Rolling Double Six

Some cars lead charmed lives; some have chequered histories. But these BMW E24s are now so good, you'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference.

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They say familiarity breeds contempt. The ubiquity of BMWs on UK roads means the brand is to prestigious motoring what a layby fry-up is to fine dining. Notable exceptions aside, most BMWs are as much 'white goods' as Hyundais. 

 But look at the E24 6-Series. Take in the lean, mean sharknose, the elegant Paul Bracq-penned form and the just-so mixture of aggression and elegance. These BMWs are from a special era, far removed from the seemingly infinite number of tired 318i E46s.

The E24, like all BMWs, has been through its dark, disposable period. Just five years ago, you could easily find usable-but-tatty 635 CSis for less than five grand. They were just big, thirsty coupés that had entered the cheap to buy, expensive to maintain territory. 

But not now. With the cult of M dragging the M635 CSi up into £40k territory, the 635 is being brought up with it. Concours 635s are pushing £25k+, with good cars starting at around £15k. 

This means the 635 CSi is a car that demands reappraisal – and what better way than to drive these two E24s, which have led very different lives?

One is a treasured family heirloom, modified at great expense at the factory with a limited-slip differential and a close-ratio dog-leg gearbox. The other is an automatic that fell into disrepair, but was then rescued for just £25 and restored to period-modified glory.

Both offer fascinating insights into the E24. In standard form the 635 was a big, automatic cruiser that cost £13,000 more than a Jaguar XJ-S. Yet with a few key – and expensive – options ticked it could become a B-road blitzer as feisty as a mid-engined Ferrari. We kid thee not.

Time then, to meet the heroes of the tale – and roll these double Sixes out.

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they say familiarity breeds contempt. The ubiquity of BMWs on UK roads means the brand is to prestigious motoring what a layby fry-up is to fine dining. Notable exceptions aside, most BMWs are as much 'white goods' as Hyundais. 

 But look at the E24 6-Series. Take in the lean, mean sharknose, the elegant Paul Bracq-penned form and the just-so mixture of aggression and elegance. These BMWs are from a special era, far removed from the seemingly infinite number of tired 318i E46s.

The E24, like all BMWs, has been through its dark, disposable period. Just five years ago, you could easily find usable-but-tatty 635 CSis for less than five grand. They were just big, thirsty coupés that had entered the cheap to buy, expensive to maintain territory. 

But not now. With the cult of M dragging the M635 CSi up into £40k territory, the 635 is being brought up with it. Concours 635s are pushing £25k+, with good cars starting at around £15k. 

This means the 635 CSi is a car that demands reappraisal – and what better way than to drive these two E24s, which have led very different lives?

One is a treasured family heirloom, modified at great expense at the factory with a limited-slip differential and a close-ratio dog-leg gearbox. The other is an automatic that fell into disrepair, but was then rescued for just £25 and restored to period-modified glory.

Both offer fascinating insights into the E24. In standard form the 635 was a big, automatic cruiser that cost £13,000 more than a Jaguar XJ-S. Yet with a few key – and expensive – options ticked it could become a B-road blitzer as feisty as a mid-engined Ferrari. We kid thee not.

Time then, to meet the heroes of the tale – and roll these double Sixes out.

It’s May 2013 and Taylor Hetherington is training as a car mechanic. Across the yard is a council lock-up, and one day he notices the door hanging off to reveal a BMW 635 CSi showing signs of vandalism. Taylor, anxious to protect a nice car – whoever it belongs to – screws the garage door shut.

A year later, the car still hasn’t moved and Taylor’s never seen the owner. But he discovers the Council are planning to demolish the garages. ‘If the Council try to find the owner, and fail, they scrap the car,’ he says. ‘I wasn’t going to let that happen.’

So he applies for a V5C through the DVLA, which means the last known keeper would definitely be contacted. They would probably reply, and once alerted to the dangers of the car’s abandonment, would retrieve it. And if they don’t, the car would find a willing new owner in Taylor.

They don’t. But Taylor is still keen to do the right thing, and having seen the previous keeper’s address on his new V5C, he goes round to the house to make sure it really is okay to take on the BMW. ‘The lady who answered the door was fine with it,’ he says. ‘She even gave me the original set of keys.’

The owners were demoralised by the vandalism and lost interest in the car. So what had Taylor taken on? ‘It needed tyres, brakes, a new battery, a damn good service, but it also had rust in the front wings and underneath near the rear axle mounts.’

That was a problem. Taylor, still new in his chosen trade, hadn’t yet mastered the MIG welder. The damage wasn't too severe, and so with the rear screen and side quarter glass replaced, the worst of the vandals’ dents and scrapes tidied up and new springs (lowered by 35mm), Taylor took to the road. 

 He would have been surprised to see another 635 CSi on his home patch. Yet only a few hundred yards away lived a black 1986 car – Taylor’s is early ’85 – with a manual 'box rather than the auto Taylor was getting used to. But it wasn’t often seen because its owner, Gavin Spencer, drove a Corsa as his daily. After all, this 635 was special.

Gavin’s grandfather had a particularly good day back in August 1986. He gained a grandson, Gavin, and ordered a BMW 635 CSi. He used it to commute but retired it from daily use after only two years, when he also retired from full-time work.

All for the best. With the ZF dog-leg five-speed and no cruise control or air-con, it’s more B-road blaster spec than the chilled, cruise-enabled automatic that Taylor found himself with. But those B-road qualities were what stuck in Gavin’s mind.

‘I went to visit my grandfather when I was 14 and we went out for a drive – a very rapid drive – in the 635. It’s a very fond memory.’

Sadly, Gavin’s grandfather suffered a stroke not long after that. The car sat in the garage with very little use for at least ten years, but it wasn’t neglected. A local mechanic attended to any servicing needed. 

‘A few years ago, I heard my grandfather had decided to sell it,’ says Gavin. ‘Someone had made an offer, but when I said I was interested he said if you want it, you can have it.’ Gav sold his CRX and stepped in.

With just 37,000 on the clock, Gavin’s 635 took on the status of a well-polished family heirloom. He found a set of 8-Series split rims to avoid paying £400 a corner for metric TRX tyres. He also went to the odd BMW classic car event, like the meet-up at the Ace Café. And there, he saw another 635. When they realised they lived close to each other, each was glad to have a local ally. 

‘I’d learned to weld by this time,’ says Taylor. ‘I dropped the rear suspension beam, diff and all, and repaired the rust near where it mounted. While all that was accessible I cleaned and repainted everything, servicing the diff and checking the limited-slip clutches for wear.’

A set of braided brake lines future-proofed the car’s stopping power and Taylor moved forward to the other rusty bits. He fixed a hole in the offside toe-board and then discovered that new front wings were £800 each. So Taylor fitted a pair of second-hand ones, performed a sill-end repair and applied plenty of rustproofing wax. Finally, it went for a full respray. A set of rare 16in BBS Mahle wheels finished the job in March 2016. From 111,000 miles as found, Taylor has quickly rattled up to 123,000.  

Time for us to sample the goods. Sitting in Taylor's Diamantschwarz (metallic black) 1985 car, you can't help but feel like a bit of a playboy. The wraparound dashboard and comfortable Pearl Beige chairs transport you to an era of pre-GATSO motorway blasts, where chainsmoking executives in such big coupés would charge from London to the Midlands without dropping below the ton. The slim pillars and huge expanses of glass give you incredible visibility, and help to make the interior seem much bigger than it actually is. This is seriously easy living. 

Taylor's 635 rides firmer than standard, and the unassisted steering feels heavy through the thin, aftermarket Nardi steering wheel, but it's still relaxing. Until you nudge the accelerator into the carpet, that is. 

There's an audible and physical thunk as the three-speed ZF 3HP22 autobox drops down, giving you a satisfying, urgent surge; the M30/B35 issuing a rasping shriek to all those who dare to get in the way. 

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As exciting as Taylor's car is, it's only the warm up for Gavin's. You may wonder why his grandfather spent all that extra money on a close-ratio, dog-leg ZF manual and an LSD with 25 per cent lock, when he could have bought an M635 CSi. 

With his older E24 taken in as part-ex, Gav's grandad paid £28,850 in 1986. With 1989 figures to hand, an M635 CSi cost £48,000 – £110,846 in today's money and
a price difference equivalent to an entire E28 525i. That £1000 LSD option seems like a bargain.

 Gav's fitted a Fritzbits exhaust, and that makes the six-cylinder sound glorious at full revs, a howling scream that makes your ears grin as much as an M3 at full chat – it's almost as exciting as an M635 CSi. 

The standard-fitment steering wheel is more confidence-inspiring in the corners than Taylor's Nardi, with accurate, tight turn-in and plenty of info for your fingers to digest. And you'll be glad of that when it comes to braking for a corner.

All E24s have long brake pedals, with all the force arriving at once after what feels like an aeon. It's a system that needs getting used to, but put your faith in it and you'll soon be stringing corners together like a pro. And once you do you'll understand that with a manual, this is just as exciting as more exotic, Italian cars. The rampaging zing from the tailpipes helps, and it feels so much faster than the bald statistics suggest. This is a properly quick, supremely engaging car. 

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These two cars are very different, both showing the dynamism of the E24 breed. Taylor's evokes the modifying scene of the late-1980s and early 1990s, all sinister, brooding menace. Gavin's shows what this big GT could do with its hair let down. Both are a credit to their owners.  ‘We both really appreciate the 635,' says Taylor. 'I loved the idea of giving a car a new lease of life.’

Gavin’s experience has been about preservation, but his car also means a great deal to him. ‘When I got the 635 from my grandfather, he said: “You can pay me for it or it won’t seem like something that’s worth looking after.” He’s passed on now, but he was absolutely right. I’m very glad I had the chance to keep it in the family.’

 

Words: Nigel Boothman and Nathan Chadwick

Images: Neil Fraser

 

This article appeared in the February 2017 issue of Modern Classics magazine. For a longer version and extra pictures, click here to pick up a copy.