Sisters under the skin?

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Life is never fair. Despite the fact that, for many years, they aimed at distinctly different markets, there has always been a tendency (conscious or not) to measure BMW’s products against the corresponding model in the Mercedes-Benz range. Of course, BMW should take that as the ultimate compliment, even though it often means judging a relatively inexpensive car unfairly against a more costly rival. What is more, this is not merely a recent trend. Thirty years ago people were already doing it!

Take the BMW 507, a rare bird indeed. We recently spent an enjoyable day prowling round the fringes of Salisbury Plain in one of these elegant two-seaters, in company with today’s top-rung high-performance coupe from Munich, the M635CSi. Thirty years ago the BMW company was barely alive. It had lost absolutely everything in the war and its very existence was threatened. At one point it seemed possible that the Eisenach factory would be crated up lock, stock and barrel to be transported to the USA.

Mercifully, BMW survived, but even by the mid-1950s it was touch-and-go whether it would ever re-establish a solid commercial bedrock on which to prosper anew. Yet the company was nothing if not audacious. All this gloom and depression did not deter it from producing the costly, exclusive 507, quite beautifully balanced luxury machine whose lines look fresh and uncluttered even after the passing of a generation. It is hard to believe this was the same company that manufactured the Isetta bubble car!

The tubular chassis was, in effect, a shorter wheelbase version of the 502 using the saloon’s running gear mated to an all-alloy, wet liner 3.2-litre V8. Developing 150 bhp at 5,000 rpm, it was a long-legged autobahn cruiser rather than an out-and-out sports car.

Styling was the work of Count Albrecht Goetz, who later went out to produce the distinctive profile of the Datsun 240Z coupe which sold like hot cakes in Europe during the early 1970s. When one looks at its specification and appearance in restrospect, one would have expected the 507 to sell like bratwurst at the Nurburgring. But remember, we are talking about the austere mid-1950s. And if those of you who remember life in Britain think things were hard, they had been a whole lot harder in Germany.

The 507’s production run lasted three years, until 1959, but never averaged as much as two per week over that time. A mere 253 cars trickled out of the Munich factory, and only three found their way to England. Two were imported by AFN, who then had the BMW concession for this country during their pre-Porsche period, but since there were practical engineering problems in building them in RHD form (it would have meant re-designing the sump and the steering box) no more were brought in.

Fleeting interest in the 507 was expressed by Tommy Sopwith and Ken McAlpine, both of whom had wallets capable of sustaining the bruising inflicted by the sky-high tax-paid £4,201 price tag. They would have put their money on the table, but did not want LHD! As a useful comparison, at the times Jaguar XK140 was less than £2,000, while even the Mercedes-Benz 300SL. was priced at £4,651. Of course, with its cachet of recent racing success, the Mercedes coupe, with its distinctive “gull wing” doors.’ rather eclipsed the 507. And that was sad.

Although AFN only imported two of these LHD BMWs, one of which we tested, former World Champion motorcyclist and F1 ace John Surtees purchased one new from Munich when he was riding for the MV Augusta team. At the time Surtees was criss-crossing Europe every week, hurrying to motorcycle races in just about every country on the map, and he needed a high speed cruiser which would be comfortable and relaxing. The BMW 507 fitted the bill perfectly, and John drove it regularly right through until 1963, when he signed for Ferrari. To this day, he retains his 507 as one of his most cherished personal possessions.

Carrying the distinctive registration number 5 BMW, the 507 we sampled is owned by BMW GB. We drove the M635 down to Westbury to meet its forebear, for the 507 is cared for by the specialist BMW restorers TT Workshops, run by John Giles and Tony Hutchings on the fringes of this pleasant Wiltshire town. TT has looked after the car for over ten years now, keeping it clean and in fine fettle for the handful of occasions when the precious beast is allowed out for promotional trips. It only completes a few hundred miles each year, so we were conscious of the privilege!

As you slide into the cockpit, first impressions are of far more room than the 507’s external appearance suggests. The seats are quite comfortable and supportive, the painted fascia rather stark. The large steering wheel is close to one’s chest and what looks like a Ford Zephyr-style horn half-ring is actually the control for dipping the headlights!

The footwells are comfortably wide, allowing plenty of room for the well-positioned pedals, but the four-speed gearbox takes a bit of getting used to. Although engagement of the gears is quite precise, the lateral movement across the gate is enormous. But the overall feel of the controls is one of lightness and precision.

At low speed, the torsion bar suspension gives a very choppy ride indeed, but this smooths out as you speed up, and the V8 really begins to come into its own at over 60 mph in top gear. Up to that point you get the impression that it is making a fair amount of noise for very little effect, although it was originally quoted as sprinting from rest to 60 mph in just under nine seconds.

That certainly was not shabby 30 years ago, although John Giles has suggested (and BMW GB agreed!) a self-imposed 4,000 rpm limit for this period piece, simply in the interests of mechanical longevity. “The danger of piston breakage is the ultimate rev limitation on these engines,” explains John Giles, “so keep it down to 4,000 just to be on the safe side!”

Interestingly, BMW’s 3.2-litre V8 was subsequently sold to Buick, and derivatives of this engine eventually found their way back the UK where they became the power unit for the Rover 3.5-litre V8!

Standing almost awkwardly high on its 16in rims shod with thin Avon Turbospeeds, the 507 emits a shrill whine when the V8 is working hard. But it exudes a stability and security at high speed which has been handed down to its younger stablemates over the past three decades.

On a winding road across Salisbury Plain, its top-gear performance hardly extended our escorting M635, but it was sufficient to provoke a degree of surprise from photographer, Steven Tee, who was behind the wheel of the latest coupe at the time. vvas keeping his foot pretty close to the floor in fourth gear keeping pace with us. So put in that light, the 507 seemed a pretty impressive piece of machinery, although it is perhaps more honest to describe it as a high-speed touring car rather than as an out-and-out sports coupe.

Propelling ourselves forward 30 years, the £40,950 M635CSi hardly attracts the same reservations when compared to its rivals. The current range of big BMW coupes first appeared on the scene early in 1977, in form of the 633, so has now been around for ten years as these words are written. The 635 came our way towards the end of 1978 combining terrific performance with what I can only describe as worryingly inadequate braking performance, a trait which now, thankfully, has been buried in the far distant past. All the 6-series cars also have ABS anti-lock systerns as standard.

I recall having a particularly nasty moment motoring in Sussex one November afternoon when, having braked very hard from a speed which I’d rather not record in print, I then had to call on the 635’s brakes a second time soon afterwards. The pedal felt distinctly halfhearted, and the retardation a pale reflection of what it had been a few minutes earlier. Suffice to say, I was unimpressed.

As an interesting and not totally disconnected aside, I happened to mention this in conversation with DSJ and he rather surprised me by remarking: “well, things haven’t changed that much, have they?” For a moment I thought he must have had recent experience of a BMW with marginal braking performance, but in fact he was referring back to the 507.

It turns out that, on a visit to Munich at about the time of its launch in 1956, Jenks was taken aback by the way in which its brakes seemed to fade in exactly the same way. What is more, he managed to get himself into a fairly trenchant debate on the matter with BMW technical chief Alex von Falkenhausen, who felt that such criticism was unjustified!

BMW’s current coupe range on the UK market includes the 628CSi, 635CSi and the M635CSi, the last-mentioned being a really exclusive version of an already impressive machine. The heart of the 3.5-litre cars is a wonderfully smooth 286 bhp, 24-valve in-line six cylinder engine producing a hefty 246 ft lb of torque at 4,500 rpm. It combines silky smooth docility with what can only be described as mighty performance, this large two-door machine rocketing to 60 mph in fractionally over 6 sec.

Features distinguishing the M-designated machine from the straightforward “cooking” 635CSi include a sports suspension set-up incorporating gas filled shock absorbers all round, bigger ventilated disc brakes and forged light-alloy wheels with Michelin TRX 240/45 VR 415 rubber.

Air conditioning is fitted as a standard feature, along with heat insulating, green tinted glass, a deeper front spoiler and heated external door mirrors which are finished to match the bodywork. The M635CSi interior is also enhanced by the superb BMW sports seats trimmed in leather (although Highland cloth is offered as an alternative); these feature electric height adjustment, fore/aft movement, backrest inclination and headrest height adjustment. There is also an on-beard computer, rear head restraints and a rear window blind, plus a larger battery installed in the boot.

For a car this size, its agility and sure-footedness is quite remarkable. Apart from instilling a sense of confidence and well-being into its driver, it seems taut and compact from behind the wheel. Directional stability is almost beyond criticism, even at very high speed, and the always-excellent BMW power-steering system provides an ideal combination of lightness and feel.

Sudden directional changes often prove to be the Achilles heel of big high performance machines, but the M635CSi comes out near the top of the class in this respect as well. It rolls perceptibly, but the firm suspension keeps it nicely in check and there is never even a hint of it getting into a worrying fishtail, even on a slippery surface. Wind noise is minimal, visibility and headroom more than adequate. Its torque characteristics also make it a delightfully flexible car, equally at home inching along in the commuter jams as on the open road. The only area in which some obvious criticism comes to light is the need to depress the clutch pedal slightly further than one might expect on initial acquaintance, in order to avoid lightly crunching one’s gearchanges. But the gearbox itself is fine, albeit with quite a long throw to the lever, particularly between first and second.

Like Mercedes, BMW instrumentation and interior layout makes little concession to passing trends and remains solidly unchanging over the years. You can slip behind the wheel of an M635CSi and notice precious little difference from the original 633s and 635s. But a great deal of work has gone on under the skin, and the current cars are infinitely more rounded in their character than they were ten years ago.

So are these two BMWs sisters under the skin? Certainly not! The 507 was not a sports coupe in the way we accept the role of the M635CSi. It was more of a boulevard cruiser, short on agility but long on gearing. The current high performance coupe is not only more of a sports car relative to its 1987 rivals, it is a shatteringly fast road machine which reminds us just how much we have come to expect from top-drawer machinery over the intervening three decades.

In the 1950s a sports car was a sports car and a tourer just that. The twain seldom met in one bodyshell. Now the M635CSi underlines that a high performance car of the eighties can be a vehicle of many parts, blending the interior refinement of a limousine, the gait of a grand tourer and the acceleration and speed d a road racer. All things to all men, you might say. At a price of course! AH

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