By on January 18, 2012

It seems unlikely that anyone in 2037 will be inclined to keep a 2012 BMW 650ci in such excellent condition as the 1987 635CSi pictured above -and even if such a thing happens, will said 650i make it that far into the future without a catastrophic electronics failure rendering it a two-ton paperweight? Although Jack and Steve have offered their own context on older cars, mine will be different. I’m still not yet legally able to rent a car on my own. This 635CSi was built before I was even born, so driving it gives me a glimpse into the past, but without the benefit (or handicap) of contemporaneous context.

Ari, the owner of the gorgeous example in the title picture, was the first of our group to have a car, a navy blue Dodge Intrepid that was used as a detective’s car. At the age of 18, telling girls that “I have my own car” was considered the height of comedy, with all the associated dissonance of knowing that it was bound to deliver poor returns.

The Intrepid died sometime in the winter of 2008 only to be replaced by something far more interesting – a 1987 E24 BMW 635CSi. Ari’s Dad had always wanted a BMW, but could never justify the cost of one – the fleet of trucks needed for his contracting business was a priority, and he had a fully loaded Sierra 2500 Duramax for himself, which probably cost as much as a nicely equipped 5-Series. It’s easy to see how Ari’s dad finally justified this purchase: it was in incredible shape, with only 64,000 miles on the clock and a set of authentic AC Schnitzer rims. Ari’s mom promptly managed to destroy one of them after hitting a median at speeds near 50 mph, and a replacement couldn’t be found. For the rest of its life, the car wore E39 M5 wheels – and Ari became its sole driver, with his mom getting a Volvo wagon for the daily grind.

I was lucky enough to drive the CSi on a couple occasions over the years, and those moments are responsible for informing me on how cars, particularly BMWs, used to behave. It wasn’t muted and comfortable like the E39 or any post-Bangle BMW. Rather, it felt a bit rougher around the edges, in the same way that my Miata feels crude compared to a modern MX-5. The big I6 was only rated for 182 horsepower but felt much zestier than its output figure would suggest. The one flaw in the package was the slow, ponderous-feeling recirculating-ball steering which felt dated to someone used to more precise rack-and-pinion systems.

For most people our age, the 635CSi was just a cool looking BMW from a bygone era. For those who knew better, it was a portal to another era of the automobile, before iDrive, Bluetooth and “aspirational brands”, a driving experience that was distinctly analogue and imperfect, but with a fidelity unmatched by modern methods.  Driven back to back with any current BMW, you’d hardly know that the E24 shares a common lineage with the current crop of cars. A quarter century of “progress” has led to the 6-Series gaining two extra cylinders, two turbochargers, 3 extra forward gears and a suite of electronics that would be inconceivable in 1987. Unfortunately, Ari lost his job right around the time that the radiator, brakes and exhaust system all needed replacing, and he decided to quickly sell the car rather than wait it out and try and repair the car at a later date. Had he possessed some extra money and inclination, the 635csi could have easily ran another 25 years.

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58 Comments on “Capsule Review: 1987 BMW 635CSi...”

  • avatar

    I do love the general shape of this car, it is very attractive.

    • 0 avatar

      Nice car!

      I bought a 1974 3.0 CSi in Germany in 1982, shipped it to the US and had it federalized (took my DOT exemption). It was (and still is) the prettiest coupe BMW ever made. Rust is more of an issue with old BMW coupes than mechanicals. Wish I kept it.

      • 0 avatar

        I agree, the 6s were a bit fatter looking than the earlier E9. Of course, by today’s standards anything looks trimmer, thanks to some styling trends BMW themselves started in the early 2000s.

        Though I think the only reason your CSi is so reliable is it’s a German version without the early attempts at emission controls that BMW tried.

      • 0 avatar

        Having imported a final MY E24 M6 from Germany, untouched by the well intentioned yet uninformed, misguided, and quite frankly “doesn’t make a d**m bit of difference” -ed emissions laws that strangle US engines, with just 12,500mi and perfect everything a while back, it’s since gone on to deliver another 41,000 miles with nary a problem. I own a lot of Bimmers, but I don’t find anything beyond the E46 to have a true BMW feel (E92 335i/M3, and the 135i/1M are an exception, but only with a manual and any “sport” or performance package included), and I can get out of my (albeit heavily modified) ’06 M3 ZCP 6MT Coupe and into my E24 M6 and the cars have more similar than different, amazing considering not only the age gap but the intent of each. Yet still, they are driving cars, and aside from Ferrari V8’s and their most recent V12, Porsche’s 911 GT3 RS and RS4.0 (automotive perfection?), and of course anything Lotus, I have never driven a vehicle that is so eager to please and to participate as the 06 and prior M-cars. Fortunately, they don’t have the purchase or repair costs of a mid-engine Italian sports car, yet despite having a lot of wheel time in every Ferrari, Lamborghini, Lotus, Porsche, and a number of other “supercar marques” (and excepting such collector cars as the FXX, Enzo, and Aventador), from this century at least (and a fair bit of the last decade of the prior, including such gems as the F40 and F40 LM), each has its own special things that it excels at, but nothing is as good at doing everything perfectly as an M3 or M5 (E46/E39 and older).
        The only new BMW I’d buy is a Z4M Coupe, but even the I liked the original better than the facelifted.

        Cherish any older BMW’s you have, whether a 528td or Euro M6, they’re all gems!

    • 0 avatar

      @twotone, do you still have the CSi? Would love to see some photos … the original 2500/2800/3.0 coupes were the bee’s knees!

    • 0 avatar

      Though I’m a huge BMW fan and like a lot of the old ones too, I never found the original 6 all that appealing. The CS/CSi/CSL on the other hand…I need to get me one of those someday. Probably should make it quick cause I think the prices of those are only going up.

  • avatar

    Can’t hang with your conclusion– “Had he possessed some extra money and inclination, the 635csi could have easily ran another 25 years.”

    A car only has 7 important systems: engine, trans, suspension, brakes, charging, cooling and steering. 1/2 of his car was dead, dude– and it was coming for the other half like a zombie.

    • 0 avatar

      This is a very foolish analysis – not all of the ‘systems’ you mention are on equal footing, and the systems listed as failed above are relatively easy and cheap to fix compared to say – body / frame damage (including rust), catastrophic engine failure or serious electrical malfunction.

    • 0 avatar

      Great looks, great outer views,
      In comparison to the American cars of the time they were fabulous…..except in maintenance. I had an ’86 530; two friends had ’87 635s and one friend had a 733 or 735 ( whatever the first year’s engine was). They ate parts even when new. All sorts of parts went, especially rubber parts like belts and hoses. Each of us kept extra hoses in the trunk of his car for parking lot repairs. This was when the cars were only 2 or 3 years old!!!! I don’t remember when BMW gave up on its thermal reactor smog control and went to the catalytic converter, but a 6 cylinder with that thermal reactor got about 12 mpg in town and MAYBE 16 mpg on the freeway!!!! Does this still sound like a dream car??? Weekender maybe, daily driver NO WAY.

      • 0 avatar

        You might have had an e12 ’76 530i, that car ceased to exist in ’80, as did thermal reactors. Replaced by the 528i with catalytic converter for ’81, IIRC. The only choices in ’86 were the 535i and the 528e. The thermal reactors were certainly an abomination, and caused all sorts of expensive dilemmas. ’70s emission controls, got to love them.


        As for interior trim issues on these cars, were they raising puppies in it or something? The interior of my ’86 535i looked (and still looks) pretty much as new, other than the leather seats having ‘patina’ and the usual issue with glue stains on the c-pillar covers. Perfect plastic, perfect headliner, perfect carpeting. Admittedly it only has 125K on it now, but my Mom had an ’83 528e that she kept to 200K and another friend bought and put another 50K on – it held up just as well. That car had the leatherette seats – they just looked as new.

      • 0 avatar

        I’m not sure many readers know how awful those thermal reactors were, or appreciate the elegance of the 3-way catalyst.

  • avatar

    “The big I6 was only rated for 215 horsepower but felt much zestier than its output figure would suggest.”

    That’s especially true considering the car pictured was actually only rated at 182 hp. 218 was the Euro E24 output, and 208 was the catalyzed world car output starting in ’88. Excellent review of the steering – it’s amazing how much less precise it feels than the E30’s rack and pinion, although the example I’ve driven also had somewhere between 170k and 200k miles worth of wear on it and probably needs some adjustment.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    Having just replaced all of the components on my ’01 Z3, in a long afternoon, it’s too bad that your friend didn’t have the money or the skills to do some of this work on this lovely car. It’s doubtful that doing any of this stuff, with the possible exception of the brakes, requires a high level of mechanical skill or special tools.

    Regarding the car, in 1986, I was trying a case for 3 months in San Francisco. Happily the presiding judge held trial only 4 days a week, leaving me with 3 “off” days. I made it a practice to use one of those days as a true day off. There was a car rental company which rented “exotics” (from Ferraris to — gasp — Peugeot turbos), which I patronized for my off day for a drive in the country north of the Golden Gate. One of the cars I rented was the 633 CSI. Apart from the unfortunate DOT-mandated “crash bumper” it was and still is a lovely car and, unlike today’s rolling bunkers, illustrated the virtues of a large greenhouse. Like just about all cars of its era, it required some skill to drive fast. But it was a very civilized ride and would not commit an embarrassing rudeness, so long as you understood and respected the characteristics of its trailing arm rear suspension.

    I feel sorry for your friend that he was not able to keep the car. Hopefully its new owner has the wherewithal to maintain it.

  • avatar

    This was a sweet car. The father of my good friend in high school owned a tire/repair shop. His lawyer had one of these and would have him do all the service on it (he was embroiled in a nasty divorce; I’m sure the lawyer was billing plenty of hours). A few times he kept the car at home when the lawyer was out of town and let us drive it.

    My friends Dad was a big GM guy and had the usual GM products. I remember this car being really fast & tight compared to those. It was a blast to drive, especially for a teenager who thought only V-8’s were “fast”.

    His dad did say it was an expensive and difficult car to maintain though.

  • avatar

    Thats a decision that will haunt him for the rest of his life. By the time he gets around to owning another example (if ever) the value will likely appreciate to the level of keeping his own on the road. I’ve been there before though, so I understand. Old BMW’s really aren’t that expensive to keep running to be honest, you just need to be on board for replacing whole systems when it comes to any vehicle this old.

    Suggestion: Drive another old BMW to give this one context and get back to us on some detailed driving impressions. Please? Most car geeks have an old BMW experience, but few of us have driven these (most desirable ever) 6 series.

  • avatar

    The juxtaposition of this BMW coupe and the Lincoln coupe in the previous article… two different worlds.

    I’d rather live in this one.

    One of the strengths of BMW is that many of their cars have aged so gracefully. The Lincoln absolutely looks like a creature of the ’70’s. This car would not look out of place on the roads today.

  • avatar

    I have to disagree – having owned the 4dr brother of this car, a low mileage e28 ’86 535i, and a couple of e30s, and now an ’11 328i Touring, and having driven nearly all the BMWs of the past 35 years, they all have the same basic BMW feel about them. The new ones are quieter and more refined, but the feel is the same.

    All of them (except the M cars) have slightly slow steering, as most all German cars do, but if the e24s was imprecise it needed the ball joints in the steering linkage replaced. And much larger and wider than stock wheels do them no favors at all, they were not designed for huge low profile tires. The sixes all pretty much sound and feel the same, the modern one is just quieter and pulls a bit harder. I just ordered a BMW Performance Exhaust to fix the “quieter” part.

    Those ’80s BMWs are incredibly simple cars to DIY as well. And parts are not particularly expensive by modern standards. Call it $1500 and a weekend to sort the brakes, exhaust, and radiator. I sold my e28 to a friend, it is still his daily driver today. Bulletproof, though starting to rust a bit.

    I am sure the ‘expensive and difficult to maintain’ sillyness comes from the fact that these cars had systems that were advanced for the time, but are now the norm. Fuel injection and antilock brakes hold no mysteries for anyone today, but 25 years ago that was pretty cutting edge stuff. Compared to my e91, the e24/e28 is an ox cart under the hood.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    These cars are actually fairly robust when it comes to long term durability.

    The few I’ve seen at the auctions have oversized aftermarket wheels, minimal maintenance performed over the last several years, and always require the attention of someone who is familiar with this era of BMW.

    Nice cars for their time. Not a bad car to keep if you enjoy the marque. Although a 3-Series convertible would be a far more entertaining car.

  • avatar

    My father-in-law had the 1983 version of this car (633) but it looked the same (black too) and I drove it many times.

    As he used to say, keeping it repaired and maintained was like having a second car payment each month.

    The reliability was horrific and the repair bills were something to wrestle with each month. It just didn’t hold up in the appearance department either; plastics, leather, trim etc. all seemed to be consumed by its very existence by the time it was 17 (1990) and by the late 90’s it was sad looking. It was garaged most of its life except for the last few years.

    Driving-wise, it was OK; nice visbility & good braking but average handling. The power was fair and the drivetrain was beautufully modulated (5 speed manual) but it wasn’t such a driving experience that it warranted the never ending, high $$$, repair & maintenance bills. It did look marvelous however….

    He replaced it with a 1992 300C Benz which was the most horrid little turd of a car that I ever experienced. That POS made the 633 look down-right reliable!

  • avatar

    Great article! Now I know my black stallion can rest easy.

    The car is still for sale. If you have any interest please email me at [email protected] .

    All reasonable offers accepted.

    • 0 avatar

      Given that we just took Matt Davis to task for his auction post, I’ll add this in.

      Disclaimer: I thought the car was sold at the time of writing. I have no financial stake in the sale.

    • 0 avatar

      If you were in California…I’d be making you a very reasonable offer.

      At the risk of not being helpful at all, fixing the radiator, brakes and exhaust on this car is a very straightforward and inexpensive task.

      So much so that it’s worth it to limp/tow it to the folks’ place or some other safe haven rather than slough it off.

  • avatar

    Excellent way to start a review of a BMW by parking it incorrectly on the wrong side of the street. You couldn’t find a handicapped spot to double park across?

    Maybe I’m wrong and it was a one way street or something.

  • avatar

    Derek – the more I read your stuff, the more I realize we have in common.

    I might be a year or two older than you though; I was born the same year as this E24 M6 I reviewed for my site.

    Cars really were a lot more personal back then, you actually felt like you had a part in the drive. No isolation. Still a fantastic car though – this one’s the full fat 256 cat’d S38 with ITB’s, it was right fast!

  • avatar

    I heart low beltlines.

  • avatar

    That greenhouse sure is huge.

  • avatar
    Amendment X

    “Had he possessed some extra money and inclination, the 635csi could have easily ran another 25 years.”

    You mean, could have easily RUN another 25 years. I hope you weren’t an English major.

  • avatar
    Da Coyote

    That car is more beautiful than any current Bangled (and even post-Bangled) BMW. Even the congresscritter ugly bumpers don’t look that bad.

    Please, BMW, make more that look like this one.

    I owned one of your machines back in that era. Even though it still had not (and will probably never) reach the reliability of my many Hondas, it was still a great machine.

  • avatar

    A recirculating ball steering system may feel less precise than that of rack and pinion steering, but it is actually a more compact and expensive system to produce than that of the latter. Rack and pinion steering is so simple it can be found on everything from a child’s Erector set to an old Sears riding mower.

  • avatar

    I loved these then, and I love these now. Today’s 6-Series can come close to the simple beauty and elegance of this car. Forgetting the maintenance, I’m afraid the looks of this thing are better than the reality of driving it. About a year ago, I was toying with the idea of getting something like this (70s or 80s BMW or MB). I was checking out websites, found what looked like a nice 90K mile example, and it turned out that the car was literally a mile from my house. I went over, and it was owned by an old guy who bought the car new. I drove it, and while I loved that old BMW feel, I was a little disappointed with the steering – maybe there was something off, I don’t know. But ultimately, I decided that I really didn’t want an automatic.

    Here I am, still looking, sort of.

  • avatar

    Recirculating ball steering at that time was a feature of premium cars, the econo boxes had inexpensive rack and pinion. In addition the Germans would note that recirculating ball with a level of slack at “on center” was actually a safety feature when blasting down the autobahn at over 200 KPH.

    At that time German luxury cars were still engineered to be autobhan cruisers, with numerically low rear axle ratios, slow acceleration, many had engine oil coolers for sustained high speed cruising. At a time when many cars lost their composure at higher speeds, and rough roads. The German cars could run all day at sustained high speeds, and not lose their composure over rough roads.

    Many German cars of the vintage still had a mechanical fuel injection system, Bimmers of the day had the trademark “ticking” injectors.

    Eventually all the German cars morphed from being autobhan cruisers to being “adapted” to the North American market.

    One example most customers bitterly complained about the cost, and low durability of Z rated tires…solution install V rated tires govern the speed at 210 KPH…the performance versions with Z rated tires were still governed at 250 KPH.

    • 0 avatar

      I LOVE the steering on my newly purchased 1985 635. I did have to update the suspension to Bilsteins and H&R coils, but it almost rid me of the dredded driveline lash and now it’s heavy and light, durable but flickable, feels in a car like my ’80 BMW R100S did in a motorcycle.

  • avatar

    I just bought an ’88 528E /auto with working AC, with a legitimate California smog check for only $1600. The suspension bushings are blown out, and it looks like it was washed with a brillo pad…but damn…$1600 for a running driving car with working AC seems good to me.
    The little m20 engine with auto feels slow off the line, but once at 60 or 70 mph It seems like it accelerates decently. It has a BIG huge steering wheel, and slower steering than I’m used to, but I like it.
    80’s BMW’s looked like CARS, not like potatoes with wheels and bangle butt.

  • avatar

    I may get laughed off of here for saying this, but my ’88 Merkur Scorpio has much of the same German “goodness” that BMWs and M-Bs of this era posess. Very direct steering/chassis feel, firm but compliant suspension, high speed stability/solidity, good switchgear, etc.

    I will say that this car is still in remarkable condition inside and out – no cracks in the dash or console, and only the lightest of patina on the driver’s seat. Shockingly enough, everything save for the A/C actually works on this car, including the power reclining rear seats, fuel computer and the “lamp out/vehicle warning” display on the R/H side of the cluster.

    • 0 avatar

      Hah! I’m laughing with you. The car that got me interested in German cars was a rented Cadillac Catera (the Caddy that zigs?). After driving an Olds from the 80’s and owning a newer (at the time) Altima, it was like driving nirvana. The steering, brakes, suspension – completely different feel.

      Going from that Catera to a mid 90’s 530i was another huge step in driving. Got me hooked.

    • 0 avatar

      Merkurs in general, RULE! Good choice! I wanted an XR4Ti so bad as a new driver in the late 80’s but inherited the 240DL instead. Tried to convince Dad to the get more “adult” Scorpio but he was having none of it. Do lots of Sierra parts work for it too?

      • 0 avatar

        Depends – chassis/suspension are basically the same, but interiors and controls are totally different depending on model year.

        As an almost all-new car being built in a thoroughly refitted plant, The Scorpio ushered in a whole new set of switchgear and controls which found their way onto other euro Fords as they were refreshed after 1985 (the year Scorpio was launched). So if you are talking about an early 90’s Sierra, then yes, many of the “fiddly bits” are the same…a mid to late 80’s Sierra/XR4/XR4Ti, not so much.

    • 0 avatar

      I dunno about the Scorpio, but I drove an Xrt4i once, handled fine but getting it to go was pretty scary, the awful automatic gearing combined with a turbo-charged Pinto 2.3 didn’t help either.

      If anything it reminded me of the Dodge Omni I owned at that point, ratty but responsive on the wheel.

  • avatar

    I love these cars, and I still see quite a few that were maintained fanatically and kept up nice. They aren’t too expensive to buy, and just so classy looking. Along with the E30, they represent what a BMW is supposed to be…

  • avatar

    Having owned a 1980 528i that I bought after my beloved one owner (me) ’67 1600 was totaled. The one thing I still remember about it was the stonking little motor and the the ability of that four door sedan was it’s ability to keep up with Corvettes. That and none of that trailing throttle over steer that the 1600 had.

  • avatar

    I used to love these, but haven’t seen a well kept sample in some time. In lieu of this, my new love is the mid 90’s E31’s – the 840ci. From what I have heard, though, they will break you into little pieces with maintenance. Not the mechanicals, but the little electric problems.

  • avatar

    The only better looking BMW’s are the 90’s era 840/850 cars.

    Still one of the best looking vehicles on the road…it’s just a damned shame they’re plagued with electrical gremlins.

    Seeing your buddies car reminds me of a period around 1989 when I wanted to sell my ’84 vette and bid on this silver 630CSi at a family friend’s auction lot (mainly bank repos). I was about 18 and would go over there once a week and sit in it, looking the car over, dreaming, etc. It was such nice looking four seater, great greenhouse and seats, nice interior design. The window motors didn’t work but I don’t think there was anything else major that was wrong with it (in hindsight I’m sure there was) but that car would be mine.

    Fate intervened and I had a wreck in the vette before the car came up for auction, thus depriving me of the one asset I had at that time.
    Alas the silver 630 and I were not meant to be and while I know it would’ve been an expensive and ultimately doomed relationship, the occasional sighting does make my heart race a little.

  • avatar

    Growing up in the 80’s, the family watched a show called Moonlighting with a then un-famous Bruce Willis and a 70’s supermodel called Cybill Shepard. Cybill’s character drove one of those BMW 6 cars. Didn’t help the BMW’s “driven by yuppies” image.

    Nice car though. Better than the Supras/RX7s/300Z/Legend Coupes of the day.

    • 0 avatar

      It should have been nicer – it was a helluva lot more expensive!

    • 0 avatar

      I loved that show back in the day! The one-liner quips were great.

      My favorite is the first episode, when Cybill tells Bruce he has to cut costs, and get rid of his company cars… Bruce responds: “I have to get rid of the Porsche??? BOTH of them?!?!?”

      IIRC, they both drove matching BMW 6-series… not a bad cost cutting car IMO.

      This is where the yuppie driving BMW image came from, back in the day all yuppies drove BMWs. What else was there??

  • avatar

    Oh, God, did I lust after this car…I used to go with my dad to buy his cars, and in 1980, he popped for a 733i. While he was haggling and doing the paperwork, I just sat in a silver 630 they had on the floor and dreamed.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    The e24 was essentially a 2 door e28. A well sorted e24 is still 10K$ dollar. None of the E24s had mechanical FI They had various iterations of Bosch FI. There is plenty of on line support for the E24 and the E28. Parts are reasonable and the cars are bone simple to wrench on. Quirks are mostly electrical gremlins. Most aren’t serious. The 6er is a neat looking car. A classic beauty. Look out for rust in the rear wheel arches. I dont wanna talk ’em up too much because then everybody will start wanting them. I like the steering.

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