THE Max Schnell Coupe Club
The 1980s two-door cold war hots up with this pair of Bavarian brutes – but which deserves your Deutschmarks?
Words John-Joe Vollans Photography Jordan Butters
At first, the production of the new 630CS and 633CSi was farmed out to coachbuilders Karmann. But, by the arrival of the 635CSi in July 1978, production was rolled out at BMW.
The platform on which the 6 was built changed in 1983, from the old E12 5 Series to the greatly improved new E28. At the same time, the range-topping 3.5-litre engine was revised due to a propensity to destroy headgaskets. The new unit had an increased stroke and narrower bore, which not only cured the headgasket issue but also increased low-end torque. Mechanical formula nailed, plus those shark-nosed Paul Bracq-designed lines, meant the 635CSi rapidly became the car to be seen in.
All this activity in Munich didn’t go unnoticed down the road in Stuttgart, of course. Mercedes-Benz was working on a replacement for its successful W123 as early as the summer of 1977. Right from the outset, a new coupé body style for the W124 was planned, alongside new engines, an entirely new independent rear suspension and myriad new technologies. Aerodynamics and computer-aided design were at the forefront at Mercedes-Benz in the early-1980s.
The W124, launched in 1984, was the first to take advantage of these new technologies. Stylist Bruno Sacco spent many hours consulting with aero engineers in the wind tunnel to perfect the shape of not just the W124 (E-Class) but also the W201 (190) and W126 (S-Class).
Though envisaged to offer a coupé from the outset, the first treatments for the two-door version of the W124 weren’t deemed satisfactory. The sporting appeal of the car was competing directly with its four-door cousin’s safety and high-efficiency-led styling. It became clear to Sacco that more work was needed before introducing the coupé. Principally this involved lowering the roof line and reinforcing it to maintain the strength of the shell, once the pillarless design had been decided upon. The final product was revealed at the 1987 Geneva motor show.
Fast forward three decades and both of these cars still command your attention. The brilliant sunshine exemplifies every hint of chrome, each crisp line and polished wheel on these taut Teutonic coupés. They still make an impression all these years later. At first, it’s the BMW that draws me in, I’m a sucker for that shark-nose.
Today, however, there are just 1995 left on UK roads, 340 of which are GLT models like the one we have here. So what happened?
Ubiquity and complacency are the two things that kill popular cars. When there’s a lot of something about, it becomes throwaway and disposable. Just look how many MkI Mondeos or MkII Cavaliers you see on the road these days. At one time they were everywhere, but when they broke and became economically unviable to fix, they got slung to the scrappie.
So we find ourselves in a weird position with the Volvo 240: we’ve sleepwalked into a world where such things are now scarce. We need to save these motors, before the situation becomes irretrievable.
Why is this such an important car, though? Well, the functional rectanguloid-on-wheels you see spread alluringly across these pages owes much to the VESC, or Volvo Experimental Safety Car. This was a 1972 concept that pioneered ideas such as crumple zones, rollover safety, ABS, airbags, pop-up head restraints and reversing cameras. Some of this carried straight over to the Volvo 240 and 260 launched in 1974; the other more fanciful bits ultimately made it to production too, but much later, highlighting just what a pivotal concept this was.
Easing myself down into the low-slung, white M Sport leather bucket seat, I’m suddenly hit with a pang of nostalgia. I used to own an E30 325i Sport and an E34 525i, so everything in front of me is very familiar. The way the top of the centre console tilts toward me, the sliders for the heater controls, the LED system check panel to one side of the wheel, it all screams 1980s BMW.
Turning the key jolts me back to the present, literally… The vibration from the now running M30 six-cylinder motor is much more pronounced than I was expecting, as is the relative lack of sound deadening as we pull away. The gearbox lurches its first few changes. I glance down and notice it’s in the sport setting, so I put it back into ‘E’ for the time being, which instantly improves things. Testing the brakes as I approach the first corner reveals another shock – there’s no slowing of onward progress. A frenzied increase of pedal pressure reveals a little stopping power but it’s hardly confidence inspiring.
The steering is accurate and not overly assisted, which is a relief, and as we get the first few miles out of the way, I begin to acclimatise to the big coupé. The engine might feel a little harsh at idle but as the revs are extended a little it finds its feet and starts to win me over. As the numbers climb on both those gloriously analogue dials the soundtrack I’ve been waiting for begins to emerge – that fantastically mechanical roar that’s unmistakably a period BMW six-cylinder engine.
Progress improves immeasurably too and now the oil is up to temperature I pop the gearbox back into ‘S’ and kick down a cog. Or I would if the gearbox would oblige, as it I have to wait before the ZF 4HP-22 automatic works out which gear I actually want. To be fair, I think the lumbering shifts are more likely down to the ancient Bosch control unit, but whatever the cause, this is not the greatest gearbox if you enjoy a spirited drive. It’s a shame really, as this is what we’ve come to expect from BMW in this period and this is where the 635CSI really struggles to deliver.
Things don’t improve in the corners either. As mentioned before, the brake pedal is hard to regulate and anything short of a huge shove seems to have little impact on speed. Take a corner with any sort of enthusiasm and the body rolls and pitches alarmingly. Try to correct the nibbling understeer with a bit of throttle and the rear end starts to chirrup and nervously fidget. Overly soft springs and a nervous rear-end really does blunt the fun, which the engine note encourages, so I soon give up and adopt a more relaxed approach. This is where the 635CSI feels content, taking corners at about five tenths then blasting down the straights, muscle-car like. Not that this hurts its appeal. I can’t help but glance over my shoulder at the 635CSI as I make my way over swap to the W124. It’s astonishingly handsome, a real design classic, but it’s a shame the experience behind the wheel isn’t as accomplished as that famous styling.
The Mercedes-Benz offering is an almost exact opposite. Its conservative styling hid some state of the
art (for the time) engineering. The profile that presents itself to me is rather bland, if elegant. This example has a period AMG tail spoiler fitted and is all the better for its flair. The front end is trademark Benz, fared-in headlights and a wide central grille topped with that famous three-pointed star.
As soon as you shut the door and the ambient sound level drops to a hushed whisper – you know you’re in something very well engineered indeed. Every surface, switch and knob feels as if it can endure a nuclear winter and emerge unscathed. It’s not as if the 6 Series was cobbled together either, but those little tell-tale rattles and squeaks just aren’t present in the W124. There’s a downside to all this refinement and engineering prowess, of course – and that’s evident as soon as you turn the key.
That M104 multi-valve six-cylinder engine is barely perceptible when running, there’s no vibration at all. I have to glance at the rev counter to confirm it's running. The gearbox is a lot more refined than the BMW, but this is a later W124 so there’s a few years between these two cars that might account for that. The comfort and relaxation you get from driving this machine at cruising speeds is astonishing. The ride alone is better than many much newer so-called luxury coupés.
Smoothness and refinement credentials aside, how does this sports coupé do the err, sports thing? Let’s find out. I put the transmission in, you guessed it, ‘S’ and plant the throttle… the gearbox seems almost as unwilling to find a suitable ratio as the 'box in the BMW. Eventually it works it out and shifts down two ratios. Now at last the engine becomes audible, if only just, and makes a perfectly acceptable if not truly evocative noise.
This is a big car and you can certainly feel momentum building, but with 217bhp it’s only just enough to make progress feel swift. A lot of this is probably down to that previously mentioned soundproofing and refinement. It’s so smooth and quiet that you don’t appear to be going any great speed at all. Glancing at the speedo soon proves otherwise and I seem to be approaching licence-losing progress. Thankfully, when it comes to bleeding off that huge speed, the brakes are excellent.
Slowed enough for the corner you turn in and get met with a pretty vague response from the front wheels. The steering box system is designed to be smooth in operation, shielding the driver from shocks, but sadly it also numbs feedback. It’s not a patch on the BMW’s rack and pinion arrangement. The mid-corner pitching is just as bad as the 6 Series but unlike the BMW, if you plant the throttle to get you out, it doesn’t feel as if the car is trying to rotate. If you can stand the angles, you can hurl this big coupé about with total confidence that it will behave. Something this soft shouldn’t be able to grip this well.
Returning the W124 to park next to its rival, there’s still no comparison in desirability. The 6 Series is by far the more appealing machine to look at. There’s a quiet understatement to the Merc but it’s too quiet, in my opinion. Even with the optional AMG appendage out back and lowered Sportline suspension, this W124 just doesn’t look special or exciting enough for a performance flagship coupé. The S-Class W126 SEC seems a much more accomplished mix of sports coupé with saloon underpinnings for my money. The W124 coupé just looks too much like the saloon to really stand apart.
This one’s a tough call. Let’s establish the irrefutable facts first. The 6 Series has the kerb appeal, there’s no doubt there. It’s the one we perved at when we walked away at the end of the shoot. It feels special and classy in the right ratio – the Mercedes-Benz offering is just too sobering to truly ignite any passion.
It's a similar tale on the inside too. The W124 is an exquisite car to sit in. As soon as you heave the long door closed, a hushed, muted sense falls upon the cabin and the vast seats caresses you as you let out a sigh of relaxation. It's a well-used cliché but we really could see ourselves crossing a continent in this car. It really has got the GT thing nailed.
The BMW offers a very creditable alternative and there's areas of its cabin that we genuinely love. The dials and console are a wonderful blend of retro and cutting edge (for the time). The leather M Sport pews support you in the corners with alacrity, but even in top Highline trim, they're not anywhere near as comfortable as the Merc's.
Enough with the aesthetics and comfort, let's talk about the important bit, how these coupés make you feel. The M30 six-cylinder engine in the BMW is the superior unit. How though? It's older, has half the valves, is less refined and less powerful. Believe us, when you open it up for the first time you just won't care. It emits a trademark BMW six-pot howl that's got to be one of the best engine scales of the era.
The Mercedes-Benz is the better all-round coupé, but the BMW is more fun.