1987 BMW M635 CSi
The cars with pure, clean shapes stick in our minds — and often rise in the market. You know them in your bones: the E-type, the C2 Corvette Sting Ray, the long-hood 911 (hell, any 911) — even the VW Bus. These are all pure shapes — and collectible. What will be next? I’d put a little money on the Shark.

A big predator

Although history doesn’t record the exact moment when “Shark” was first used in reference to a BMW, the term quickly became associated with the big, intimidating 6 Series 2-door coupes manufactured from 1976 through 1989. For a while, during BMW’s yuppie years, the car seemed synonymous with arbitrage and acquisition — something that threatened to eat alive anything in its path. Perhaps it was only natural that sharks drove Sharks. The Paul Bracq-penned 6 Series coupe, body code E24, was the replacement for the elegant E9 coupe (2800 CS, 3.0 CS/CSi/CSL) and became BMW’s longest-lived model. It achieved this trick, however, through a sleight of hand. The E24 was based on two different 5 Series cars (the E12 5-series through mid-’82, the E28 thereafter). To the untrained eye, the two iterations look the same, but the exterior difference can be seen in the horizontal crease that runs along the side. On the E28-based cars, the crease touches the lip, drawing the eye lower and giving the car a slightly more hunkered-down look. In addition, the radio antenna was moved from the left front to the right rear fender. Part of what makes the big coupe intimidating is the size that allows it to have that big, long, flat hood. Even in its most compact Euro-bumpered trim, the car clocks in at 15.6 feet long through 1986. U.S.-spec versions were as much as 6.5 inches longer due to the DOT-mandated diving-board bumpers. In model year 1988, BMW began using so-called “world bumpers,” bringing the Euro and U.S.-spec cars within an inch of each other, and taking the overall length back down below the sweet 16 line.

The M6 is the fast one

In terms of performance, you have to remember: These cars were built in the 1970s and 1980s. Germany kept its best at home. Their U.S.-spec cars were still finding their footing after the EPA dropped the hammer on smog in 1975. While Europe got the 218-hp 635 CSi with its M90 motor and dogleg close-ratio 5-speed, the U.S. market got the 176-hp 630 CSi, powered by the same L-Jetronic-equipped engine as the E12 530i (and the same head-cracking thermal reactors). This gave way to the 633 CSi (L-Jet with cats) in 1978. Along with the switch to the E28 chassis in 1982 came a Motronic 3.2 motor (the same engine as in the E28 533i). The U.S.-spec 635 CSi appeared in 1985, but it was a shadow of its Teutonic namesake, with only 182 horsepower. Finally, for model year 1988, the gap largely closed, with the U.S. engine getting a bump in power up to 208 horsepower. 1984 heralded the European debut of the delicious M635 CSi, which was built with a 286-hp version of the 24-valve M88 motor from the legendary M1. All us Yanks could do was drool — or import one and federalize it. Finally, in 1987, the U.S. got its own version, the M6, which uses a catalyst-equipped 256-hp, 24-valve S38 motor (the same engine as the E28 M5).

Watch for rust

Although E24s don’t spontaneously dissolve like E9s, they are not immune to the tin worm, so finding a solid one is key to a happy long-term relationship. Fortunately, these cars don’t squirrel rust away in difficult-to-see places to the same extent as the E9; what you see is pretty much what you get. Front and rear shock towers, wheelarches, rockers and fender bottoms are common rust-through places.

Keep this Shark cool

Because E24s share so much running gear with the 5 Series, the costs of most mechanical parts are fairly reasonable, although 6 Series-specific trim and interior parts are becoming scarce. The M30 motor is pretty bulletproof (and ubiquitous — it was used for 28 years), but its Achilles heel is its straight-six design. Overheat it once, and that long, straight aluminum head can warp or crack. Thus, the most importance maintenance is on the cooling system. Most of the rest of the issues are the vagaries one expects of any 30-year-old car.

Which one to buy

All E24s have presence, but there is a hierarchy of lust and value. The M635 CSi in full-on original Euro trim with the correct un-federalized, cat-less M88 engine and bundle-of-snakes header is often deemed the most desirable, and there were only 3,283 LHD cars built for the Euro market. If you find one here, it’s likely a gray-market car, so it’s best to know whether it was federalized, and, if so, how. Next comes the M635 CSi car’s American fraternal twin — the S38-powered M6. Only 1,632 U.S.-spec M6s were built during 1987 and 1988. The ’88s check off an extra collectible box, as they have the shorter world bumpers. For years, the M6 lagged inexplicably behind the E28 M5 in value, but that’s changing. The asking prices for pristine low-mileage M6s can now reach $60k. Drivers, though, can still be found in the teens. Unmolested cars prepared by European tuners Alpina, Schnitzer and Hartge are also highly prized. 1978 through 1981 European 635 CSi cars with the small Euro bumpers, the correct 218-hp M90 engine, and the dogleg close-ratio gearbox raise many enthusiast’s pulse rates (and, when wearing gray paint and adorned with trunk and chin spoilers, do look more than a bit cartilaginous). However, all Euro 635 CSis have 218 hp and are quite desirable. For buyers without the coin to score an M6, the sweet spot of price, performance, appearance and availability is the U.S.-spec 1988 and 1989 cars with the world bumpers and the 208-hp engine. These cars are readily available in the $5k to $15k range. Pre-1988 635s with the diving boards and the 182-hp engine are more plentiful and less expensive. Then there are the 633 CSis. Across all variants, the market values cars equipped with 5-speeds and sport seats more highly. Unless you find an unfederalized early Euro, the later E28-based cars generally make the most sense. Why? They all have ABS, the ’88 and ’89 cars with world bumpers have air bags, Motronics is generally preferable to the L-Jet for reliability and drivability, they’re less rust-prone and parts are a bit easier to find. The trade-off is that these cars are heavier and a bit more complex, but they are nothing compared with a post-OBD-II BMW.

Short-bumper lust

Nothing blows my skirt up like an early Euro E12-based car with the short bumpers. The lines are so much cleaner than the U.S. version — it almost looks like a different car. My ’79 Euro has a U.S.-spec M30 engine and lost its dogleg 5-speed, but I don’t care, because those short bumpers, factory air dam and stripes just send me to the moon whenever I look at it. And isn’t that what buying any vintage car is about? E24s present an opportunity to get into a dramatic 2-door BMW coupe without risking the kids’ tuition money. Many Gen-Xers will opt for the BMW E30 3 Series instead due to its compact size, tossable handling and iconic 1980s movie cameos, but the 6 Series carves corners just fine, effortlessly inhales interstate, and is simply way cooler. Be a shark. It’s the shape of things to come. ♦

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