Thirty years ago, I didn’t exist. Thirty years ago the BMW M1 was still on the drawing board and the Motorsport division was just a fledgling arm with the 2002 tii to its credit. The inline-six was a phenomenon, but the one that took the credit was the M1, the one that made six-cylinders stacked longitudinally the best thing to happen to baby boomers since The Doors. It sounds strange to most who think V8s are where it’s at, but inline-sixes are what drove me to love BMWs. Compact engines with a four digit number starting with three are what tingled me all along. The 3.0-litre 231 bhp engine on the E46 330i for instance. Or the great 278 bhp 3.5-litre that not only powered the M1, it even took the E12 M5 and the M635 CSi into the stratosphere, and beyond. Heck, I can’t believe that the two six-cylinder engines that I ever wanted to take a shot at would come together.
The protagonist of this story is the car owned by Aniruddh Kasliwal, a friend of BSM. Let me admit, the E60 BMW 530i you see in these pictures was around to play second fiddle to what is a true BMW classic – the E24 BMW 635 CSi. Yes, with the same 3500cc engine that powered some of the great first M cars that I mentioned before. And it doesn’t even feel its age. Mind you, if some sane enthusiasts got together to make a list of the ten best engines of all time, this one has a very good chance of figuring on it.
The idea of an inline-six isn’t new, and especially not to BMW. Sometime in 1917, when the Red Baron was busy turkey shooting over the northern skies of France, an engineer by the name of Max Friz figured that the typical yaw movement of the aircraft was due to the nose heavy configuration of the then-used engines, making them susceptible to crash during takeoff and landing. His engineering skills taught him that the light airframes could do with the use of an inline-six, which was inherently more stable. Not making matters any more complex in post-war Germany, BMW adopted its war techniques into its cars and from 1933 its saga with inline-sixes began. Stability and balance drove BMW to insane heights of engineering, which is why, even today, you find the block kissing the firewall, due to the need to get a 50:50 balance. The 530i here carries forward the tradition rather well. Unlike the standard cast-iron blocks of the 1200cc 303 from 1933, this one has an aluminium core with magnesium for the upper and lower crankcases – a sign of extreme composite construction. For India, BMW have opted for a spec that reads as 255 bhp@6500 rpm and 30.5 kgm@2400 rpm. Remember to now read the specific output, because if there’s anything BMW will try to do, it is to get the bhp/litre figure to 100. The 535i series and its twin-turbos blow out 306 bhp, but get this, it’s still the same 2996cc. So you get an idea of how much punishment this engine can withstand.
Fire up the engine and the sound of premium unleaded being burnt begins to sound like the New York Philharmonic. Just like BMW’s ‘smellios’, who work around the clock to get the perfect balance of interior perfumes to act on your olfactory senses, BMW must have its own ‘audio-tors’, people who try to make every engine sound like a wet-dream. It has a distinct rumble but gently get the throttle to work and it develops a mind of its own. From a pootle to a full blown wail, it doesn’t take long to alter character. Don’t exert the engine and it will keep forward motion in 6th, the car somewhere around the 80 kph mark and the rpm gauge refusing to decide if 1700 rpm sounds okay or 1800 sounds like overkill. Release all thoughts of playing nanny and it will do a double whammy on you. Push down the gears, once, twice, thrice, four times then watch the badge on the nose actually turn into a propeller and the doors turn into wings. From a standing start, it will leve the equally powerful Audi A6 3.2 in its rear-view mirror. At 60 kph it starts to give its more torquey brother, the 525d, a complex. At 100 kph, it has gobbled up around 250 metres and with 7.5 seconds on the clock it has just entered our records as the fastest accelerating car with our road testing equipment so far. Not batting an eyelid (in this case a corona ring), the 530i goes on to impress the record sheets with 232 kph, as fast as we could dare to go, though frankly it was already starting to run out of breath past 220.
All of these figures can be attributed to the new six-speed gearbox, though I am not too much of a fan of it. It’s fast alright (BMW says 40 per cent over its predecessor), but its action seems too awkward, something like a Quick Draw McGraw. Leave it in sport mode and the difference is more than perceptible. Mid-range too is devastatingly good, the kind of numbers I’ve generally seen on more exotic machinery.
So at this point, the drivetrain gets a 9/10, while the ride and handling pick up a point less. Not many will come to love that steering that demands your utmost concentration at all times, but somehow in isolation, I enjoyed it; razor edged and yet well weighted. After a while you start getting a nagging feeling, the one where the steering wheel starts to feel too thick and a tad irritating. A mm or two less should be it, BMW. Around corners, the car is brilliant, to a point where you know what the rear axle is up to. Every inch around the curve feels alive, as if there’s a secret pact signed by the car and the road in advance. The traction control fights and at a point it gives up, and then the car bites back, bites hard and swift like a hammerhead shark. Just as the hammer-head nosed BMW 635i starts to become a big blob in the 530i’s rear view mirror. It’s not easy to take your eyes off what is a stunning looking car. I still can’t stop viewing Pablo’s brilliant pictures on my computer, long after it headed back to Aniruddh’s garage. There’s so much purpose in the design, and if you squint your eye a bit, it looks like a cold-war jet fighter fuselage. It fits the ‘80s frame to a T; you can very well picture a man in his Ray-Ban aviators, white trousers, blue polo-neck and a neck scarf, driving up an Alpine route with Genesis playing Tonight, Tonight, Tonight on the stereo.
It was also an earth-shattering car for its time. It had an ECU, and every engine parameter could be read and studied by a workshop computer. This being a 1981 make, it has the Jetronic K-injection system, not the Bosch Motronic unit, but even then from its 3.5 litres of cubic capacity, it churns out an astonishing 218 bhp. Think about it, at a time when most other engines of similar displacement struggled to nudge 200 bhp, the E24 laughed in the face of its competition. It even laughs at a driver like me for lack of nerves of steel. When you start it up, you can feel all the cylinders push up and down like the fists of a heavyweight boxer. It instantly cracks open with a meaty whoosh, mechanically edged and raw, resonating through every pore in your body.
At 3500 rpm the character changes. It sounds like a rumble, something volcanic, a burbling so distinct that it sounds like a giant vacuum cleaner sucking it all up. In one word: glorious. At 4000 rpm it just hits the sweet spot and from there on it carries its rumble all the way to 6000 revs. Revs, revs and more revs. It sounds just like the books told me when I was young. The 530i’s aural pleasure feels tame in comparison. It felt more isolated, more refined and subdued.
No matter what you read, the fact is, the written word never unsaid any truth. The age-old golden era of BMWs packed up their suitcases and headed for the Alps long before we pronounced Chris Bangle the culprit; technology at the cost of soul. It doesn’t mean one should pick a hammer and swing it at the iDrive. Or find a chain saw and hack all runflats. It’s about finding a mid-point between two extremes. BMWs always developed rev hungry engines,and the modern ones don’t put their predecessors down. In fact there’s more flexibility, the engines are more capable of producing lot of torque through the range. So is the microchip controlled gearbox. It feels right, yet something is missing. It’s like a movie that got a four star rating from a critic instead of five, because he or she felt ‘that something’ was missing.
That something is the soul of balance. Not just the engine, but the car. Whether it’s the 5 Series, the 3, 7 or any other modern BMW I’ve driven, they all have a lesson to learn from their older and more mature cousin, something about ride quality. The 635 feels so much tighter, so much plusher, so adept at dismissing potholes. It feels like a tank, it feels so driver focused. There are none of the distractions of a modern BMW, everything is clear, everything is where it should be. The steering is a bit large, but it transmits all the feel without being twitchy or nervous, despite being a much simpler hydraulic power steering, and not the speed sensitive electronic variety of modern day BeeEms. You are aware of the engine ticking over, the suspension’s vertical motions and the tyres’ lateral movements and yet the amount of feel is not irritating. That was what BMWs were all about – transmitting feel with the right amount of occupant isolation. That fine balance is missing in modern BMWs. Handling and feel at the cost of ride; it’s causing BMW a lot of problems, more than the multiple platforms and large model lineup that is eating into its profits.
It can still profit from looking back into its own history books, books that talk about BMW’s quest for perfection. Only that the idea of perfection now is a bit skewed, a bit hazy in Munich’s HQ. It only requires a bit of tweaking and BMW can be back on track – back to how it was nearly thirty years ago.
We’d like to thank Aniruddh Kasliwal for his BMW 635i for the drive and shoot.