A recent discussion on The Intercooler Instagram feed sparked some discussion, when the editor opined that the E46 M3 CSL was not peak BMW (as many would have it) and instead proposed that the title should go to the E24 M635 CSi, for a perfect blend of style, balance, power with four-seat practicality and RWD manual configuration.
Feedback varied. Some respondents commented along the lines of “I’ve had both and you’re right/wrong”, others asked why a 1980s model would be peak, or agreeing that the ‘80s were peak due to present-day bean-counter management and some argued the case for seemingly less plausible alternatives, such as the 316 Compact, 540i Touring or 750iL.
The conversation spoke of an older demographic: it was all looking backwards. The proposal that peak BMW has already occurred is an odd one to start with. The replies contained much yay/nay from people who had never driven an M3 CSL or an M635, both being rare cars to start with. Having driven both, I don’t think either represents peak BMW, if such a thing even exists. The question is entirely subjective, so every answer is the right one, depending on who is asking the question.
Ferry Porsche used to say that the best Porsche ever made was the newest one. Ferry’s automotive tastes were eclectic, and his autobiography notes some of the cars from other manufacturers that he loved to drive. They were not always upmarket models, as he had a passion for good engineering, as demonstrated by the thousands of tractors Porsche built.
In theory, I agree that the best of a thing should be the latest example, but this is not always the case. There are many examples of how the latest models can be a poor relation to the earliest, as so many interesting small cars increase in size over time, lose that energetic lightweight dynamic and get overly complicated. Park an early Golf, E21 3-series or an air-cooled 911 next to its modern equivalent and it is hard not to wonder how little of the fresh, original ethos might have survived the gradual ageing into an overblown form.
Flipping the question around, how can a marque’s earliest cars be the peak? What would be the point of developing anything, if all that developed was mediocrity? So, later cars have to be a little bit better, even if they need to be bigger to achieve that.
Peak Theory and the BMW M635 CSi
Peak anything ties back to economic theory: growth and decline. Perhaps the best-known example is M King Hubbert’s peak theory of oil production. Hubbert’s theory said that all oil production in a region follows a bell-shaped curve. The theory was extrapolated to the entire planet and thus we got the idea of peak oil.
Hubbert’s theory was first published in 1956 and, for many years, production followed the predicted curve. US peak oil was achieved in the early 1970s at around 10M barrels a day before output began to decline. However, the introduction of new technology eventually reversed the decline and brought new production increases, such that, in October 2017, America once again achieved daily production of 10M barrels of oil.
The idea of peak anything experiences a radical shift when new technology is introduced. Driving back from a classic car valuation inspection this afternoon, I was following a Tesla Model 3 on an A-road at 60 mph. I was happy with progress, but the Tesla clearly felt it could go a bit quicker. The speed at which it overtook the car in front and pulled back into safety (time exposed to danger) was just another eye-opening example of how much more responsive even a modest electric drivetrain can be compared to old-school internal combustion.
Regardless of who is posing the question, the idea that peak BMW motoring was achieved in the mid 1980s by putting a supercar engine into a svelte but indulgent GT bodyshell feels misguided, particularly as so many smaller-engined BMWs have proved such wonderful cars to drive. If a great car is still about moving people from A to B in a comfortable, characterful way, and a great BMW is all about elegant, sophisticated and sustainable engineering, then, for me, peak BMW is currently realised by the modern i3.
Although I have owned more than twenty BMWs over the years – everything from a basic but brilliant E28 518 to my current duo of E36 M3 4-door and Z4 Coupe – and am a classic car enthusiast and used car man to the core, I am also a fan of science and progress. While the basic design is now many years old, the current i3 still encapsulates the clean design, innovative engineering and use of sustainable materials that I expect from the always progressive BMW brand.
Each of us will see peak BMW differently but, whatever you deem it to be, the peak must be an ever-moving target, depending on what the latest technology brings to the party and what the prevailing motoring landscape requires of a car. Every new goalpost brings a new peak. Much as I love my old cars and despite driving hundreds of different cars in the last thirty years, the idea that motoring – particularly BMW motoring – peaked in the 1980s is a rose-tinted notion that fractures when put to the test.