The 1986 BMW 635CSi

Rachel Meyer

When I wrote my article on the 2006 BMW M6 last semester, I was wowed by the German super-coupe. Little did I know that it was actually a reincarnation of a phenomenal vehicle that had been manufactured between 1975 and 1989. While it was the year of the rabbit according to Chinese astrology, 1975 was the year of the shark. Jaws was the movie and the BMW 6 series was the newest car design, and both featured the ferocious fish as a parcel of new technology. While the 6 series did not come to the United States until 1977, it certainly made a splash when it did, setting a new bar for personal luxury and automotive technology.

If you pay attention to cars, then you’ve probably noticed a unique one cruising around. A rare classic, but still new enough to avoid being relegated to Sunday driving, junior Dani Compain’s 1986 BMW 635CSi is a veritable “keeper coupe” (as the November 1998 article in European Car calls it). “Red Shark” – the tag written on his license plate – is the result of 365 days of thoughtful research, a moment of adamant persuasion and six years of tender love and care. According to Compain, the research is the most important part of purchasing an older car because you must familiarize yourself with what you’re looking for and what kinds of problems typically rear up.

For Compain, the persuasion came when he spotted his dream car in 1999 parked in someone’s driveway. He and his dad managed to talk the owner into selling the car to Compain. As for tender love and care, Compain warns that old cars require careful and consistent preventative maintenance. He jokes that BMW really stands for “break my wallet,” but he told me in earnest that it cost him about $1,500 a year to keep the car in good condition (which is actually not so different from the upkeep of a newer car). It should also be mentioned that Compain is kind to his car and that he retires it after Thanksgiving until the spring to safeguard it from the brutal Hamilton winters.

I had the good fortune of going for a ride in Compain’s classic Beamer. In fire-engine red, the car is a real head-turner. Its pointed nose gives the classic 6 series its shark-like edge, and bulky bumpers in the front and rear (on US models) offer a distinct look. The grill is characterized by its BMW badge and classic square nostril-like vents. The lighting scheme is aesthetically noteworthy with four round headlamps and two rectangular illuminators below the bumper. The rear windshield is vast and outlined in chrome; this, in conjunction with the flat back, gives this 635CSi its vintage flair.

The car’s interior boasts impressive technological advancements, the norm for luxury cars of today but novelties back in 1986. Compain’s car has super comfortable leather, 14-way power-adjustable Recarro front bucket seats. One cool feature of these seats is the upper-leg extension that accommodates taller drivers and passengers.

Power memory seats, a computerized panel which indicates if a light has gone out, if coolant is needed, or if oil is low, among other things, and a 9-function on-board computer for date, average MPG, average speed and temperate were among the first of their kind to be featured in a vehicle.

Moreover, Compain’s model is the first BMW to have the Service Interval System which alerts drivers when a tune-up is needed. This system is calibrated based on miles driven and driving style. It is quite remarkable that this car was so technologically advanced at a time when the predominating home computer was the Apple IIe.

The car’s interior styling is quite pleasant. While we have grown accustomed to incredible interior luxury in the cars of today, the 635CSi hearkens back to a time before lavishness had been taken to extremes. Leather seats, a three-spoke ///M sport steering wheel, and an ample dashboard make Compain’s “Red Shark” comfortable and engulfing.

And now for the exciting part: the drive. Under the hood of Compain’s 635CSi lurks a 3.5L, fuel-injected inline 6-cyllinder engine. What this car lacks in its not-so-amazing 182 horsepower, it makes up for in torque. Some improvements to the handling include the replacement of standard factory “metric” sized rims (15.3″) and dated Michelin TRX tires with 17″ BBS cross-spoke wheels with wide, low-profile (235/45ZR17) performance tires.

Additionally, Compain added Bilstein SPORT gas-pressure shocks and slotted brake rotors. The result is an incredibly responsive ride. The 4-speed automatic transmission offers three modes: economy, SPORT and manual. What an exhilarating feeling when the gas pedal is floored in SPORT mode! The car takes off and the fierce sound of the engine revving is nothing short of thrilling. Aggressive acceleration results directly in a smile stretching across both the driver’s and passenger’s faces.

The old 6 series holds a special place for many car enthusiasts who believe the 6 series to be the perfect amalgam of athleticism and luxury. BMW achieved something great with its 6 series coupes. Sure, it takes work to keep a car from the mid 1980’s in top condition, but the car’s longevity is a testament to its extraordinary design. Compain bought his 1986 635CSi for $8,500 six years ago and has since invested close to $18,000 in his “Red Shark”. The price of the car 20 years ago was $45,000, which is right around par with the new 6 series coupe’s $71,800 price tag. Will the new 6 series be a classic someday? Perhaps, but until the price comes down, you might want to consider going old school.

Compain tells me that the fun in having an older car is that it has so much character. Though it sounded to me like the car is a constant project, Compain notes that it is fun to fix and make improvements to his automobile. When talking to Compain about his 1986 BMW, one is struck by the deep sense of pride he takes in owning and maintaining a classic car.

His abundance of knowledge on the topic of his car is pretty astounding, and his dedication and delight are made evident when he opens the hood and animatedly tells me, “see this” – he points to the engine – “this engine was designed in the 1960s and was modified and enhanced up until 1995. The basic architecture in the newer models remains intact.” His 1986 635CSi is something special, so don’t miss the “Red Shark” zipping around Hamilton – catch your glimpse before Thanksgiving.