How I got into these things was, nearly a decade ago, I was on the hunt for something very different to the family Kingswood. So it had to be a coupe, had to be manual (it had been ages since I owned one) and it had to be cheap. Fifteen grand, absolute tops, and preferably less. A 1978 635 with the dogleg five-speed trannie popped up on the market and I snapped it up $13,500.
It claimed to be an early Karmann built car – it wasn’t. This was an honest mistake on the seller’s part. Karmann did in fact build some early E24s before BMW took over the job in August 1977. What was special, however, was that it was righthand-drive 635 production number 024. What are the odds?
Maybe I should clarify something: the E24 designation covers 628, 630, 633, and 635, plus of course the pimped and pumped M6 with its four-valve head. The 633 was the first variant launched (only just) and the entire series underwent a major make-over for 1982. While externally similar, it was virtually a new car under the skin with surprisingly few components in common with the early cars.
For a while there, we had something like a revolving door happening for E24s back home at Chateau Despair. My first 635 had a lot of money thrown at it (fresh leather and dash inside, fresh suspension, new head gasket, the list goes on…) but it still had issues. In the end, the fella I bought it from decided he was missing it and took it back. That was five years ago.
For a while there, I found myself missing the thing – they do get under your skin. Next thing you know a 633 four-speed manual pops up on the horizon, in exactly the same colour as my old car – Reseda Gruen (kind of a weed green…). Of course I had to have a look.
For a start, this really was a Karmann car, with the 1976 build plate in the left door frame to prove it, and was number 40 of the right-hand-drive series. So we’re now talking a super-early car. Could it be the oldest right-hooker still getting around? In any case, Karmann built just 218 that year.
However a couple of things really got my attention. The head gasket had already been done – they all seem to go at around the 200-250,000km mark, and the body was in far better shape than my previous E24. In fact, despite the slightly smaller engine, it was a superior car. Someone had fitted 635 spoilers to it, and a period set of BBS basket-weave wheels, all of which were probably hot items a few decades ago.
It needed a few things done: fresh leather for the front seats, new dampers and a bit of a tidy-up. The body and transmission (by Getrag) were really good. How much? A mere $7500 – it was just too good to pass up. I was getting into a better car and getting a fair chunk of change, even if it didn’t have quite the same bragging rights as the ‘big’ 635.
As it turned out the conventional four-speed manual in the 633 is less frenetic than the five to bumble around with, while the 20 horsepower difference (200 versus 220) between the two doesn’t really have an impact.
Fresh leather and a set of Bilstein dampers fixed the two things annoying me most and I must, eventually, get the dash reskinned. There’s a single crack and dash pads appear to have no self-healing properties.
The spares situation is mixed. Some things are expensive, however regular service items aren’t bad at all and you can get a lot of components very quickly direct from Germany via a company called Walloth & Nesch.
There’s no doubt we more than got our money’s worth out of the car. Because it’s one of a modest fleet, it dodges most commuting duties, and instead gets to go on the good trips. In fact, spouse Ms M Senior refers to it as “the holiday car”. So it got to do last year’s Classic Rallye in Tasmania (run in tandem with Targa) and lots of other fun things.
JUST WHY BMW’s big, sexy E24 coupes don’t sell for way more money than they do is hard to understand. Yes, it is possible for an M6 version to knock on the door of $100K but lower down the food chain where the 633CSi and early 635s live, the money being paid stops pretty much dead at $30,000.
Care needs to be taken with personal imports as a lot will have spent their early years on British or even Japanese roads where ice, snow and salt have attacked the underpinnings. Early 635s don’t have the same parts support as later ones either.
At one point in the late-1990s late-series 635s were on lots of ‘must-have’ Euro coupe lists before falling behind contemporaries like Porsche’s 911 and the Mercedes-Benz 560SL.
Early 3.3-litre cars will mostly be local deliveries but when the 635 was launched BMW didn’t want them – except when painted black and raced in Improved Production Group C events. That changed from 1986 when the lavishly appointed 635CSi Series 2 came officially onto the Australian market at a spectacular $104,000.
Those locally-delivered 635s pop up frequently and values have staged a recovery of sorts, however $45,000 is not massive money for a car with the Big Six’s presence and practicality.
At this point it’s fair to mention the 635’s worldclass competition pedigree which includes numerous European Touring Car victories and an outright win at the Spa 24 Hour event in 1985. Competition pedigree usually enhances desirability so we wait to see whether that will happen to the 635.
In the meantime they make lovely ‘weekend getaway’ cars with enjoyable handling and plenty of space for occupants’ luggage.
This is definitely one of those cars where it pays to get on top of any mechanical issues and keep it that way. Once they’re set up and running, they are robust and handle a bit like a modern car.
They’re fairly heavy (around 1500kg) and they’re not tyre-smoking fast in the traditional sense. Think more grand tourer than sports car. However you can get along at a good pace and they’re not completely embarrassed on a set of corners. Four-wheel discs, halfway decent suspension and a reasonable amount of grip means they’re a pretty trustworthy thing when you’re barrelling across unfamiliar territory. Meanwhile, they’re a comfortable distance hauler.
As Cliff mentions in his separate market guide, manuals are thin on the ground and I suspect will increasingly demand a price premium. In any case, these are still a long way from being a hugely expensive car. When new, they traditionally cost around five times what an Aussie family car did. How dramatically those value tables have turned!
A very quick scan of what’s on offer at the moment suggests you can still get a workable one for a very long way under our $30k budget limit. Once upon a time, this is what the rich people drove – now they’re in chrome bumper GT Falcons. How times have changed….
These are complex cars and expensive to fix should the lure of a lowpriced ‘project’ tempt you. The best money you can possibly invest in a 633/635CSi is the fee for a BMW specialist to conduct a thorough on-hoist inspection. An initial rust check starts high looking at the metal bordering the sunroof and window apertures before working your way down. Little bubbles in the turret translate to big bills. Body panels aren’t easy to locate locally and are limited to second hand parts. US and European suppliers list lots of quite obscure parts but can’t help if you’re in the market for a complete new bonnet. Replacement bumpers, even used ones, can’t currently be found in Australia and importing the components to build a new bar will incur $4000-5000 in all-up costs.
BMW has a welldeserved reputation for building some of the best six-cylinder engines. But don’t neglect your straight six or the costs of replacing a cracked cylinder head and all those valves will be extreme. Camshaft and rocker gear rattles will be expensive due to high prices and the many bits you need to buy. If it overheats during the test drive, forget it and even if it doesn’t, a pressure test as part of your inspection is essential. If the engine bay smells of fuel, suspect injection delivery hose leaks. Manual cars are scarce in Australia but preferable to the reluctant automatic. A warning was issued to UK owners of threespeed autos not to rev them hard while in Park or Neutral as this can cause failure of the clutch pack.
NUMBER MADE: 23,426 (633CSi) 45,218 (635CSi)
BODY STYLES: steel integrated body/chassis two-door coupe
ENGINE: 3210cc or 3430cc six cylinder with overhead camshaft and fuel injection
POWER & TORQUE: 136kW @ 5400rpm, 290Nm @ 4000rpm (635-S2)
PERFORMANCE: 0-100km/h 8.2 seconds, 0-400 metres 16.1 seconds (635-S2 manual)
TRANSMISSION: five-speed manual, three or four-speed automatic
SUSPENSION: Independent with struts, coil springs & anti-roll bar (f), independent with coil springs, locating links and telescopic shock absorbers (r)
BRAKES: disc (f) disc (r) with power assistance
TYRES: 205/55VR16 radial (late 635CSi)
Rusted strut mountings are mainly a Northern Hemisphere issue. Excessive front-end dive when braking indicates tired springs and wandering when the car should be tracking straight points to worn suspension bushes. The required parts are available. Some early cars suffer brake servo problems; a hard pedal due to booster seal or accumulator leaks. New accumulators are available and boosters can be reconditioned. Disc rotors of decent quality are available locally from $350 per pair. Original wheels and tyres were metric but compatible Imperial-sized rubber is available. Lovely BBS alloy wheels need to be checked for kerb damage and buckling. Good replacements are available from $300 each.
The state of those beautiful leather seats with their prominent bolsters will be a good indicator of how well a Six Series might have been maintained. Cracked, dry seats and a cracked dash will be costly to replace and likely to boost a new owner’s investment in a ‘cheap’ car by 50 per cent. Better to spend more initially. Check the sunroof (if fitted) and listen for untoward noises. If the carpets in the foot-wells are damp the sunroof drains could well be blocked. Make sure the air-con throws out big volumes of cold air as these cars with their huge areas of glass get very hot.