The One That Got Away

Many of us have stories about the BMW that got away—such as the one we sold and wished we hadn’t. I’ve had a couple of those: One of them was a 1983 Alpine White Euro-spec 635CSi. I drove it, enjoyed it, and sold it—but beyond that, the story gets a little sad.

Betty and I arrived in Germany in 1987 for a three-year Army assignment. She was all set for transportation, since we’d brought with us her 1986 325es. That was her first BMW, and she loved it. As a daily driver, it was excellent, even considering that her commute to the 97th General Hospital in Frankfurt involved sharing the Autobahn with faster cars. However, within a couple of weeks Betty was zipping along with the usual Autobahn traffic at 100 mph. Not bad, considering the eta engine.

I wanted something a bit zippier—a car that would make people think, when saw me go by in the Autobahn’s left lane, “Yeah, it belongs there.”

The car I had in mind was an E24 BMW 635CSi.

Comfortable, luxurious, and fast, the E24 was, in my opinion, one of the best-looking Bimmers ever made. Yes, the 507 was beautiful, and the yet-to-be-born Z8 would join the ranks of stunning BMWs (as would the i8), but in 1987, the BMW 6 Series was seriously good-looking, and remains so in the eyes of many of us.

For weeks, I prospected at more than a dozen BMW dealers until I uncovered the mother lode: the factory BMW dealership in Frankfurt and its seven-level used-car building. It was glorious; almost every BMW you could think of was on hand.

The ’83 635CSi that caught my fancy was on the fifth level, sticking its shark nose out about two-thirds of the way down a long row of BMWs, maybe 30. With an M front air dam and rear spoiler, it looked a lot like an M635CSi minus the M badges. It was love at first sight, and after a few days of paperwork, I drove it home.

My German dream car in Germany.

The next three years were a blur—literally a blur, when it came to driving on the Autobahn. It’s amazing how much of Germany you can see in a day when you cruise at 140 miles per hour. (The Autobahns were not yet too cluttered with big trucks in those days.)

We had many adventures in the Sixer, like shopping trips to Berlin, traveling the wine road in France, and getting my new boss to an important meeting with his new boss on time, thanks to the car’s 140-plus cruise capability.

The 635CSi taught me about antilock brakes, which were standard on the 6 Series by 1983. Betty’s parents were visiting, and the four of us were on the A8 Autobahn between Lake Chiemsee and Munich. Doing about 120, we crested a rise in the road—and unfolding a quarter of a mile in front of us was a large verkehrsstau (traffic jam). Even though there was plenty of room to stop, the car in front of us panicked and slammed on the brakes. I was in the left lane—naturally—and another car was on the right, so I had nowhere to go—

Or did I?

My cat-like reflexes had me at maximum braking immediately, but I had been traveling faster than the guy in front of me, and I instantly knew that I could not stop in time. This was going to be bad.

That’s when I noticed two things. First, my wheels did not lock up. So this is what ABS feels like! Welcome to BMW antilock brakes.

The second thing I noticed was a small gap between the car in front of me and the concrete median wall—small, but maybe just enough to fit a 6 Series BMW. If only I could steer into it while under maximum braking!

As you have probably guessed by now, I could—and did. The Sixer stopped even with the car in front of me, with at least three or four inches of clearance for the mirrors on both sides. It would have been a nasty collision, but it didn’t happen, thanks to the ABS system.

I glanced at my father-in-law in the right seat, expecting a stern rebuke or at least a dirty look, but he was smiling and unperturbed, as if this kind of thing was just part of a nice Sunday drive.

Come to think of it, it was Sunday. And that’s how the 635 taught me about ABS.

When it was time to return to the U.S., I didn’t want to leave the 635CSi behind, and thanks to a military grandfather clause in the 1987 legislation that pretty much killed the gray market, I didn’t have to. Not only could I bring it back, but it was also exempt from then-current U.S. emissions standards!

The 635CSi Euro was both a beauty and a beast.

So the un-federalized 635CSi Euro and I enjoyed each other’s company for almost five more years—until I took the Test Drive Of Doom: That was the day I first drove an E36 M3. I immediately ordered one, but in order to pay for it and to make room in the garage, I had to sell the 1983 635CSi, my 1991 BMW K100LT motorcycle, and my cherished 1976 BMW 2002, a car that I bought new during my first Germany assignment.

As you may have guessed, the 2002 is the other Bimmer I wish I had never sold. By the way, if anyone knows the location of a ’76 2002 with VIN 2379739, please get in touch.

Finding a buyer for the 635CSi was not easy, because too many people were looking for a sunroof, and mine didn’t have one. But one day a guy showed up who said that he had always lusted for an E24, and that he would love it and take care of it and treat it with respect.

He lied.

About three months after the sale, I was in a local independent BMW shop when I saw the car. It looked like it had not been washed since I sold it. The interior was filthy, the leather was marked up, and the pile of crumpled-up fast-food wrappers almost reached the window. I asked the shop owner what it was in for, and he said it needed about $3,000 worth of engine work; he added that apparently the guy had never heard of motor oil.

That was the sad part of the story. All I could do was walk away.

In the years since, I have had more fun in my E36 M3 than is legal in some states, and I still have it. I don’t regret buying it, but I do regret not being able to keep the 635CSi and the 2002.

But neither of those cars was really the “one that got away.”

Remember when I mentioned finding the 635CSi at the Frankfurt BMW dealer? Well, there was another used BMW for sale that day, only a couple of years older. The problem was that they wanted $36,000 for it—almost twice as much as the 635CSi—and it didn’t even have a back seat.

To save money, I chose the 635CSi, which means that the one that got away was—that’s right—a BMW M1.

The one that got away.

Had I opted for the M1 instead of the 635CSi, I know that I would have found a way to keep it after the E36 M3 Test Drive Of Doom. It would have probably turned out to be one of my better investments, since M1s these days are going for more than ten times the price of that M1 in Frankfurt—and it would have been legal, with no U.S. emissions mess.

Having an M1 and an i8 in the same garage would be, as they say, priceless. But one plastic-bodied mid-engine BMW sports car—the M1—got away. I’ll be hanging on to the other one.—Scott Blazey

Who wouldn’t want to look in their garage and see both of these?

 [Photos courtesy of autobild.de, autozeitung.de, Scott Blazey]

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