There’s no better way to judge a premium automaker than by its big gran turismo coupes. They fully embody the hopes and dreams of their creators, as well as the romance and athleticism that keep us, the addicted, drooling. This is, of course, despite the painful truth that paying more for less car isn’t exactly sensible. Even though the smaller 3-series has made the premium sports coupe market its, um, lady, the 6-series is the BMW that most evokes high-class, high-speed European motoring. With an all-new generation coming, we’ve decided to look back at the original to better understand how far the 6-series (and, by extension, BMW) has come, and how far it’s gone.
No, the latest 6, which will replace the polarizing E63/64 later this year, isn’t quite on sale yet. But when the concept coupe debuted at the 2010 Paris show (with a production convertible following a few months later) our immediate thought was that the new car recreates an iconic shape that was lost when the car was revived earlier in the 2000s. To look closer, we’ve brought the new car together on these pages with a 1987 BMW L6.
The L6 badge on what is essentially a 635CSi with everything (plus extra leather) denotes BMW’s short-lived, U.S.-only attempt at a luxury complement to the exotic M6. While the M6 touted extra power, burly road manners, and a limited-slip differential, the L6 was a fully-loaded showcase of comfort, coming standard with a four-speed automatic transmission and sumptuous hides covering every surface of the interior, including the headliner. At $49,500, it cost more than a similarly equipped 7-series and was second only to the M6 on BMW’s price list.
The 2012 6-series, known by the code F12 for the coupe or F13 for the convertible, will launch in the US in a few months with the topless variant leading the way. When the coupe goes on sale, it’ll start between $75,000 and $80,000. BMW Individual options should allow for an L6-rivaling interior.
A 90-percent price hike over just two decades might seem excessive, but the entire country club parking lot has fallen victim to similar inflation. Parked at the pro shop alongside the 6-series in 1987 might have been a $39,700 Jaguar XJ-S V-12, a $38,500 Porsche 911, or even a $71,000 Ferrari 328 GTB. Round up the modern versions of that crew and the BMW’s price jump is right on par.
Contrary to the opinion of some within the car industry, one needn’t possess rectangular glasses, flowing locks, a pinstripe suit, and a little black book of buzzwords like “organic” and “dynamism” to talk about design. It doesn’t require a date with the driver’s seat, either, so it’s more often than not the center of any discussion of the 6-series. Anyone with eyes can declare the E24 (the 1976-1989 6-series designation) a “timeless” design or criticize the outgoing E63’s “Bangle Butt,” even though it’s commonly overlooked that it wasn’t even Chris Bangle but Adrian von Hooydonk who penned that 6.
The new car exhibits a healthy blend of traits from each step of the nameplate’s evolution. It’s distinctly modern like the car it replaces, but gaze at its silhouette and it’s hard to avoid seeing the original “Shark” showing through.
Indeed, the two cars’ styling philosophies have more in common than a quick glance would suggest. The E24 6-series is so enduring because it is simple, elegant, and just slightly unbalanced: The large greenhouse almost threatens to overtake the bodywork, and you just can’t stop looking at it. It’s also hard to stop looking at the new car as well, mostly because its newness means we haven’t quite figured out how we feel about it. It is also elegant, to be sure, and while it could be considered simple after what’s been on showroom floors for the better part of the last decade, it still has some interesting surface work that wasn’t really possible back in the ‘80s. We do like the look of this new car overall, but the treatment of the headlights and taillights leaves a bit to be desired in our eye. Part of the original 6’s charm was its dainty, delicate jewelry. This new car’s taillights just demand too much attention, while its rear-swept headlights are counterproductive to evoking memories of the original’s forward-leaning sprinter stance. We suspect governing bodies might have something to do with those problems though, so we can’t totally fault BMW’s designers.
Tracing the lineage of these two cabins begins, oddly enough, with their almost identically shaped rear seats. The most consistent design feature throughout 6-series history, they look as if they’d been pressed in the same mold. Each car has two small dugouts bucketed as deeply as ’70s pod chairs. It doesn’t matter that most butts would need to be shoehorned into each car, as the back seats do little more than hold briefcases and lower the car into four-seater insurance rate brackets. And isn’t the point of a big coupe to take up as much space on the road as possible while affording very little of that space to its occupants? Designers call it “intimacy.”
Up front, both cars’ dashes boast similar tiers for different systems. A navigation screen or, in the old days, a trip computer up top, followed by radio controls below that. A bank of vents sits high in the old car, but slashes across the middle now. The 2012’s massive navigation display likely uses more wires and more energy than our L6’s entire instrument set. And as can be expected from two decades of refinement, comparing materials, seating comfort, and noise levels would be about as fair as comparing these cars on a horsepower-only basis.
To say BMW was concerned about noise levels in the ’80s, though, is like saying the band Poison was concerned about respectable haircuts. While the 6-series (and the later E28 5-series sedan with which it shared many components) marked a move toward a higher level of refinement, E24s are still coarse, noisy power tools by today’s standards. The best way to describe the driving experience of the 635CSi, even the L6 version, is as a stretched version of the more common E30 3-series, one that’s been optimized for highway cruising. The steering is weighty and direct but the wheel itself is thinner in the grip and larger in diameter than the modern BMWs to which we’ve become accustomed. The original suspension now feels a bit gawky and body roll is prevalent, but the 24-year-old 6-series remains composed at high speed, the straight-six engine smoothly churning out power between the harsh shifts of the ZF four-speed auto. The brake pedal is lifeless for the first inch of travel but the four-wheel discs bite hard and remain steadfast once they get the message. It’s a car that’s more enjoyable as a triple-digit cruiser than the smaller E30, but certainly less involving when pushed hard. With its substantial girth and soft damping, tight corners don’t come all that naturally to this Bimmer, though long autobahn sweepers are likely a non-event.
We don’t expect this new car to drive much like a bigger 3. It was developed on the same platform as the newest 5-series, which itself shares many components with the larger 7. From our experience so far, all of these cars exhibit, in the name of luxury, a level of disconnect uncharacteristic of any BMWs before them. Perhaps the 650i will bring a bit of emotion back to the big Bimmers, but we’ll be surprised if steering feel takes precedent over seamless, silent driving manners.
In the time it takes for a newborn to evolve into a full-grown college graduate, the 6-series has added two cylinders, a liter of displacement, and a pair of turbochargers to more than double horsepower and torque. Larger cojones have come with a substantial weight increase, though, as the new 650i will weigh somewhere north of 4000 pounds. Some of that added mass has no doubt helped to create a serene cabin atmosphere that’s more isolated from the road, sacrificing some character in the constant pursuit of crowd-pleasing refinement. While the 635CSi requires a full wringing out to extract all 182 hp from its 3.4-liter six, BMW’s new twin-turbo eight brings immediate torque that doesn’t loosen its firm grip on one’s rib cage until redline. A faint bass note flowing through the cabin should sound great, but it can’t compare to the feeling you get in the 635CSi; namely, the impression that the motor is right there, riding shotgun.
We’ve driven the new 550i, so we know the matching 6 will be far more capable than its 1980s predecessor and even the one from the 2000s. Wide, 19-inch wheels mean there’s more rubber touching the road, and a stability-control-equipped chassis architecture designed to underpin longer, heavier sedans will help keep the new 6 out of the guardrails. The power is immense and the brakes more than compensate. But as with so many modern cars, the cocoon of progress has disconnected the driver from the “BWWARGH” of the engine under acceleration and the “WAAAA” of the rear tires through a hot corner. A large BMW coupe shouldn’t be as focused and sharp as a 3-series, but even when we recently drove an E63 6-series back-to-back with the original, it made the modern car feel a bit like a Mercedes, with locomotive-like power and, sadly, locomotive-like feedback.
Like the lead character in Shakespeare’s King Richard III, the E24 6-series fell from the throne with everything but horsepower. The question of the latest 6 certainly won’t be “Is it powerful enough?” but we do wonder about how much character the engineers in Munich will give their big coupe and convertible. Fortunately for BMW, it has always been the brand of new money — its customers revel in the get-lost-grandpa power and look-at-me styling. But let’s hope its hubris doesn’t precede another fall from grace. We’re too interested in the future (not to mention the history) of BMW’s big, brand-defining coupe.
A special thanks to Adam Franzen of Palatine, IL for the use of his lovely black ’87 L6. It was a rare car then, it is even rarer now, and it is one of few that has a crack-free leather dash. He braved the Chicago-in-January elements and spent hours detailing the car to help us out.