Blasting over the Alps in BMW's finest

| 27 May 2011

We all know car manufacturers have woken up to the value of their heritage over the last decade but it’s still great to see them go further than merely putting their history on display in a swish museum.

This week BMW Classic (the name needs no explanation) celebrated the history of its iconic coupe genre by giving us the keys to not just one but six cars from its heritage fleet. Oh and they arranged for the keys to be available in Lake Como the morning after the famous Munich brand had hosted yet another sensational Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este. And they kindly threw in a route book for a two day, 400+km run over a couple of Alpine passes to Zurich….okay so it was a jolly of note for a hack but who would say no to driving some of the Munich legend’s most iconic models?

The six on offer started with a couple of gorgeous 503s (a coupe and a convertible) and a 3200CS to represent the V8 powered part of BMW’s long history while two E9 coupes – a 3.CS and a 3.0CSi were on hand for taste of the coupe that really cemented the Munich car maker’s performance reputation. Adding to its timeline of success was a 635Csi while BMW had the latest V12-engine 650i convertible on hand to put the evolution in perspective.

I got the keys to the 635CSi first (ok, I have to admit it…the celebration wasn’t devoted to C&SC but I was more than happy to share the fun with the other 14  journalists)

A mid 1970s coupe may seem to be an odd way to start but the 635 is in some ways a watershed model: a coupe style that linked the crisp styling of the earlier E9 (and its Hoffmeister kick) with the mass produced and hugely successful 7 series platform. It was also a wall-poster favourite during my upbringing when the 635 was uber desirable and massively expensive.

And, more than three decades on, it doesn’t disappoint. Opening the pillar-less door in the crisp Paul Bracq styled coupe reveals a light, airy cabin dominated by the driver-focused centre console and trio of instruments; a layout that would almost become a BMW trademark. It’s superbly finished too, with yards of pristine dark blue leather – and pristine it is. This 1981 example has a mere 3200kms on the clock.

Fire up the 3.5-litre ‘six’ and you soon revel in the other trademark of top line 1970s BMWs – the gorgeously creamy engine note. It’s even more appealing as it echoes off the Renaissance walls of Cernobbio as we head out along the shores of the lake.

And while I’m yearning for an open stretch to let the 218 bhp ‘six’ loose, the narrow twisty bits are actually entertaining as they highlight just how deceptively nimble this large coupe really is. Working up and down the dogleg five-speed box is only a pleasure too but my 54km stint is up all too soon and, after a refreshment stop, I’m handed the keys to the new 650i.

I’m not a fan of new cars – from experience they’re inevitably just too big, too sterile and too easy to drive - so I settled into the next session with slightly gritted teeth. But I got a rude awakening. Yes the new 650i is big and incredibly refined but that V12 gives it serious kick on demand. It sounds fabulous too, with a slight Nascar style snarl if you’re brave enough to floor the loud pedal. And it’s got a bunch of switches to fine-tune both the ride and the engine’s power delivery.

Just as it’s both winning me over as a worthy successor to the 635, and I’ve got my head around all those switches, so it’s time to switch cars. Next up is a pair of 503s – BMW’s V8-engined luxury offering in the two door front in the 1950s and a model that lost the Munich car maker a fortune thanks to high build costs and the lack of awareness of the BMW badge in the US, its target market.

Some of the fellow hack snigger that I’ve got the short straw as these hefty, chassis-based Goertz-designed beauties aren’t exactly the nimblest choice to haul up the twisty Majola and Julier Passes. They’re right of course but heaving them through the tight corners in second gear is a chance to revel in the glorious note of their V8 engines (a detuned version of the 507’s motor) and properly experience the controls.

Of the two, the coupe is my favourite both in the looks and driving departments. Just like Paul Bracq’s Mercedes-Benz W111 – the 503 is more striking in tin top form, especially as it pillarless. The knock on wheels also add to the attraction and with windows and sunroof open its offers plenty of open air motoring.

And when on the move its floor mounted gearshift – as opposed to the Cabriolet’s column job – makes the coupe feel more of a driver’s car.  Not that the Cabriolet isn’t, mind, but the American-style  pudding stirrer and period blue dash does make it feel like more of a poser’s car on my run into Lenzerheide after a stop to photograph both cars at the top of the Majola Pass (look out for a feature in a future issue of the mag).

Next morning it’s time for the last part of BMW’s V8 history: the pretty Giugiaro (under Bertone) styled 3200 CS. This was the model that inspired the E9 series but it was again a loss maker for BMW.

Launched in 1961, its rather antiquated chassis based construction didn’t do it any favours either as its heavy to drive. But adapt to the weight and it quickly beguiles you with its quality feel and stable road manners. The 16bhp 3.2-litre V8 really comes on song once you wind it up and the 3200CS is a comfortable and deceptively quick cruiser as we head down the mountains and on to Chur.

After lunch its time to sample the couple of E9s BMW Classic’s PR ace Manfred Grunert brought along. This is the shape that everyone’s going nuts over (no doubt after our feature in the February issue!) and I can see why: the crisp pillar-less styling (complete with trademark Hoffmeister kick in the C-pillar) is seriously cool and timeless. E9s are also sought for their usability, mind, and that’s mainly because of their performance and competent chassis.

In twin-carb fed 3.0CS form its puts out 180bhp while the injected CSi is good for a round 200bhp. Plenty of poke in either case as I discover on the final, 82km stretch towards Zurich and let the ‘six’ come on song through the various back roads as we criss cross the foothills of the Alps.

BMW’s sixes are widely favoured for their charisma and ability to rev but I’m surprised at how tractable and torquey they are. Winding the CSi’s lump up to just 4500rpm has it streaking away yet there’s still another 2000rpm spare before the danger zone. And it’s damn quick as well – too quick as it turns out as I’m no sooner hatching a plot to own one, when we’re nosing into the outskirts of Zurich.

Two days and 400km+ of Bavarian machine fun are over but I’m impressed with how well each coupe has delivered its own thrills. I guess the 1980s TV strapline Sheer Driving Pleasure wasn’t just dreamt up by BMW’s marketeers.