“Well, it’s not a 5 Series.”
Those were the first words uttered in disappointment after a test drive in a 1988 E24 635CSi that I had for sale through my side business. The gentleman who drove it and I had been emailing for weeks until the stars aligned, our schedules meshed, and the snowy Colorado autumn weather had granted a reprieve nice enough to take the Salmon Silver 635CSi out on the open road. This poor man braved the worst of Denver traffic on his only day off to come and drive his childhood hero—the Shark—only to leave in great dismay.
Indeed, the Shark is not a 5 Series, but it wasn’t wrong of him to assume it would be similar. The Shark has the same big six M30 engine, the same transmission, the same suspension, plus a lot of other shared kit with the E28 5 Series. Even so, somehow, they are far from the same. Where the 5 Series is a comfortable and practical, yet refined and sporty sedan, the Shark is an eccentric Grand Touring car. Its home is not slogging along in traffic, or mixing it up on a tight country B-road. No, its home is out on the open highway. Even though its two plus two seating configuration could possibly accommodate four adults—slender adults in the rear, who could then enjoy their own beverage cooler—the Shark is really a two-seater. In fact, it even says it in the name: 635CSi, where CS stands for Sport Coupe.
Nope, the Shark is not a 5 Series.
The Shark was a continuation of the BMW Grand Touring (GT) segment that was so wonderfully immortalized by the iconic E9 CS coupes. Rather than evolve that design, Bob Lutz, who was doing a stint in BMW management, insisted on a clean-slate design for the E24 that would align with the E12 5 Series and entry-level E21 3 Series. BMW Director of Design Paul Bracq transformed Lutz’s direction into one of the most elegant BMWs of the period, a design so successful that the E24’s production run would be one of the longest in BMW history.
My first extended experience with a Shark was a 1979 633CSi that I sold for the original owner after he needed to downsize. He had owned it for some 37 years, purchasing new it at our local BMW dealer back when it was named Boulder European Autos and having been imported by Max Hoffman himself. It was Anthracite metallic grey over an Antique red leather interior, a color darker than the more common Cardinal red leather found in later E24s. A worn leather-wrapped shift knob operated its four-speed transmission below a wooden Buddha figure glued to the dashboard. The owner had two criteria: “Find my car a good home and the Buddha stays on the dashboard—Got it?” Got it…I picked it up on a dark evening and spent a few days driving it (with his permission) so that I could truly learn its nuances. It was probably my favorite Shark of them all. The color combo, the owner’s storied three-decade-long history, and that Buddha looking back at me while I drove it made the experience rich with nostalgia—even if it wasn’t my own. One could say that this Shark had the best Karma…
The second Shark shared a similar storyline to the first, it was a long-term owner’s 1983 633CSi shod in Hennarot (red). Henna is a color that looks fantastic on any BMW, but especially so on an E24. This example wasn’t quite as well preserved as the 1979, but by 1983 the Shark had a 5-speed transmission, plus a few other upgrades. Hennarot was the defining element of this Shark; where Anthracite grey accentuated the subtle hood and belt lines, Hennarot washed them out leaving only the basic form to be appreciated. If you looked closely, you could see the evolution of the E9 in its shape, most notably in the thin C-pillars and distinguished Hofmeister Kink. Even at rest, the Shark had motion, the slant nose leading the way forward ahead of its sloped aerodynamic roof.
At first, neither of these E24s was particularly enjoyable to drive. They weren’t especially fast, although the big-six M30 has plenty of torque on command. Still, once underway they felt heavy and cumbersome, which was made worse by a low slung, steeply angled seating position—a sharp departure from the E9’s blissfully agile driving dynamics. But once you accept these misgivings, lean back and get comfortable, the Shark will win you over—it is a BMW after all. What it lacks in agility, it makes up for in theater. It is an experience to drive a Shark. Looking down that long hood, over a cockpit-like dashboard that is unapologetically driver-focused, you are overwhelmed with the sense that this car is something special. Its mission was more focused than its 3 and 5 Series brethren, and as a result, when you drive one you feel special. Former Roundel columnist and author Jeremy Walton regaled us CCA members for years with tales of driving his Shark through Europe and on the Autobahn. I can only imagine how wonderful the Shark would feel in its natural element on the Autobahn.
Indeed, the Shark is not a 5 Series; it is a 6 Series—the first 6 Series. I felt bad for the gentleman who had braved a cross-town jaunt in rush hour to drive his hero, only to leave disappointed. I also wondered if he had had the luxury of spending a little more time with the Shark, if it would have won him over—I know it did for me.—Alex McCulloch
[Photos Courtesy Alex McCulloch.]