As a young lad of 16, I desperately wanted a project car. Having spent several eons playing Need For Speed, I fancied myself to be a tuning savant, certain that a small Japanese coupe would ease my worldly troubles. I brought my father round to the idea, but he made two firm stipulations: no engine swaps, no boost. So of course, we bought a boosted, SR20DET-swapped 1995 Nissan 240SX.
After a week of having the car, my mother observed that the garage had acquired an odd new odor. “Something smells musty,” she said. “I think it’s the 240.” She was spot on. As cars age, they begin to emit strange, slightly excellent scents that could only be pleasant to petrol-heads. To my dad and me, it smelled like old sports car (if you'd call what looks like a two door Camry a sports car). I was very pleased about this.
Recently (and temporarily), I was entrusted with the keys to a beautifully beige 1985 BMW 635 CSi. I was more than very pleased about this, especially upon opening the door and getting a nice whiff of vintage automobile. Spare me that new car smell, if you would.
BMW calls this paint Bronzit Beige, which is very fun to say in a silly German accent.
At the time of its release, I’m sure the big Bimmer was the epitome of luxury. The seats are electrically adjustable in several dozen directions, including the coolest-of-the-cool electric headrest. There is much entertainment to be had in watching the headrest go up, down, up, down, and hearing the little motors whir as you satisfy your fidgety inner child. Beige leather swaddles passengers both front and rear, while an analogue, real-time gas mileage gauge reminds you to be responsible with your right foot. To the left of the gauge cluster resides a panel of diagnostic lights befitting an Imperial Star Destroyer.
Nowadays, everything feels delightfully outdated. The engine idles a bit roughly, a far cry from modern, computerized smoothness. The gauge cluster is housed in a large box, lit not from behind the dials, but via a dim orange light beneath the cluster that succeeds in illuminating precisely nothing. It seems the interior designers were members of a cult devoted to the proliferation of rectangles. To activate the oh-so-retro round headlamps, one must perform the Herculean labor of pulling a knob and twisting its dial. But age hasn't dampened the cabin's appeal whatsoever. In fact, it's a spacious, stately place to occupy. The best bit is BMW's signature driver-oriented center console, which inflates the driver's sense of self importance to dangerously enjoyable levels.
Star Destroyer above, 635 below. Lord Vader would approve.
In 1985, the USA had poo-poo regulations that limited the 635 to a stunted 182 horsepower. That’s not much considering the engine has to haul around over 3300 pounds of German metal. But even in US spec, the straight six is more than willing to scoot you along, especially above 3500 RPM, where salient sounds are produced. It doesn’t matter that it won’t melt your face with accelerative force. The intake rushes, the exhaust (aftermarket in this case) sings, and the engine's mechanical fanfare blesses you with sudden insights into the meaning of life.
The Bimmer is a marvelous grand tourer when driven sedately. It wafts down the road with unflappable poise, absorbing all imperfections and yet quietly informing you of the tires’ whereabouts. It is highly satisfying to simply cruise along, take in the view from the impressively wide windscreen, and revel in the long-legged ease with which you cover ground.
Just because they aren't real BBSs doesn't mean they look any less fantastic. Okay, maybe a tad less.
Hustled down a twisty back road, the 635 loses none of its grace. The steering is heavy in your hands, weighting up wonderfully as you carve through a corner. A small aftermarket Momo steering wheel helps matters further, adding extra resistance to the rack and providing detailed feedback to your fingertips. It’s a satisfying thing to hold, and it looks surprisingly at home in the Bimmer’s cockpit, as if it draws out the car’s inner athlete. Directional changes are carried out with an engaging mixture of calmness and competence, and the chassis dutifully dons a jersey when asked to play ball.
Even when hurried, the car remains decidedly unhurried. It’s involving and physical, yet totally composed. It will waft slowly and it will waft swiftly, like a large ballet dancer with surprising finesse. The steering wheel openly converses with your hands and you can play ‘The Ballad of the Inline Six’ with your shoe. If the base model is this enchanting, I absolutely must drive the M variant.
Danger: shark in the water.
I suppose it’s time to bury the grudge I held against automotive magazines for blindly worshiping anything wearing a Roundel. It seemed that BMWs were fated to win every comparison, join any and all top 10 lists, and cure the common cold. But the 635 really is a magical thing. It just doesn’t place a foot wrong, no matter what kind of dance you ask it to dance. On top of that, your dance partner is the prettiest girl in the room. The Bimmer’s long hood and elegant lines form a subtle musculature that discreetly conveys the car’s performance. It’s impossible not to linger before getting in or look back as you walk away. Oh yeah, and it’s got the shark nose. Very, very yes.
While in custody of the 635, I also got to drive a 2003 M5, which pumps out double the 635’s horsepower courtesy of a burly 4.9-liter V8. The M5 reminded me in many ways of the 635. It was properly comfortable driven politely, but once goaded, it shot forward like a cannonball. Corners and cruising were handled with equal capability. The 635 is older, slower, noisier, and far less refined. Yet, at the end of the day, I’d drive the 635 home, because it felt so much more special.
It smelled better too.