From the February, 2009 issue of European Car
By Mike Miller
Photography by Courtesy of BMW AG
Rouse Mit the Old,In Mit the New!
The 1977 model year was traumatic for BMW enthusiasts. Remember how you felt when you saw your first "Bangle-ized" Bimmer, the E65 7 Series, when you realized that iDrive really would be in every BMW, that electronics would eventually supplant all mechanicals, and that, probably, the days of the manual gearbox were numbered? Well, it was an even bigger drag back then, because, you know, most people were stoned. Not me, of course, but let me try to paint the picture for you.
In the midst of it all, here was BMW doing whatever it was doing to our wonderful cars. I couldn't sleep. I couldn't eat. I didn't want to listen to The Doors. I stopped stuttering when Lori Zaleski was around. I didn't care about the Soviets anymore--I thought BMW was going to end the world instead.
Car magazines and the BMW dealer were the only sources of information directly relevant to my life. The dealer had already asked me to leave with the request that I never return. Enthusiasts lamented the end of our favorite cars and said, regarding their replacements, "This had better be good." And it was good--mostly. The replacement models appearing in 1977--the 320i and 630CSi--represented visual styling upgrades and quantum leaps in interior design and comfort. Instrumentation and interior ventilation, in particular, were vastly improved. In terms of styling alone, with the E24 it was love at first sight for most enthusiasts. Performance was another matter.
The weight factor was less important than power. BMW's even-then-venerable M30 sohc six-cylinder engine was so detuned for the U.S. market that a cottage industry emerged in aftermarket modifications--or simply installing European-spec parts like pistons, exhaust systems and distributors. Yale Rachlin, former editor of the BMW Car Club of America's monthly magazine, Roundel, related seeing two engine assembly lines at the BMW factory in the late 1970s. Each had a large banner spread over it. One banner read "USA" and the other read "NORMAL." This pretty much sums up U.S. emissions legislation of the era.
The end result was that even though we had a 3.0-liter engine with Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection, it struggled to put out just 176 bhp at 5500 rpm and 185 lb-ft of torque at 6000 rpm--figures that appear optimistic in view of virtually identical numbers for the 633Csi that would appear the following year. The new car's lack of power relegated it to last place in many car magazine reviews, even though writers generally liked the 630CSi. The 0-to-60-mph time, all important in the U.S., was 10 sec.--respectable but still a back-of-the-hand yawn compared to the 8.5-sec. time of the European-spec 628CSi.
A substantial horsepower increase lay readily at hand for those in the know, and it didn't take long for it to become commonplace among enthusiast circles. All it took was a conversion to European-spec exhaust manifolds or Stahl headers and a European-spec ignition distributor. (These modifications would also prevent the cylinder-head warping problem that would appear a few years later and become the subject of a class action lawsuit against BMW of North America, resulting in nearly all affected cylinder heads replaced with updated parts.)
Sometimes the L-Jetronic fuel injection got ditched in favor of triple Weber 40 DCOE carburetion, which, if combined with high-compression European-spec pistons and a sport camshaft, would transform the M30 from a mild-mannered, smog-strangled also-ran into a fire-breathing monster that would light up the tires at the slightest provocation. Needless to say, the prospect of spending another $4,000 to rebuild the engine on one's brand-new $24,000 coupe did not meet with the approval of many owners--at least not the original owners.
Some years later, when the California air quality bureaucracy mandated that emissions output be controlled through the use of technology originally installed on cars--however antiquated and ineffective--people scrambled to find discarded thermal reactor exhaust manifolds, EGR systems and U.S.-spec ignition distributors. Most had been scrapped long ago, and BMW's supply of replacements was used up almost immediately.
The deal was, you could make an old M30 engine pass tailpipe smog testing for that car without the thermal reactor and EGR system as long as the engine was in good condition. But then it would fail the visual inspection. Install the parts, and it would fail the tailpipe inspection due to parts deterioration. It was and is a perfect example of bureaucrats who know nothing about cars legislating them out of existence. The result was that many pre-cat Bimmers previously living in California sought refuge with owners in more car-friendly jurisdictions, and their loss was our gain as rust-free cars migrated eastward into "free" states.
Even though invasive California emissions testing has migrated to other states too lazy to write their own laws, most jurisdictions afford an exemption to registered classic and antique cars, or on age alone, and the age exemption is generally less than California's 30 years.
The rest of the drivetrain was robust and actually carried over from the E12 5 Series. A bulletproof Getrag 262 four-speed manual gearbox was backed up by a 3.45 side-loader differential. Limited slip was optional, as was a beefy ZF three-speed automatic transmission. Known as the 3HP22, this old slushbox will handily outlast its successors if given regular ATF and filter changes.
Four-wheel disc brakes with ATE calipers stopped the coupe a whole lot better than the U.S.-spec engine that motivated it, and the suspension, softened for America, was a model of BMW handling and comfort. Suspension design was also shared with the E12 and, in fact, with most BMWs since the early '60s. It was a tried and true formula--control arms with strut rods and MacPherson struts at the front, semi-trailing arms at the rear, fully independent all around. BMW carried over 195/70-14 tires on 6x14-in. wheels from the E9 coupe and E12 5 Series. In fact, the wheels were interchangeable, something BMW was infinitely cool about until only recently. Enthusiasts quickly found Bilstein sport shocks, Alpina coil springs and 7x14-in. wheels either from the aftermarket or from BMW. Tire size could be increased to 225/60-14 with no significant speedometer penalty or fitment issues. Long-lost companies such as Quickor were fast to market with larger sway bars and coil springs.
Engine issues aside, the rest of the 1977 630CSi positively rocked and had it all over the 3.0CSi it replaced. To understand how truly good the 1977 630CSi is, one must drive a domestic car from the same model year. Interior and exterior styling are ultra-modern in comparison. Outside, the lovely new body was actually fairly aerodynamic for an older model BMW--a 21% improvement over the 3.0Csi, according to BMW. However, in this era of super-fast autobahn speeds, aerodynamic downforce often took precedence over drag coefficients.
The E24 6 Series would eventually sprout several different front airdams and rear spoilers in successful factory efforts to plant the car to the road at speeds often exceeding 150 mph. The "Hoffmeister kink"--that little forward cut at the base of the C-pillar pioneered by the E9 coupe--was very much in evidence in the 6 Series and models to come. The addition of the B-pillar did nothing to detract from coupe-ness and lends the design an air of solidity and mass lacking in its predecessor. The long hood and nose panel styling cues adapted from the BMW Turbo concept car give the 6 Series an authoritative, individualistic yet luxurious presence unmatched by other Bimmers, in my opinion. The car has panache. It is never mistaken for anything else, but BMW 6 Series design cues cropped up in other marques down to and including the last-generation Ford Thunderbird.
On the downside, like all BMWs of that era, the E24 was given large, aluminum U.S.-specification "crash bumpers." These, combined with other U.S.-required bits, added a whopping 320 lb to vehicle weight. More weight, less power, not good. Still, while they are almost universally despised for their appearance and weight, U.S. bumpers provide large measures of body protection in parallel parking and other real-world tribulations. Unfortunately, the black rubber end pieces BMW used on American E24's up to 1988 are framed internally by ferrous metal. In time, the metal framing rusts and distorts the rubber outside.
The interior is equally dramatic. The 6 Series carried on the theme of driver-oriented cockpit controls and instrumentation introduced with the E12 5 Series and elevated it to the next level. With the instrument and pods robustly canted toward the driver, there is no doubt for whom or for what this car was designed--the serious driver. As with all BMWs, full instrumentation was standard save the curious deletion of an oil pressure gauge. A 140-mph speedometer greeted the driver, and the coolant temperature gauge was actually a useful functioning tool rather than the "buffered" vestige it is on today's Bimmers. Soothing orange illumination was easy on the eyes at nighttime, and the controls themselves had the reassuring personality afforded only by positive manual control.
Electronics had, however, entered the BMW cockpit in the form of the Check Control System. An electronic panel located to the left of the main instrument pod allowed the driver to check coolant level, motor oil level, brake fluid level, brake lights, taillights, windshield washer fluid level and brake pad integrity at the press of a button. With Check Control began the double-edged-sword legacy of BMW automatic system sensors. While they are wonderful driver aids, the unfortunate fact remains, to this day, that a warning light in a BMW just as often indicates a problem with the warning system itself as it does the system it is intended to protect. If anything, false warnings have grown more frequent over the years. The saving grace is that these systems will always warn of an actual problem--the question is, will the driver believe it?
Interior details in the 6 Series are perhaps the epitome of the driver-centric, form-follows-function BMW design so beloved of traditional BMW enthusiasts, and so decidedly out of favor today. Door-grip-mounted exterior mirror controls, outstanding door pocket storage space, window and seat controls ingeniously located on the center console and ergonomic perfection all greet the E24 driver. The two-place rear seating area is sometimes criticized for its size. But that criticism tends to come from larger reviewers. Ordinary-sized people tend to find the back of a 6 Series cozy but in an intimate and comfortable way. Ingress and egress is another matter, but once you're in there it's pretty nice as long as the front occupants don't use all the seat track. BMW even included a pull strap on the B-pillar to aid climbs in and out of the rear. Ingenious storage compartments are located on the rear parcel shelf, and rear-seat occupants enjoy both a center armrest and headrests.