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There is something about a big, grand touring coupe that just works.
Not cheap. Not practical. Not really anything more than a personal extravagance. And yet, so satisfying.
The long bonnets, flowing lines, and big, relaxed engines are the kinds of emotive hardware that songs have been written about.
BMW is no stranger to the big GT Coupe, with the iconic 6 Series name now celebrating 40-years on the road.
Back in 1976, BMW launched the E24 6 Series as a replacement for the stylish (but then 10-year old) E9 coupe. The E9 had made its mark on the road as well as on the racetrack, spawning the infamous 3.0 CSL ‘Batmobile’.
Put simply, the E24 had big shoes to fill.
Designed in-house by BMW Design Director Paul Bracq, the 6 Series was a two-door grand tourer initially based off the E12 5-Series platform.
There was a major update in 1982, moving the E24’s underpinnings to the newer E28 5-Series platform and tweaking both the interior and exterior design.
Our Arctic Blue (Arktisblau Metallic) 635CSi was built in late 1984 and features what was then, the most powerful BMW production engine, the 3.5-litre 160kW / 304Nm M30 straight-six beneath its forward-hinged bonnet.
The 6er transitioned into the 8er in the late 1980s, but returned to the lineup again in 2003. We’ve jumped over that awkward looking ‘Bangle’ generation car and gone straight to the latest, and far more attractive, F13 6 Series coupe.
The 2016 BMW 650i is the update of the third-generation 6 Series. It was launched in 2012 and received the LCI mid-cycle update in 2015. Under the bonnet is a 4.4-litre twin-turbo V8 with 330kW and 650Nm of torque.
That is basically double the motive power of the E24.
It’s heavier though, but not as much as you would think. The 650i weighs in at 1750kg, playing the 635i’s 1450kg lump. Plenty of progress in light weight construction it would seem.
The F13 is bigger too, at 4894mm long it is an extra 139mm on the E24. There’s 160mm more to take up that lane width (1894mm vs 1725mm) but the heights are near-on identical, the older 'six just 4mm shorter at 1365mm.
List price when the E24 was new was a whopping $109,750. Adjusted for inflation has that somewhere over the $310k mark, making the 650i feel like a bargain at $231,615 before options and on road costs.
While time has played a part in the evolution of vehicle design, the four-decade old E24 is still a wonderful looking car.
From the iconic shark nose up front to the ‘hoffmeister kink’ on the C-pillar, the elegant curves are balanced well with the more aggressive M-Tech front and rear spoilers. Our car featuring slightly larger 16-inch wheels (14-inch was standard), lifted from a slightly newer E31 8-Series.
The chrome trim around the windows and bumpers gives the 635CSi a more up-market look, and while having these blacked-out with the ‘shadowline’ option was popular at the time, we think the chrome has aged better.
In contrast, the 650i has only the chrome surround on the kidney grille, as the car features the no-cost optional M-Sport package to visually enhance its sporting credentials.
The design is muscular without being too aggressive, the car looks much lower than the E24 thanks to its more slimline turret and wider stance. The big, 20-inch wheels don’t hurt either.
The quad-halo LED headlights are a far more efficient and modern approach to the halogen sealed-beam units on the E24, but somehow even the most intelligent, hidden, high-pressure lamp washing system is no match for the outright cool wiper-blade and washer system on the older car.
From the rear too, the 650 oozes strength. Those high, fat hips are much more pumped than the subtle arch lips on the 635. Only the deck-lid lip and BMW roundel on the boot ties the two cars together here, the modern symmetry of twin-exhaust outlets a more clinical interpretation than the offset dual-pipes on the E24.
One thing that is nice though, is the BMW roundel badge basically hasn’t changed in the past 40-years. So many manufacturers try to reinvent their identity every few years, and with it the logo, so it is somewhat refreshing to see that this has remained a constant of the BMW brand.
If anything betrays the 635’s time though, it’s the power antenna on the rear flank. Slowly and mechanically deploying as the car’s ignition is turned, it's replaced now by the digital shark-fin on the roof of the 650. Strangely though, the old girl can get better AM radio reception under tram lines…
Inside, the E24 doesn’t feel like a 30-year timewarp. It was a tremendously advanced car for its time, with elements like the digital trip computer, which looks like a calculator, showing fuel consumption and other advanced trip data.
And yes, there are plenty of modern cars that don’t offer this.
At the other end of the scale is the manual heating and cooling, with those ultra-confusing tri-level levers. I still don’t really understand them.
The 650i by comparison is a masterclass of modern ergonomics. Some criticize the BMW interior for not being adventurous enough, but there is a modern cleanliness to it that ensures you know precisely where everything is and what everything does.
Little things haven’t been forgotten here either. The orange temperature display turns white at night so as not to ‘over do’ the orange cabin lighting.
Front and center of the dash is the large 10.2-inch iDrive screen, and it is clear that this is an area where the technology has moved forward. Managing everything including phone, audio, navigation and driving data, the iDrive system is consistently one of our favourite systems thanks to its intuitive design and clear menu structure.
It’s not all perfect though. The sound configuration of the audio system essentially provides a digital graphic equaliser, the same as you may have found in an up-market stereo of the E24’s vintage. It’s not retro or nostalgic, just old.
The single-DIN Blaupunkt radio in the 635 though, with its credit-card coded access security is just the right amount of period-cool, despite being about 10 years younger than the car.
Showing again just how advanced the E24 was for its time, when you look at the interior layout of both cars, side by side, you can see just how much has been carried over to the F13.
The wrap around centre console and placement of key switchgear on the console. The location of key functional elements, shape and size of the instrument binnacle and even the vent placement is clearly evolutionary.
What’s more interesting is the mono-vent design element on the passenger side of the dash is akin to the current Volkswagen Passat interior.
The high turret and green-tinted glass give the E24 an airy yet specific ambience. Those very thin A-pillars ensure great forward vision, past the bonnet. You can tilt and open the power sunroof for a bit of extra wind in the hair, and looking out the back, through the tall rear window again provides excellent visibility.
Both Sixes are proper four seaters, and while both are comfy, you wouldn’t want to stay in the back for an extended period of time.
The sculpted buckets in the back of 635 are still one of highlights of any car interior. An unapologetic four seater, you sit low and snug, still benefiting from airiness of Bracq’s tall glasshouse.
They too have been carried over to the 650i, the center hump here housing a first aid kit as well as the arm rest.
Strangely, despite featuring a panoramic glass roof, the 650 can only tilt the panel for a bit of fresh air, the roof doesn’t slide back. Score one for the old team!
While design can be subjective, performance is very measurable and where the extra time and technology can really show its hand.
On the move the 650i delivers a real whump of power as you burry the throttle.
All 650Nm are available between 2000 and 4500rpm, resulting in freight-train like acceleration along the back roads of Victoria’s Yarra Valley.
The eight-speed steptronic automatic gearbox offers paddles on the steering wheel, but is just as competent when left in either its standard or sports-automatic modes. This is a GT not a lightweight sports car, and it smoothly and easily devours any road put before it.
The straight-six in the 635 is more relaxed by comparison, but deliciously smooth in its power delivery. Peak torque here comes at a revvy 4000rpm, and the Six purrs all the way there and onto the redline.
BMW’s famed dog-leg manual gearbox, that sees first to the left and down, with second to the center and up, is feeling a little tired in our car. A bit notchy here, a bit slappy there, but it is still a joy to use.
Like it’s turbo-charged future self, the 635 is happy on the road and is still a pacey and entertaining drive.
The thin steering wheel is nice to hold and you can feel a bit of natural play in the rack at low speeds, but it settles nicely when touring and still feels very communicative. This is a car from when BMW made a point about being ‘the ultimate driving machine’.
Things are a little heavier and dulled in the 650, perhaps a statement to the wants of its intended audience, but still, turn-in is accurate and the car easy to manage through tight as well as open sections.
Either way, both grand tourers are exactly that. Neither is perfect, but both show the format, as expensive and selfish as they are, still does work.
Looking at the two cars side by side though, the timeless charm of the E24 simply cannot be ignored. This isn’t to take anything away from the 650i; it’s a good looking, muscular, powerful cruiser, but somehow just doesn’t feel it will ever be as special as the 635.
For our money, we’d go for the best of both worlds and grab a smaller, yet still modern 4-Series coupe and really nice classic E24 to keep for the weekend.
With prices as they are now, the E24 is a true collector's bargain. We've seen E30 M3's quadruple in price over the past five years, the E24 is almost sure to be next. Get in now while you can, and enjoy one of the classic grand tourers before it is too late!
Click on the Photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser.
And a special thanks to Michael from Carcierge for the loan of the BMW 635 CSi!