Somewhere deep in the comments to last week’s oft-misunderstood Datsun 210 CC was this: “With all the beautiful cars in the world, why do you insist on picking shit boxes all the time?” Well, it’s not like the streets of Eugene are lined with Delages and Delahayes sitting curbside in the in the rain. Did you miss my endless homage to the beautiful 1970 Camaro? Anyway, CC isn’t Hemmings or the Robb Report. It’s about the love of old cars still earning their keep, beautiful or not. But there are two kinds of auto-love, and a self-consciously beautiful car like this 635CSi has the higher hurdle to clear.
The Greek philosophers defined (and practiced) several kinds of love. The two most relevant in this context are agape and eros. Agape is unconditional, deliberate and thoughtful, but specifically non-sexual. Plato used it to define, among other things, love for a particular activity; like stalking old cars. It defines my love for the Datsun 210 and all the shit boxes of the world.
I don’t need to define eros; in the automotive context, Ferrari has been doing that for over sixty years. Eros is the counterpart to , even though it may well leave your mouth agape. It’s highly conditional, involuntary and thoughtless; a car either turns you on or it doesn’t. For instance, this BMW 635 CSi; does it warm your loins?
You can’t fault it for not trying hard. It had that particular difficult challenge in life of being a sequel, and it had one hell of an act to follow: the E9 2800/3.0 CS coupes. Very few would dispute the heat-generating abilities of that exquisite classic. But the curious thing about the E9, unlike the 6 Series, is that it came about its stunning and timeless good looks rather accidentally.
It got its start in 1966 as the four-cylinder 2000 C/CS, based on the “Neue Klasse” 1500/1800/2000 sedans. And a very modest start, at that; the Corvair-inspired front end was getting old and just didn’t click. It worked fine on the many rear-engined Corvair clones like the Hillman Imp, Simca 1000, and NSU 1000. But the BMW coupe fell flat on its equally-flat face. It musters some agape at best, but certainly not eros.
BMW’s annoying sliver in its side, Glas, also came out with its 2600 V8 Coupe the same year. Dubbed the “Glaserati”, it was rather similar to the BMW, except its front end. That was the polar opposite: complex, busy, Italianesque, but certainly passionate. BMW would soon solve the Glas problem: it bought the company, and the renamed 3000 GT now sported the propeller on its Frua-designed beak.
But the (real) BMW coupe soon received the mother of all face (and engine) transplants. In 1968, the brilliant new E3 six cylinder sedans appeared, with a new dynamic face to go with their dynamite engines. And both of them were grafted onto the 2000C, with spectacular results.
I’ve often railed about how so many original designs get mucked up with the passage of years, facelifts and refreshes. Well, the reborn E9 coupe is the centerfold poster child of that rebuttal. Alloy wheels and tasteful functioning front fender vents didn’t hurt either. And somehow, that huge greenhouse works, beautifully. In the sixties cars were still emulating certain architectural influences; living in glass houses was cool. Cars today are aping this architectural style.
We’ve more than adequately set the stage upon which the all-new E24 coupe appeared in 1976. So how was it received? My first in-the-flesh encounter was on Sunset Boulevard. I tagged alongside it in that consummate shit box, my battered old Dodge van, and recognized Henry Winkler “the Fonz” as the driver. Well that didn’t exactly help.
He must have thought I was stalking him, because I stayed next to, and behind him for long enough to forget where I was actually going, trying to absorb and digest his new white coupe, and waiting for that certain physiological reaction to kick in. But it just wasn’t happening for me, despite all the build up in the magazines.
Handsome, yes; but lacking in warmth. Its beauty is too cool and cosmetic-surgery clinical. It lacks the distinctive, even imperfect character and seemingly accidental magnetism of its predecessor, which for some reason reminds me of gap-toothed Lauren Hutton.
The 6 Series’ pope-mobile greenhouse was a conscious throwback to the original, but was starting to look out of date from the beginning. Compare it to this much more expressive and romantic Bitter SC, another German coupe of the same vintage. By the mid eighties, when this particular 635CSi first saw the light of day, that roof line was downright anachronistic, especially compared to the Benz W126 Coupe which came out in 1981. According to legend, it could have been even worse. Apparently BMW wanted the coupe to be even taller, for the benefit of their older and wealthier clients. But no less than Bob Lutz came to the rescue, arguing for lower lines. I guess he didn’t argue quite hard enough.
The mid seventies through mid eighties were a very conservative period for BMW. Of course the 6 was an excellent and desirable car, based on the highly regarded 5 Series. I’ve got plenty of love for those Bauhaus sedans. But coupes intrinsically set themselves up to a higher standard. Otherwise, why bother, given the big premium they command? With a coupe, it’s eros or leave it.
Things only got worse with its successor, the 8 Series coupe. It was DOA. The Lexus SC coupe, at half its price, ruined any chance it had, which wasn’t good to start with. And today’s 6 Series? Hello? The 3 series coupe IS the new 6 series. What does the $80k 6 do that a 335i can’t, at half the price? Especially when the 6 doesn’t look any better, if not worse. When you boil it down, that was always the BMW coupes’ problem. Not enough sex for the big jump in price, except for the original E9. Next up: more shit boxes.