Shooting a 635 with a 635: How to use a classic camera to shoot a classic car
Shahzad Sheikh – AKA Brown Car Guy – is an automotive journalist with three decades of experience on various titles including the Middle East edition of CAR Magazine and Used Car Buyer.
It seems fitting that a dream car which eluded my ownership meets a camera that escaped my grimy grasp as a kid, especially when they share the same nomenclature! The question is – can I still use a 60-year old camera to shoot a car in 2019?
At one point in the mid-1990s I was planning to buy a BMW 635CSi. Examples from just over a decade earlier could be had for a few thousand pounds. But the fear of rust was lodged in my head, having just had an 84 Celica Supra nearly dissolve its backside off, so I switched tracks and bought a BMW 325i SE Coupe instead. Don't get me wrong, I loved my E30 and miss it sorely still, but that elegant E24 was a dream left unfulfilled.
About a decade ago I lived out a part of that dream by reviewing a 1985 BMW M635CSi for the Middle East edition of Car Magazine. That car belonged to BMW UK as part of its heritage fleet. And guess what – they still own the exact same car!
When my father passed a few years ago, there were two of his treasured belongings that I just had to have as keepsakes: the first was his old Yashica 635 TRL camera, and the second I'll invite you to guess in the comments below (it's not a car!).
The 635 camera was introduced in 1958 – and he probably bought it in the early 1960s so it's nearly 60 years old. TRL stands for Twin Lens Reflex which you can see in its unusual structure (by today's standards) that features two stacked lenses on the front. Both are 80mm Yashikor prime lenses, the bottom one takes the picture and the top reflects the light up to a top viewer.
It was highly desirable at the time because it's a double format camera – that is it takes both 120 medium format film as well as the once vastly more commonplace 35mm film thanks to an adapter kit. My father continued to use it right up to the point that one of his kids ran off with the adaptor and promptly lost it – I won't point the finger at which of us that was, except to tell you it was my brother. Definitely my brother. No wonder he would never let any of us ever touch the Yashica.
So it hadn't been used in well over 30 years until I finally inherited it. Still not having sourced an adapter, it's fed with the larger 120 film (see some of the previous shots here). You only get 12 shots instead of 36, but the resolution is far better – if you get the shot right that is. But we'll come to that.
Right now I'm busy gawping once again at the immaculate M635CSi – the car I used to call simply 'The Shark'. A taut sinewy fuselage with a short rear deck but elongated bonnet, abruptly ending with a switchback edge leading into a deep gaping mouth, intersected by the famed kidney grille – perceivably jaws of one fierce Beemer. It was mean and menacing particularly in M guise, boasting an M88 series straight-six engine derived from the same motor that sat mid-ship in the M1 supercar.
This was introduced in 1983 (87 for the US where it was simplified to 'M6'). This generation 6-series itself was launched in 1976 after Bob Lutz (yes the American motor mogul) then at BMW, refused to let them just heavily facelift the previous E9 generation coupes as replacements. Which is surprising since the last time they listened to an American about making a sporty thing, it ended up being the sexy 507 and nearly bankrupting the company. Still I'm so glad Lutz got his way.
Initially sold as the 630CS and 633CSi, the 635CSi was introduced in 1978 which puts a 20-year gap between the age of the 635 I'm fumbling to load with film, and the 635 beauty parked before me. Unlike today's digital cameras featuring automatic sensors and settings, plus display monitors to reveal how your shot looks the moment you take it, with these old film snappers you had to dial in the aperture and shutter speed and set the focus yourself.
And then, until you get the film processed, you've no idea if the photo will be a crisp and clear representation of what you imagined you were snapping; just a giant splodge of white; a murky fog teasingly outlining a silhouette of picture possibilities that were never to be, or an exposure that was spot on, except for the second exposure you accidentally added atop it having forgotten to wind the film forward - oh yeah, THAT'S a part of the drill too.
I'm filled with awe and respect when I look back as some of the images my old pater produced from this thing back in the day, using only his own judgement (you can see some of them through this link) whereas I cheated and downloaded a Light Meter app on my phone to help me.
Of course there's no such frustration, doubt and anxiety as I fire up the M635CSi at the first turn of the key, point it out of BMW HQ in Farnborough and unleash the 282bhp through a manual box undiluted all the way to the rear wheels with no notion of electronic interference. It's raw and real and you feel like it will still muster up 0-62mph in the originally claimed 6.4 seconds.
What's amazing is how instantly familiar this car feels. It rekindles memories of why BMWs used to be hailed as masters of ergonomics. The thin pillars aid visibility and create a sense of spaciousness. The seating position is superb, the controls are logically placed - advanced thinking for something that was conceived in the mid-70s.
In its day, this was a big GT car, today it appears small and narrow sat next to a new 3-Series. Far from heavy and lumbering on the go, it comes across light and lithe. The steering is crude but feelsome, the gearshift precise though the clutch heavy, and performance is impressive but never overbearing. It remains satisfying, thrilling and entertaining to drive, and is a very cool and credible way to arrive anywhere.
A special car, and a very special camera – certainly to me. The results of the shoot? I'll leave you to judge the pics in the comments below, but I'm quite pleased! If you're after one of these 635s, there's plenty still around and they can be picked up for under £200. They need very little maintenance – after three decades in storage I did nothing but load it with film.
The car's a bit more costly - you're looking at £40k-60k for M635CSi models, but 635CSI models (not much slower and still as gorgeous) can be had for £15-30k.