Top Performance BMWs of the 80s

Since the 1980s, car collectors and BMW fans have continued to get their hands on 1980 models

If one thing was true about the 1980s, there was a lot of money to throw around. And that made it possible to enjoy the better things in life for a lot of folks. One particular brand was in high demand during the heyday of that decade, BMW. The German carmaker not only responded to the market but also produced a portfolio of sports cars and sedans that set new standards for high-end coupe strength and road handling. The car world took notice and was never the same after that fact. 

Since the 1980s, car collectors and BMW fans have continued to get their hands on 1980 models in used form, either for restoration or collection. Specific models have stood out repeatedly because of their inherent design and performance on the road when running. It also helped that, over the years since the 80s, BMW has boosted and increased its footprint on the U.S. side, making it possible to find and obtain BMW performance parts.

BMW 6 Series – 635 CSI

A bit of a crossover from the 1970s, the 635 CSI was first fabricated in the mid-1970s, but it ran through the entire 1980s decade with the last car rolling off the assembly line in 1989. The 635 was supposed to be the next evolution replacement for the BMW E9, providing the owner with a bigger internal cabin and a far more fuel-efficient 6-cylinder block under the hood. For the most part, the 6 series was tailored to the commuter who just wanted to cruise in luxury comfort, but the M635 CSI was another story. First being shown in 1983, it quickly raised eyebrows and garnered attention, pumping out a 282 horsepower performance with a stronger M88 engine block. The U.S. version was a bit better at 256 horsepower via the S38 engine block. The car is extremely rare, with less than 2,000 units ever made for the U.S. market.

A 5 Series Descendent – The E28 M5

Produced with a gas-sipping 4-cylinder engine as well as a 6-cylinder block and a diesel, production on E28 began in full mode in 1984 and came with an M88/3 under the hood. Given that the sedan basically has a track sportscar engine married to the frame, the E28 suddenly became one of the fastest consumer sedans to own and drive on European roads bar none. When the same BMW model reached U.S. shores, it was nerfed a bit for U.S. emission requirements, but the engine change as well to the S38B35 gained a ton of fans. Unfortunately, only 2,241 units were made for the U.S. market. 

Before the Z3, There was the Z1

Folks today reminisce about the recent Z3 convertible sports car, but its grandfather was the BMW Z1, stocked with a straight 6-cylinder engine. It was rarely seen in the U.S., and looked like a throwback to a roadster for a racetrack, rollbar included. The car was a two-seater, and only showed up on U.S. roads due to the tenacity of some car collectors and importers. It was never intended for U.S. markets. 

The 1980s produced a few other BMW gems, such as the E34 M5 and E30 M3, but unfortunately, the excess of that decade gave way to frugality, and the BMW 1980 models went to collectors and history very quickly when the economy got tight in the early 1990s. Today, a few are still on the road, but most are snapped up due to their rarity and incredible road power for the time.

Robert Cooke
Rob is a certified mechanic and long-time automotive enthusiast who has worked on everyday passenger vehicles, race and rally cars, and derby cars.