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Car Lust--BMW 635CSi

635csi1 The other day, my wife and I were driving past a gorgeous pristine BMW 635CSi, which prompted a predictable lusty reply from me. My wife, though, was less impressed.

"CSi," she commented thoughtfully. "CSI? Like the CBS show? That's just weird."

I'd never associated that BMW model number suffix with the CBS criminal procedural drama before, and to be honest it's an association that annoys me. Yes, CSI is a hit TV show, but the BMW 635CSi was first and, to my eye, more timeless. I know which I'd prefer to spend more time with. BMW doesn't use the CSi suffix on its new 6-series--now I'm left to wonder if that's just coincidence.

Anyway, on to the post.

635csi2 To modern eyes, accustomed to an aura of great BMW performance, handling, and styling, BMW's position in the late 1970s was a little odd. Thanks to the spirited 2002tii and the more muscular 3.0CS/CSL, BMW had moved its American reputation beyond that of a motorcycle manufacturer, and even past the "funny little foreign car" status that still plagued future sports-luxury competitors Volvo, Audi, and Saab.

Still, BMWs hadn't quite grown into its current fame. BMWs weren't exactly known as luxury cars; at the time both BMW and Mercedes were actually fairly spartan, certainly not the rolling boudoirs like the contemporary Lincolns and Cadillacs. Nor, despite the 2002tii and 3.0CSL, were most BMWs really all that fast. When the light and nimble 2002 was replaced by the heavier, more sedate 320, the pulse rate fell even farther. It sounds strange to consider today, but even in a depressed automotive world in the mid-to-late 1970s BMWs were more purposeful than quick.

635csi3 Especially curious was the case of the 6-series, which replaced the lovely 3.0CS in 1976. The 6-series was undeniably handsome, with its chiseled good looks, and lean, greyhound-like stance, but the American versions, strangled by emissions constraints, weren't luxurious or quick. Automotive journalists at the time easily contained their enthusiasm.

Now, let's leap forward by a decade. By this point, BMW was beginning to build its performance reputation. The M1 supercar had come and gone as briefly and spectacularly as a shooting star. The 3-series was beginning to find its performance legs, and American enthusiasts were beginning to drool over the possibility of getting the European M3 and M5 high-performance sedans. What's more, in the form of the 635CSi, which finally came to the U.S. in 1985, the 6-series had finally grown into its potential.

635csi4 Still lean and handsome, the 635CSi now had the athletic moves to live up to its looks. Comfortable, stylish, buttoned-down, and with 208 horsepower and 225 lb-ft of torque, the 635CSi was a more polished, faster competitor than its mid-1980 sports-luxury competition.

The much-ballyhooed BMW M635CSi never officially came to the United States--though I think quite a few gray-market cars made the trip--but the 635CSi is still a pretty compelling car. With 0-60 runs in the 7-second range, it was as quick as a Camaro or Mustang, but much more refined and stylish. The 635CSi was pretty at the time, but if anything, its aggressively elegant shape has grown more beautiful with age.

One of my high school teachers drove one of these; he had an unfortunate predilection for wearing sweaters tied around his neck and loafers without socks. We all both ridiculed him and admired him as the typical 1980s sleazy womanizer type, and at the time the fact that he drove a 635CSi just added to his mystique. It's taken me a fair amount of time to rid the 635CSi of that association, but, after all, you can't blame the car for its driver. I'd still drive one.

All of these photos come from BigCoupe.com, a fantastic site discussing the E24 6-series BMWs. The first photo is of a 1989 635CSi owned by Andrew Chua; the second is a 1986 635Csi owned by Bill Campbell, the third is another '86 635CSi owned by Gregory Fragano, and the fourth is a Euro-spec '86 635CSi owned by James Sohl.

--Chris H.

Comments

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I think the M635CSI did come to the US officially as the M6 (w/ US emissions and safety equipment)

I wish BMW would move backwards away from overly stuffed heavy pigs of cars to smaller, lighter, more nimble machines. Yes, the new M3 has a v8... because it's so fat and bloated it NEEDS one. These high fuel costs will certainly change all this in the future though, which is great. I say bring on $6.00 a gallon. Less people driving SUVs= I'm more likely to stay alive.

I remember when I was stationed in Germany, these cars used to haul serious balls. I almost bought a used one myself from a fellow GI. Yep, these big Beemers could fly on the Autobahn. I had the brilliant idea to buy it and have it converted to EPA specs so I could ship it home, but my then-new wife talked me out of it.

This car actually is linked heavily to a popular television series. As you remember, this was Maddie Hayes car in "Moonlighting", was it not?

Cybil Shepard and that BMW go together quite nicely, I think

In the late 70's to early 80's a BMW was a pretty hot car in comparison to the competition - even when somewhat strangled by emission controls. The most difficult and hated piece of plumbing on these cars was the Thermal Reactor - basically a hot exhaust chamber into which exhaust gases were passed then re-burned before leaving the exhaust manifold. Also the EGR exhaust gas recirculation valve was pretty bad - it did exactly what it sounds like - put exhaust back into the intake. The EGR just seemed like some kind of sanitation problem waiting to happen. The Thermal Reactor was the worst because of the potential damage it could do... like warping or cracking the head.

The good news for BMW enthusiasts was that ALL of this was easy to remove. Without much trouble you could revert to Euro specs and have a bad-ass car.

Honestly anyone who had a 320 really wanted a 2002. I had a 320. I wanted a 2002tii. I still do sort of. The 635 was without a doubt the king of the clan. It was sleek and a great all around car. Very fast even when stock. The thing that BMWs had going for them was that they were still pretty raw simple and elegant. They were about driving and in those days had not been adopted as the new car for people who had too much money and wanted a status object. Clearly that changed.

As with most German cars of the time. The suspension was good but tricky. Semi-trailing arms in the rear were a nightmare in the rain or snow. The light rear end and high power meant lots of wheel spinning. You had to have a limited slip differential or you got wheel lift and spin on cornering. Let off the throttle in a turn and watch how fast the car could do a 180 - the blink of an eye my friend. You really had to be a good driver to be in control.

The good side was the engines were sweet and smooth. The build quality was excellent. There was a simple understated comfort. And the low hood line and forward pitched nose gave these cars a shark like aggressive stance. Lowering (they had pretty high ground clearance in stock form) and throwing on big anti sway bars really helped handling. I lowered the front of my car about 1.5 in. the back .75in. It really improved handling and gave it that much more of a stance.

At the time I had my car it was everything to me. There was a BMW community too that was pretty nice back then. But when I sold my 320 after a few years, I didn't shed a single tear, let alone bat an eyelid. Perhaps it was the time. Perhaps it had to do with a lot of negative experiences that accompanied the car and those years. I'm not sure why exactly. But I never got a sense of true love for the 320, or any of the late 70s BMWs. They lacked a warmth of personality that the earlier cars like the 2002 had. And when I got into my first civic I was amazed at how much better it handled.

Every so often, I think of a 2002 or a 3.0. These could be a nice rides. They have personality. But the following generations are pretty much out for me. With the possible exception of a 5 Series wagon. Those are just odd enough to make me want one.

Thanks for the nice article Chris. It brings back a lot of good memories.

I had a diamond black ‘86 635 for 7 years, and it really was an incredible car. Times have changed, and there will never be another car quite like it in terms of beauty, fit and finish, and materials used.

It pioneered many of the things we take for granted in cars today, like driver-centric cockpit design, computer monitoring of all systems, active and passive safety, and it defined the big luxury sport coupe.

I had it on the big racetrack at Willow Springs California for BMWCCA driving schools a number of times, and though not as fast as the M cars on the straight, it was as good as any stock road BMW in the corners, and felt as rock solid at 120mph as it did at 50.

I drive an M3 now. It is superior to the 635 in almost every way, but I still sometimes look wistfully back at my good old “Blackbird”...

Thank you showing these photos. Brings backmany fond memories, and I love that someone remembered the Moonlighting reference. I bought an '85 635 CSI from my dad in '91 when i got my first job out of college and absolutely adored it -- refinement coupled with performance unmatched in anything I've driven since. At the time I had a girlfriend who lived 600 miles away, and I think I stayed in the relationship longer than I would have otherwise simply because I loved taking that car out on the long drive so much.

Have a 2007 3-series coupe now, which is a fun ride, but just not the same. Not even close, actually.

What a wonderful car, and all the more so in the one-year-only (1987, I think) L6 version. The "L" stood for Luxury, which is always a good thing when you're spending (what was then) stupid money for a car. Given that the 6-series was at its best as an alternative to flying on 6-800 miles trips, anything that could be done to cosset the driver and passenger was more than welcome. I only drove an L6 for about an hour, but had the use of a standard 635 for a week when they were new. I liked the standard version just fine, but the L6 really rang my chimes.

Oddly enough, my most vivid recollections of my time with the 635 are the bad fit of the frameless windows (regulators needed adjusting) and the truly insane array of buttons used to adjust the seat. (Or was that the 750iL I had the following week?)

As for the M6, my recollection is that you gave up considerable ride smoothness in favor of performance. (That's not a sacrifice I'm ever willing to make.)

Never has a BMW but i always loved them, great car!

Darlington monyei

Reading all the postings above sure makes me glad I've hung onto my 635.
While I do have another car thats supposed to be my daily driver, and it’s a nice one at that...you know what? I cannot stop using my e24 for almost all my driving and the other one sits there in the driveway practically unused. My Six is just such a pleasure to drive, like we are connected and I am actually in a car, not a rolling entertainment center, that it is a chore to force myself to drive my other one to go anywhere. And do not get me wrong, my ol’ beemer is no pristine trailer queen or showmobile, its got plenty of wear and tear showing but that sucker just runs and runs and accelerates and handles like it’s on rails, and I am always proud to be seen driving my baby. It does not bother me in the least that the paint is a little faded in a few places, that the leather has a few cracks or some of those silly electonics don’t work anymore and the odometer shows a ton of miles. When I pull up along side some guy in one of those new 645’s or 650’s with huge rims, who is practically insulated from the road, give him a nod & he stares right past me, all I can do is shake my head & think to myself…There goes some fool who just had to buy himself a hi-priced sport coupe and yet does not know anything about where his car’s roots lie. And he is the one who is missing out.
Well, thanks to this community for letting me express my love for my good old shark and for letting me vent a little as well.

I can attest to all the strong points of this german mile muncher. at 22 years old, and having owned 3 635's I know the car. I went from a 525 to a US spec 86' 635 csi,(black on tan int. auto) which I had a near life ending accident in. The car was set up in factory form down to the dreaded TRX tires. and with the addition of the 'b' pillar following the standards of safety control at the time, literally saved my brain. I in-advertenly mis manuevered my 6 around a turn, letting off the throttle at over a hundred miles an hour, and the rear end slid around, into a reveen launching the car onto the roof. while strapped into the car I slid down the road upside down and walked away un scratched. no injuries at all! I vowed that my life was saved because of the over built e 24 code chassis.
I had to get another one, so I did. I bought a 86 diamond black on red sport interior 5 speed this time. and I am still driving it. I have put almost 30,000 miles on the car and have never been let down.
As a side project I have been investing money and time into a euro spec 86 M635 diamond black on black water buffalo hide sport interior. Though the m88 power plant has been removed, because of abuse it is currrently hosting a mid 80's m30 powerplant. this car has been left unaltered other than bilstein struts. and bbs wheels. I will have this car a very long time. These cars are truly a classic.
-David Jr.
Kentucky USA

I bought a 1986 635 a year ago and it has been my daily driver since. Remember that the 635 series is 2 decades old and yet it has some features that has stand the test of times. It carried some of the marque design for todays BMWs. It has been a great joy driving this timeless BMW. This car was made to be a long distance cruiser, at speeds above 75mph the car becomes more stable and solid, a sweet spot at 80-90mph. This car turns head everytime it pulls up to a BMW, a truly deserving classic BMW.

I OWN A 1989 635CSI HIGHLINE,THE CAR IS AND IN MY OPINION ONE OF THE BEST TO HAVE COME OUT OF BMW,HAS STOOD THE TEST OF TIME AND HAS SOME FEATURES MODERN CARS DO NOT HAVE A GREAT HEADTURNER AND A SUPERB CRUISER.

I own an 86 shark that i picked up at an auction for a mere $2100 ... I love this car soo much that I dont drive any of my other cars as much. the m3, clk430 and expedition stays in the driveway most of the time. This car is so much fun to drive .It accelerates with a smoothness thats unparalled. It might not be as fast as an m3 but it sure feels like a million bucks. I did a five speed conversion, some votlag lowering springs, some rear suspension work( dogbones, bushings), and some bilsteine hd all around. What a car....I get so many compliments and offers to buy but she is not for sale. I think death is going to due us part.

I had a US spec 635 back in 85, and I absolutely loved it. A friend had imported a Euro-Spec car, I wished I had done the same. But mine was good for the time I had it, and always had a passion to own a Euro spec car someday. I finally bought one a few years back, and as some others here have stated, the new "Plastic" car stays in the driveway more often. The 218 hp euro engine still runs so smooth, and the fuel mileage is much better than my old US sixer ever was.

I own a 1986 BMW 635csi in excellent condition with 103K miles. For several years I have had a recurring problem in that at times after I have started the car in the garage and then stopped for 10 -15 minutes the car won't start. After waiting 2 hours or so the car then starts again. Recently the problem has worsened so that after the start failure, after waiting and finally starting the car runs rough (1 or 2 cylinders misfiring). Some times this problem persists for days, then goes away for a time. Over the past six years two different mechanics have replaced the following in an attempt to correct the problem: Replaced dist cap and rotor, oxygen sensor, flywheel timing sensors (both) and coil.

Frustrated

Paul,
I'm having the same problem with mine--I'm glad to read all the great comments about the 6 series but I am at my wits end with all the mysterious problems involving the many sensors and ignition problems.She is again with a baffled mechanic while I am stranded hours from home. Guess she is just getting old

Danielle -

It's sad to hear that it seems like you and I are in the same position with our 635's. Let's stay in touch if either of us finds a miracle cure - got email or yahoo IM?

Hi Paul,
Finally back on--after endless troubleshooting and parts swaps (and mechanics) they found that my computer was full of water (could be a problem...) and it was from a 735 (might not matter). I finally got called yesterday that it was running very well now. (I guess I won't drive it on rainy days in Portland OR and Seattle!) Seems to run well in the summer but goes through many problems during the long winters.

Any news on yours?
Danielle

Danielle -
Sounds like maybe a happy new year for your ride...hope so. I'm still having the same problem and your resolution is interesting since my problems seem to be winter rain-related as well (also live in WA). I'll talk to my mechanic about the wet 'puter possibility.

Paul

Good luck Paul!
I've made the trip between PDX and SEA twice this week--so far so good :) Even passed a brand new 6 series!
Danielle

I recently bought a '86 635 CSi for $800 and it is in great shape. Its an awesome car and i love it.

Congrats Chance! Sounds like a great deal. There has been alot of great 635s on Ebay recently. I'd like to read how your car is doing if you get the chance to drop a note every so often.

So far so good (knock, knock) the computer change--any luck Paul?
Danielle

I just purchased my first BMW and am pleased to say it's a 1986 635csi. However, I would love to put some new wheels on it and was wondering what are the largest size wheels that I can put on it? Any help would be great! Thanks

Case

I've got a 1985 635csi with a busted windshield(don't ask). I was wondering if anyone had a parts car or knew where a windshield might be located. I have also experienced the mystery stall out with my car. It is a weird deal. I replaced my trx tires and rims with voxx rims with 17 inch tires.

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