By on October 27, 2009

There's like and there's like, like (TTAC/Paul Niedermeyer)

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.

CC 13 032 800I 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. CC 13 036 800

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.

CC 13 034 800The 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.
CC 13 030 800

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48 Comments on “Curbside Classic: 1985 BMW 635CSi...”

  • avatar

    Yes, I got it right! Great review, both BMW and Mercedes had more unique yet very Teutonic styling at this time but since it was the early 80’s they were starting to get away from the simple designs (yet, we consider these simple relative to modern examples) and piling on the luxury features since the price was increasing.

  • avatar

    These were really pretty cars, rolling art. They were also horribly unreliable and took the income of a Gulbenkian to fix, not to mention the patience of Job waiting to get parts for them.

  • avatar

    Nice cars, especially in CSL trim, but like Lauren Hutton, I couldn’t afford the upkeep.


  • avatar

    Well, I for one love the funky cars, funky Eugene motif, and the criticism (in the literary sense) that that inspires. But you need to elaborate on Bob Lutz coming–to BMW???!–to the rescue. If I’m reading that right, that sounds like a story in itself, but at the moment, it’s a question just begging for an answer.

    That E9 coupe is a beautiful expression of the Corvair motif.

    Finally, if there’s one thing I hate about a lot of contemporary cars, it’s the slit windows. I like to be able to see out. When I originally traded the ’77 Corolla for the ’93 Planet Six, one of the things I had trouble getting used to was less of a view. And yet, the ’93 Saturn had ample glass by today’s standards.

  • avatar

    Just noticed–the owner has the BMW on the street, while the Subaru is in the driveway. S/He’s obviously driving it around.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    David Holzman: But you need to elaborate on Bob Lutz coming–to BMW???!–to the rescue.

    Lutz CV:

    GM Europe: ’63-’71
    BMW: ’71-’74
    Ford Europe: ’74-’82
    Ford US: ’82-’86
    Chrysler: ’86-’98
    Exide: ’98-’02
    GM: ’02-?

    He’s been around, and his fingerprints are on many cars. We’ll make note of his influence on future CC.

  • avatar

    I always loved this car. There was a point in my life that I was moments away from purchasing an L6, which was a European spec, “luxury” version of the 635CSi. The one I was looking at was black, cosmetically perfect, nice wheels and a performance exhaust. And man, was that car fast….at least I thought so at the time.

    btw, Mr. N, I lived in Oregon for many years and visited Eugene often. Especially for some football games.

  • avatar

    As an impressionable youth I fell in love with this car when Hawk drove one on Spenser for Hire. I haven’t seen the show in probably 20-odd years, but I doubt it’s held up well. The 635, on the other hand, still turns my crank.

  • avatar

    I was always in love with the old 6 series, from a distance. The passage of time tells me that owning one might have made me turn it in as a CFC trade.

  • avatar

    Canucknucklehead: +1.

    Purty car, to this day. Shame you needed the income of Bill Gates to keep it running. Oh, wait a minute, if you have to ask how much it costs to keep the car running, you can’t afford it.

    I remember when we saw the first one at the car wash (I worked at Puddle Car Wash in Boulder). We tripped over ourselves to be the one(s) who drove it round to the tunnel or out of the tunnel. Twas one of the nicest cars I ever saw come thru their between 83-85.

    Looking forward to more shit boxes. I’m constantly amazed at how many cars of such ilk still exist in Eugene. You sure wouldn’t see em in places like Kansas City or St Louis.

  • avatar

    As a child the BMW 635 was my dream car!

    Many people may think it a little embarrassing when you had the likes of Ferrari etc but for some reason this car looked the bee’s knees to me!

  • avatar

    Personally, I always liked those 77>89 6’s. The genetic spread from these BMW’s was all over the auto landscape for years. Blending into the 89>99 8’s. With their front halves from an 86>92 Supra. And their backs being cloned into the 89>97 Thunderbird.And ,sorry but before we “Compare it to this much more expressive and romantic Bitter SC” remember That is just an Opel With a Ferrari 400 body clone on it go Pininfarina!

  • avatar

    “Next up: more shit boxes.”

    Can’t wait, I love guessing which shit box is which! PN, this is an awesome thread.

  • avatar

    BMW has never built a better looking car than the E9 coupe. And the good news is that they’re available today at very reasonable prices compared to the competition of that vintage. The bad news is that the prices are reasonable because E9’s are low performance rustbuckets. Not to mention damn uncomfortable; the seat won’t go back far enough for a 6 footer and the front wheel well intrudes on your personal space (much worse than the not so great but livable footwells of air cooled 911’s).

    The E24 is a far more practical car, which may explain why there are so many super high mileage examples available for $2500 on the craigslists of the world. Good looking as it’s predecessor it’s not but neither is Isabella Rosselini; they’re both still more than good enough. With the right accessories (say euro bumpers and headlights), I wouldn’t kick one out of my garage.

  • avatar

    My brother had an ’86 version of this car. He lovingly rescued it from a junkyard maybe 15 years ago, invested heavily it for a few years to get it and keep it running.

    It got broken into at the mechanic’s shop, causing much damage, and I think it broke his heart. It sat, not running, in his apartment complex for a couple years until they finally towed it away.

    By the way, Paul example has the same rims as my ’99 540i.

  • avatar

    Wow, Wow, Wow…

    This has been and probably always will be one of my favorite designs.

    One question… in the article it states that it was based on the 5-series. Can anyone else concur? I am nearly 100% certain that it was in fact based on the 7-Series body shell. I think they even shared a front clip and dashboard. It was a much wider car than the E28… and I remember how narrow the E28 was… I owned a 524td for quite awhile.

  • avatar

    It was a nice car for it’s time (not as beautiful as E9 3.0CSi/CSL) but nonetheless nice, especially the ///M6 (///M635CSi for North America) with proper Euro bumpers (not domestic abomination).

    What a sacrilegious thing to do to this car by putting rims from almost ten year younger E39! E24 must have proper BBS rims or Alpinas or AC Schnitzer of the same vintage!

  • avatar


    it was based on both E23 7-Series and E12/E28 5-Series, with later models sporting engines from E32 7-Series, IIRC.

  • avatar

    If it makes you feel any better I find the 210 easily as good looking as this 635 and more desirable. But you mentioned the rare 8 series, my favorite production BMW. I hope to own both a race modded 210 and a bone stock 850CSi one day.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    The 90s T-bird was a riff on that 6. Not that it was a huge success either. After it came out sold a few to the first on the block crowd, and laid an egg, Jack Nasser fired everybody who worked on the project.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    @Canucknucklehead: Thanks for reminding me of Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian, one of my all time favorite names.

  • avatar


    The 6-series was built upon the 5-series platform. Styling-wise, I always thought the 6 too narrow, and with too short a wheelbase.

    @Paul: I really like all the embedded pics and references. Gives some flesh to the bones…

  • avatar

    What the heck are you guys doing to these cars to run the maintenance costs up so high!?!

    I’ve had a dozen or so BMWs from the 1980-1992 period, and they have all been exceptionally reliable and reasonably cheap and easy to work on. Parts are very common and they require few specialized tools.

    Currently I have a 1984 633csi that is the near twin of your feature car, but with tan leather. It has 177k miles, and in the three years I have had it the only real work it required was a new radiator cap and some temp switches for the cooling fan.

  • avatar

    I disagree that the w126 coupe made the e24s roof line outdated. I recently acquired a 1986 560sec, and I don’t think its look has aged nearly as well as the still very graceful and attractive 633.

    also +1 David Holzman!

    I’m really sick of cars with slit window rooflines. If you drive an e30, then get into a new e90, it feels like you’re looking out through the visor on a welding helmet.

  • avatar

    I was in law school in the early-mid 80s. A faculty member (from a well-off background)drove one of these (gunmetal blue). To my 20-something eyes, it was perhaps the most beautiful, desirable, and thoroughly unreachable car I had ever seen. I can agree that the car is a bit tall, but compared to the sharp-cornered creasemobiles of the early 80s, it was beautiful.

    It lit a BMW infatuation that burned for about a year and a half. When I graduated and got a job and could afford to separate from my lovely but oh-so-maddening 77 New Yorker, I really, really wanted a BMW. I knew that I could never afford the 6 coupe (my memory may be playing tricks, but I recall that car as being north of $35K in 1985-86). The only BMW in my budget was a 318. Well, my practical side finally kicked in and I decided that if I was going to get a 4 cyl german sport sedan, the GTI could do everything the 318 could do for about $4 grand less. OK, that and the fact that the snotty BMW salesman would not even acknowledge my presence in his showroom, so there was a bit of irish pique there as well.

    I told a friend that I bought the GTI instead of the BMW. He replied: “Good. BMWs are only for assholes.”

    I look at the side view now, and the 635 is a bit ungainly. Maybe white is just not its color. But you are right about the automotive eros, Paul. You got it stirring in me this afternoon. OK, enough of this. Back to the shitboxes where I have happily spent most of my life!

  • avatar

    Another car that used the E24 as a stylistic influence was the first generation (1986) Acura Legend coupe…which was a nice update to the roofline in a Japanese idiom.

  • avatar

    A friend of my dad had one of these in the 80s when I was a teenager. I loved it. Until he told me all the trouble he had. And the fuel economy. Or lack of it. My ’79 Sunbird with a 350 4-bbl got better milage.

  • avatar

    I was a box boy at Alha Beta in 1983. I would run out to get carts everytime this red 635 with gold BBS’s came in. I thought that was the most beutiful car I had ever seen. Today however, meh.

  • avatar

    shiney2 +1

    My E28 (’85 535i) is relatively inexpensive to work on and tons of parts are available for it. Mechanically, the 6 series is just as easy to work on and has the same availability of parts. Body/interior parts are a different story I’m sure.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    Shiney Two matches my experience with the 80s BMWs. Durn sight cheaper and prolly more reliable, than modern BMWs.
    The E9 has my vote for prettiest BMW post 1970. The E 24 platform was morphed out of the E 12 and E 28 5ers. Most had less than 200 HP. The Ms had less than 250 Hp. The 6er is a pretty car compared to the 5er. The 5er handles better, and is more practical. Some claim the 6er is a tad faster.
    I know of plenty of these cars as daily drivers. You can get a decent 80s 5or 6 for less than 10K $. If you can read a manual, use a DVOM,and twist a wrench, The cars are easy to DIY.
    Today, up on 128, I saw a late model 2002. Chalked out red paint. de-chromed, but still wearing the hardware. A 35 yr old daily driver in MA. I see lotsa 633s,and 733s still driving around too.
    You’ve done it again, Mr Niedermeyer. Thankyou

  • avatar
    Mark out West

    The 850/E31 may have been DOA, mostly due to its insanely high MSRP of around $90K in 1991, but it’s still considered one of the more desireable older BMWs on the road. Still looks fresh too – last of the true “form follows function” cars from BMW.

  • avatar

    @ PN

    A worthy effort.

    A well kept E24 is still a head turner, which I think means it’s a sort-of timeless design. Unlike many cars carefully photographed, I don’t believe there’s an awkward or bad angle for the E24.

    Along with the E46 M3 (Chris Bangle everyone!) the M6356CSi are my two favourite cars.

  • avatar

    PN: Very well written and well-contextualized! May be your best yet. And thanks for not simply referring to BMW models with only the E-code, like most other BMW-snobs; it’s so pretentious.

    Can the next shit-box be an ’86 SAAB 900 Turbo? 16V, velour interior, manual sunroof, right before they put on the sleeker aero headlights (in the US)?

  • avatar

    Make it a ’77 Saab 99EMS, like the one I had. Didn’t consider it a shitbox tho.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Tosh, I have one in the can exactly your specs; patience, please.

    TAP, Been looking for any 99 since last spring, nothing. But I think I have a line on one now. 99’s must have a major weakness to be all gone, unlike the jillions of old Volvos on the street.

  • avatar

    @Paul: The bane of all Saabs: Rust. Especially the doors with built in sills. Virtually scoops up dust, shit, moist and rust everytime it rains. On the other hand, from what I gather from a construction standpoint, the A-pillar on Saab 99’s are almost bulletproof. They are not hollow, but steel reinforced. A straight rod connects the front end, from the roof to the wheelwell, making the front part incredibly strong. The cars are therefore sought after race cars, most notoriously the quirky swedish folkrace, where they are known as sledgehammers:

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Ingvar, Rust generally is just not an issue on the west coast; no salt used here. I suspect it’s more of a mechanical issue, but I could be wrong.

  • avatar

    … referring to BMW models with only the E-code, like most other BMW-snobs; it’s so pretentious.

    Just a FYI, I consider myself extremely pretentious.

  • avatar

    Love the BMW, get the Lexus. Got it.
    … can I still want the BMW?

    In any case, the owner has great taste in cars, at least one. Is his Subaru an SVX?

  • avatar

    Thanks for the walk down memory lane, Paul…I was always smitten with this car. Simple, elegant and beautiful.

    My dad and I always shopped for cars together, and in 1980, he bought a 733i. While he was haggling over that car, I spent a few VERY happy hours ensconced in a 6-series coupe that was on the showroom floor. I can still remember the way it smelled.

    I learned to DRIVE in that 733, but the 6 was always my dream car.

    Thanks again.

  • avatar

    Thanks for the article. I’ve been dreaming of owning one for quite a while. Even took one for an extended test drive, but it was too expensive. I missed a good, affordable one by a few hours when I took my time in setting up an appointment to view it. The guy who was there before me took it.

    At the moment the realities of life does not allow such a car. I have quite a long commute. Running a classic as a daily driver and ruining it by racking up big miles seem like heresy. The crappy economy means that there is no money for a weekend car. I don’t have a garage for a third car. Come to think of it, having three cars is overrated. We actually had a The Golf II GTI as a third car for a year. It just stood outside under a car cover and never got used. I eventually sold it after being pestered by one too many enthusiast waving a pile of cash.

    For now I have to make do with an E39 as a daily driver. It blotted the copybook by blowing up its cooling system, so it still owes me money. Other than that, my biggest headache is what to replace it with when the time comes. An E60 just does not float my boat. Neither does an A6, E-Class or Lexus GS.

  • avatar

    All vintage BMW coupes are lovely, IMHO. But if you find and capture an cherry, race-prepped NSU like the one your referenced, I’ll come up to Eugene and steal it myself!

  • avatar

    I owned one of these (well, a 633). Pro: strong six, nice shifter, comfortable as an old shoe, gorgeous to look at (mine was black over red leather) and fast and nice-handling in the dry.

    Con: as it was off warranty: reliability, mx costs, parts costs & durability (esp. plastic parts), handling in wet or slick conditions.

    I tried several things to cure the treacherous handling, including my dealer’s recommended Hakkapellitta (sp?) tires at a swingeing $4 hunge or so per. Nothing worked, get an hour of drizzle and the thing was a hog on ice.

    True plastic part story: pulling the door shut, the plastic pocket in the door came off in my hand. X%^@$!! So I go to the dealer. Cost of the part: $736.24. (.24? I mean seven hundred freaking dollars wasn’t enough?). Conversely, the right-hand pocket was a mere $200 and change. I riveted an alloy strip in there to hold it on, and put the car up for sale for a reasonable price considering its tendency to make me exercise my AAA membership.

    My then-GF, bless her, was driving when another car hit us and totaled the thing, and insurance blessed me with the much higher book value, which I applied to a Corvette — which was, weirdly enough, a great snow car and outlasted the BMW by over 100k miles. I’ve never darkened the door of the BMW store since (and Dieter and Jürgen in service didn’t even send me a card after I put their kids through Yale with that 633).

    It sure did look great, though. Up on a ramp truck, usually…

  • avatar
    Racer X

    I agree on the 335 coupe being the real sucessor to the six-series of the eighties. The current 6-series is ugly and ponderous.
    I am very fond of the 8-series, though.

  • avatar

    As a former owner of a 1984 533i (6 years) and current owner of an 1987 635CSi (1.5 years), I can tell you that both cars are by far the most reliable and fun DAILY drivers I have ever owned, and I am in considerable company with this experience. And yes, I’ve owned many other marques in the past 20+ years. The E24 6 series coupes are just as drool-worthy now as they were then, but decidedly more affordable now. I bought my 6er from a private party for only $3,500, and had it appraised at $5,500. It’s an automatic – manual transmissions are rarer and command a higher price (M6’s have held their value VERY well). You HAVE to know what you are getting into when considering one of these cars. My car is going strong at 163K miles, and has never EVER needed any engine repair. With a complete history (or close to it, in my case) and a decent inspection, you can still find nice, rust-free examples that give incredible creature comforts and performance bang for the buck. It’s the same old story: regular maintenance and addressing issues immediately means the Shark will give you many years of joy and reliability. Parts are affordable with a few exceptions (body panels). Point is, if you don’t abuse the car, it is no more expensive to maintain, repair and drive than any other car. There are inexpensive performance mods that can easily increase the MPG, which admittedly was never great on any of the 80’s large-ish cars.
    Yes, it’s fast! Much faster than people give it credit for, and impressive torque curve with a performance chip. No, it won’t beat some cars off the line, but always beats them in the long-haul. Its 1980’s racing history is a testament to that. The M6 with the S38 (U.S.) engine, at 256 bhp, was and still is, a monster. Europe enviably got the M88 engine, with 286 bhp. And slimmer bumpers….

    I drive my 6er every day (have put 12K miles on her), change the oil & fluids at regular intervals and enjoy the effusive compliments that I get everywhere I go: gas stations, parking lots, etc. not to mention never hesitate to take a long road trip when the mood strikes. Can’t ask for much more than that!

    To correct some misconceptions: The early 6er’s (1976 – 1981) were based on the E12 5-series chassis. 1982 on, they are based on the E28 5-series chassis, period. Same M30 engine. No relation to the 7 series. The 8-series was NOT based in any way on the 6. Again, separate concept – in fact, the 8 series was BMW’s attempt at a “supercar”; sales suffered because of bad timing. It was introduced during a recession.

  • avatar

    This is this car that first turned me into a Bimmer-phile. It took me 2 years to figure out that you have to get a Euro to get the true look – no diving board bumpers. The L6 is the worst – too heavy, and who wants an automatic? It took me 6 years to find the right one. 1979 – 90,000 miles, body and interior almost perfect. I’ve had it a year now, put about 3500 miles on it this summer, and am into it for less than $15,000 all in. They are *not* expensive unless you get into parts like genuine exhaust. Like any car this old, it’s just “What’s going to break next?”

    Mind you, you either have to be very much into working on cars yourself, or know a good BMW mechanic. I’d like to work on it – am able to but can’t manage to make the time. I am lucky to have a really good Bimmer guy very close by.

    The 8 is related to the 6 only in spirit – in that it was an unfortunate attempt to carry it on. Beautiful car, but way too heavy – partly a result of the pillarless roof design, I believe.

  • avatar

    >>And thanks for not simply referring to BMW models with only the E-code, like most other BMW-snobs; it’s so pretentious.

    It’s nothing to do with being snobby. The E-codes are the true delineation of the different models. Going from a 1989 5 series (the end of the E28) to a 1990 5 series (the beginning of the E34) is a *completely* different car.

  • avatar

    How disappointing. I stumbled across this beauty of a car review by searching “85 635csi used review”. Yet without titular warning, the author reviewed the car only for its exterior beauty. Where’s the discussion of this model’s driving behavior, reliability, or cost to repair? What truth, truly, about cars does this article impart? Unfortunately, the shallow treatment of the sad white car depicted unfairly represents the beauty of the e24, which in M form rivaled the performance and beauty of era Maseratis and Jaguars.

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