owner Kevin Johnson, Lucy Birch at BMW Car Club GB (bmwcarclubgb.uk)
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS BMW 1986 M635CSi E24
Engine 3453cc in-line six-cylinder, dohc, 24-valve, Bosch fuel injection M88
Max Power 282bhp @ 6500rpm / DIN nett
Max torque 251lb ft @ 4500rpm / DIN nett
Transmission Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive, limited-slip Differential
Suspension Front: independent, struts, anti-roll bar. Rear: semi-trailing arms, coil springs, antiroll bar.
Steering Rack and pinion, power-assisted
Brakes Discs front and rear, servo-assisted
Weight 1505kg (3318lb)
Performance Top speed: 155mph; 0-60mph: 6.3sec
Classic Cars Price Guide £20,000-£50,000
‘It likes to rev and you feel you can keep your foot down. It has got just enough power’
Chris’ ultimate test – is it the ideal drive for Le Mans? He reckons it ticks all the boxes and looks great. Chris loves the E24’s Paul Bracq-penned shape. Straight-six’s rev-happiness can be traced back to its motor sport breeding. Chris is 6ft 5in tall but finds a comfortable driving position. Any rear-seat passengers mind… BMW and BBS split-rim alloys – a match made in Eighties heaven. Driver-biased cabin was well-equipped and advanced for its time tech-wise.
‘You would drive it quickly in a straight line but you wouldn’t want to throw it around. It’s a big car and I don’t think you would feel comfortable’
CHRIS’ DREAM DRIVE LIST
Saab 99 Turbo
‘An obvious choice given our history with the marque.’
Rover P5B 3500 Coupé
‘So suave and classic, and they’ve got the Rover/Buick V8 engine.’
‘Like a mix of two favourites, the Triumph TR6 and Rover SD1.’
‘The ultimate wolf in sheep’s clothing. If money was no object this would be my first purchase.’
‘My dad has owned modern XJs but the XJ-C is beautiful.’
Ford Sierra Cosworth RS500
‘We had a Texaco-liveried Scalextric car and always wanted to drive one. The ultimate fast Ford.’
BMW M635CSi E24
‘I just love cars of that era and this one fits the bill.’
‘I had an Old English White Bburago model. Stunning, and a rocket ship compared to its contemporaries.’
Maserati Ghibli Bi-Turbo
‘Bonkers. Styled like a brick but still a good looking car. Luxurious yet very fast. Ultimately, Maserati has always offered something different and this sums that up perfectly.’
CHRIS DODDS’ CAR CV
A love of Eighties and Nineties classics shine through, as does a clear nod to practicality…
VW GOLF GTI MK3
‘The engine was awesome and just kept revving, but it had a real aversion to corners, with wet roundabouts being particularly lethal.’
‘I would have to rev it to around 7000rpm for 5-10 seconds and then turn the ignition off, otherwise it wouldn’t start again for about 10 to 15 minutes. It was a fantastic car to drive and more practical than you would imagine.’
‘I was a bit exuberant in the rain at Le Mans and ended up leaving the TR6 in a tree. The Gendarmes delighted in telling me the French tree was strong and the English car was weak.’
ROVER SD1 VITESSE TWIN PLENUM
‘Dad’s was one of the last SD1s to be made and is a real beast, and always gets such a good reception when we take it to Le Mans.’
SAAB 900S CONVERTIBLE
‘A brilliant cruiser and offers a real nostalgia trip every time I open the door.’
MERCEDES-BENZ SL300-24V R129
‘The R129 was the dogs’ danglies when I was young and given their current values it would’ve been rude not to!’