The Original BMW "M3" - 1982 BMW 635CSi Observer Coupe

Carter Johnson
by Carter Johnson
the original bmw m3 1982 bmw 635csi observer coupe

Mercedes-Benz has four convertibles now. As does Audi, with a fifth in a new R8 Spyder not far off. BMW has five ‘verts you can buy. And if you count the various configurations of Porsches from which you can choose, the German sportscar maker has nine — nine! — convertibles. (Heck, there are seven different versions of the 911 now with large sections of roof missing!)

But the story was quite different in 1982.

Back then, if you wanted a go-to topless, you had three options.

The first was the Mercedes-Benz SL, and within that you had only one option – the 380SL. It wasn’t cheap, nor was it particularly sporty thanks to its boat anchor 155-horsepower V8.

Those who enjoyed some speed in their lives could opt for the then-new ’83 Porsche 911 Cabriolet. However, like the SL, the 911 didn’t rank highly on the affordability scale.

And your budget was more modest, there was one last option: the Volkswagen Rabbit Convertible. It’s hard to conceptualize, but the A1-platform Rabbit was already quite old in 1983. Though chopping off the Rabbit’s top gave it a new lease on life (further extended for another nine seasons by way of a Prince-esque name change to just “Cabriolet” in 1985), its quality was unsurprisingly nowhere near that of the Mercedes or Porsche.

The result of this dearth of topless options was an explosion of companies ripping the tops off quite expensive cars.

Few folks had the funds to pull this off, as at times the cost of the conversion would double or triple the base price of the car. You’ve probably never heard of most of them. Companies like Coach Builders Ltd., R. Straman Company, and Carelli Autoworks catered to the rich and famous — taking Porsche 928s and Mercedes-Benz 500SELs and creating custom convertibles. If you’re a BMW fan, you’ve likely heard of the company Baur, famous for its targa-convertible 3 Series and even an occasional 6 Series. Maybe you like the Back to the Future trilogy, and fondly remember the inexplicably old-yet-new rat-rod flying drop-top 633CSi.

But you almost certainly haven’t heard of MGA, and you likely don’t know about the Observer Coupé.

Though MGA isn’t particularly well known, its styling is famous to fans of British cars. MGA, short for Mike Gibbs Associates, was contracted by Bentley to design the exterior of the Turbo R sedan among other projects. But Gibb’s interests weren’t limited to the Crewe company.

In 1982, the company’s namesake sought to expand into the lucrative custom coachbuilt convertible market. One of his partners for this made a fair amount of sense: BMW Great Britain handed MGA the keys to a brand-new 1982 BMW 635CSi, a model which had just gone through a mid-cycle refresh. However, the third-party was perhaps a little less expected: The Observer, a periodical that had been around since 1791.

Waning popularity and new ownership in 1981 meant The Observer was looking for new readership to revitalize its brand. The result would be shown first in 1983 at the Birmingham NEC Motorshow. Called The Observer Coupé, it would be anything but a traditional convertible.

In place of a typical folding soft top, like those employed by … well, everyone, Gibb’s MGA instead opted to construct a very complicated electric sliding glass roof section similar to recent Porsche Targa models.

Internally dubbed “Project M3,” MGA’s team hacked — literally, if you watch the video — the standard roof section off what was $100,000 worth of the nicest BMW you could buy. The company created its own lightly sculpted front and rear valances, but more notable was the several inches of buildup on the trunk lid to incorporate the sliding roof mechanism. That lid was custom molded, then hammered by hand at MGA. Normal trunk storage was retained because the roof mechanism sat on top of the factory truck liner. Once the body modifications were complete, the once-bright red 635 was painted a much more subdued two-tone gray/silver combination. Under the hood, the original paintwork still peeks through the respray on the strut towers. A set of 16-inch Type 7 wheels were sourced from Centra to help the car stand out a bit.

The Observer Coupé then toured the country as a promotional tool before it was largely forgotten. Gibbs apparently attempted to promote his company with it and even produced sales brochures for a serial run of the car — which never materialized.

After languishing partially broken for some time, the Observer Coupé resurfaced a few years ago at its current location. 4Star Classics restored the car to near original specification and it looks pretty spectacular. It’s been for sale for some time, with varying prices, and now sits at £29,995. Thanks to Brexit, the relatively weak Pound translates to just shy of $40,000. With only 18,000 miles reported on the chassis, it’s likely one of the least traveled E24s in the world, and it’s in a condition that matches the mileage. While some aspects of the conversion aren’t as polished as a factory job, it looks remarkably finished and tastefully done for a show car.

For the discerning BMW enthusiast who really wants to stand apart from the crowd, this one-off 635CSi targa is an interesting — if esoteric — bit of the company’s history.

[Images: 4Star Classics]

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3 of 44 comments
  • FreedMike FreedMike on Sep 02, 2016

    No, no, no, no....a million times NO!!!!!! That 6-series had one of the prettiest, most elegant rooflines in all of motoring. You do NOT hack into it!!! It's like doing collagen implants on Marilyn Monroe. NO!!!! (Like the wheels, though...)

    • NoGoYo NoGoYo on Sep 02, 2016

      A roofline so pretty Ford directly knocked it off for the 1989 Thunderbird.

  • S_a_p S_a_p on Sep 02, 2016

    That takes the worst design elements from the 80s and puts them all in one spot. The wheels are atrocious, I do remember that pontiac and several others had similar looking wheels at the time. The rest of the car looks like a cheesy kit car from that era. Im actually disappointed that they took what is a classic design and made it so ugly. I think that when I have extra money I want to find an old 6 series from that era as a weekend car.

  • Allamericanred Interesting that as a car design nut that hates most American Suv designs that I think it is a pretty good design that stands apart but is not odd. The color really impacts how it looks to me. Some just do not work
  • NormSV650 I had a 2014 Vsport back in the day. It have a quiver feeling over some bumps in turns. Currently have a 2018 CT6 it is very solid and a great driver's car for the size.
  • NormSV650 I had a 2014 Vsport back in the day. It have a quiver feeling over some bumps in turns. Currently have a 2018 CT6 it is very solid and a great driver's car for the size.
  • MaintenanceCosts I saw my first IS500 out in the wild today (a dark-grey-on-black example) and it struck me that it was much more AMG-like than this product. (Great-looking and -sounding car.)
  • ToolGuy