The BMW 5-Series: A Personal Look Back

Last year, sales of BMW's midsize sedan hit 5.5 million. The outgoing 5er, known as the E60, represented the car's fifth generation. I have at least five personal stories to tell about the 5-series. Coincidence? I think not!

When it comes to cars, a personal connection is the only thing that matters — all the horsepower or fuel efficiency in the world doesn't mean squat if your car doesn't make you feel something. The recent appearance of a new 5-series, along with the five-fold number thing mentioned above, reminded me of my long, quiet love affair with Munich's businessman's express. Here now, a few memories, plus a gallery of cool images (check the bottom of the page) that recently found their way into the BMW press archives.


E12, 1972 - 1981: If It's Not Bracq-en...

The E12's lines come courtesy of French designer Paul Bracq, the man who penned the Mercedes-Benz 600 and W108 as well as the TGV passenger train and BMW's first-generation 7-series. It's pretty, even dainty. The car also holds the distinction of being the first Bavarian sedan to wear the company's hallowed Motorsport badge and color scheme — the M535i, produced from 1979 to 1981, was the one of the first hot Munich four-doors.

The E12 is the only 5-series that I've never driven. I've worked on them, ridden in them, and pushed them across dingy parking lots, but I've never climbed behind the wheel. I even almost bought one once — a rusty, nasty 530i with a leaking head gasket — only to be talked out of it by a friend who pointed out that there were other, smarter things I could do with my time, things like nailing my fingers to a piece of dirty drywall and getting slop-ass drunk in front of public officials. An hour after I told the seller no, I received an impassioned, likely drunken email from another friend, this one an E12 freak. It went something like this, and it's as good a summary as any:

"If you do not buy this car, you will regret it for the rest of your life. What the hell is wrong with you? It's nimble, clean, entertaining, modern. It's like a 2002 that someone turned into a real car and gave functional HVAC. It's old, interesting, practical, German, and cheap. People hate because it's not an Alfa, but if you don't like it, you're a crackhead. E12s are subtle, and most people are too blockheaded to appreciate that."


In the years since, I've purposely not bought one several times. If I'm going to own something this old, I want it to be a bit more exciting, a bit more different, a bit more technically interesting. This is the problem with E12s. They have an alarmingly small enthusiast following because they're just too damn normal. Tall, thin, sparse, and kind of quirky, yes, but too normal. I'm afraid to drive one because I'm afraid I'll like it, and there's a whole lot of other, quirkier stuff I want to buy first.


E28, 1982 - 1988: Solid, Fun, Ubiquitous

Ah, the E28. They are cheap, they are everywhere, they are essentially an E12 in '80s drag with an updated suspension, a few computers stuffed under the dash, and newer interior. A blue gazillion of these things were sold everywhere from Boston to Bangalore and most of them are still around. The E28 is one of those cars that just barely made the cut into modernity, a machine that is comfortable and durable enough to be used by normal people without explanation or apology. They run forever, you can buy one with a diesel, and the E12 connection is so strong that you can bolt that car's doors on and still have things look right.


The E28 also marked the first appearance of the M5, essentially a lowered, stiffened, 150-mph version of the base car with a modernized version of the M1's six-cylinder under the hood. American-market examples were sold only in black. I've always wanted one, but have held off because A) I refuse to own a black car (mild OCD doesn't go well with twenty-year-old black paint) and B) I hate tan interiors. The closest I've come was when I used a 180,000-mile 1988 535iS — the U.S.-only sport-pack special with heavily bolstered front seats, an air dam that looked like an underbite, and a small rear spoiler — as a daily driver and track car for a year. I sold it to a mechanic in St. Louis, and two years later, I found it parked in a junkyard with a tree-sized dent in the nose and a pair of bent control arms. Good car. Kind of miss it.


E34, 1989 - 1996: Understated Chic

Big. Bad. Sedate but threatening, like a muscled German mobster in a too-tight suit. This is the E34, the world's most anonymous continental ass-hauler.


The E34 marked the first appearance of a lot of things: It was the first 5-series to be offered as a wagon; the first to be offered with four-wheel drive; the first to offer a V-8; and the first car to carry BMW's hallowed M50 six-cylinder, the engine that formed the basis of every BMW six that followed until the appearance of the magnesium-alloy N52. The E34 M5 boasted a 3.6-liter, 311-hp (3.8 liters and 335 hp in late European spec), Motronic-1.2-equipped version of the S38, the E28 M5's engine. It is one subtle-bad mamma jamma, and it will eat you and your Porsche for lunch.

I have worked on and driven a lot of E34s, but most of them left me cold. The sole exception was a 140-mph passenger-seat run down Chicago's I-290 in a euro-spec M5 six years ago. The car was a weird purplish blue, and 500 rpm before its 7000-rpm redline, the sound made my toes curl. (Note: This model M5 was used for the final chase in Ronin, which explains why I cannot watch that movie without cranking the volume through the roof.) No BMW since has packaged as much balls-out awesome in as calm and snoozeworthy a package.


Also, I once swapped an E34's four-speed automatic without a transmission jack while lying in a puddle in the middle of a snow-covered parking lot in thirty-degree temperatures and freezing rain. It was not fun. We must never speak of this again.


E39, 1997 - 2002: Modern Refinement

Oh, oh, oh, the E39. We will ignore the excellent bread-and-butter models, charming though they are, in favor of the 394-hp, V-8-powered M5. This right here is the king dog, the arguable peak, the best combination of refinement and raw and technology and torque to ever come thundering out of Bavaria. Sure, the steering is a bit numb and parts of the interior feel cheap, and yes, the car is both heavy and complex. But hell, it feels good. It feels like Detroit. It feels like a four-door Camaro as filtered through a glass of hefeweizen. It loves you, and it wants to charge down an autobahn with the tach pegged and the exhaust screaming and loud, distorted guitars pouring out of the stereo.

I once tried — oh, how I tried — to get my mom to buy one of these things. I was just out of college, she was looking for a new car, and she had allowed as how she would like to have four doors and torque. I got her this close, even going so far as to arrange a test-drive in a 2001 example owned by a friend. She liked it but ultimately wanted a lighter, smaller car. Frustrated, I attempted to illustrate the M5's excellence by leaving our neighborhood sideways and doing clutch dumps at every stop sign. She laughed, put her head in her hands, and asked me if I needed to go on Ritalin.


Good car. No — great car. At some point, I'll get off my ass and buy one.


E60, 2003 - 2005: Aloof Acceleration

Pity the poor E60: It's a capable, quiet, and thoroughly talented car that just happens to seem tame next to its predecessors. I've got more miles in E60s than almost any other 5-series, and yet, it's the last one I would buy. Too docile, too refined, too complex.

As with most of these cars, my most vivid memories are tied to the M model. I flogged an E60 M5 — 500 hp and an 8000-rpm V-10 — across Germany several years ago, spanking the hell out of the car on the autobahn and waiting for it to come alive, to respond, to offer something compelling in the way of feedback. When it finally did, I was deep into the evil side of the speedometer and convinced that few things worth doing can be done below 130 mph. The M5 is sparkling but subdued, a wonderful engine imprisoned in a big, distant car. Had previous 5ers not existed, it would be hailed as a landmark; instead, it's widely viewed as a black sheep, a dull misstep from a company not known for product-planning mistakes.


Still, dull is relevant. There is no such thing as a bad 5-series, even if the lesser iterations don't offer the character or charisma of their predecessors. Happily, the current model — the four-door sedan (F10) and five-door (F07) hatchback — is a welcome step toward the qualities that made cars like the E39 and E28 great.


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