The BMW E34 M5 Is Weirder Than You Remember

Photos: Andrew Collins
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The E34 BMW M5 of the ’80s and ’90s, with its husky body and four round headlights, still gets dismissed as an also-ran between the classic O.G. E28 M5 and perennial enthusiast-favorite E39 M5. After a quick blast in one of these rad sedans, I decided it’s worth revisiting.

But not necessarily for how it drives.

(Full Disclosure: I begged my friend Jay Kavanagh to let me drive his 1991 E34 M5 before he went to sell it. Well, he listed it, and was kind enough to let me take a spin.) 

This 300-plus horsepower Autobahn assault vehicle is the last hand-built M car; “Peak Great BMW” according to our Editor-In-Chief Patrick George. It’s also a star of the greatest Hollywood chase ever filmed.

Gif: Ronin

Ronin smokes Bullitt any day of the week; I will not be responding to counterarguments on the matter. Don’t @-me.

Tire-screeching fantasies aside, the conservative styling of E34 M5 and the M1 race car pedigree of its engine make it a quintessential badass businessmobile–unassuming on the outside, exciting in the driver’s seat.

At least, if you dance on the gas pedal enough to keep the tachometer near the top of the rev range.

An Engine With Cool Cousins

The E34 doesn’t look enormous in 2019, but it’s still substantial enough that you’d be forgiven for thinking there should be a big V8 under its expansive hood. Something with enough torque for meteor-speed merges without downshifting.

The reality is a little more interesting, albeit not necessarily as practical.

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The second-ever M5 was still powered by a derivative of the first car’s engine, a big 3.5-liter naturally aspirated straight-six called the S38. After that, the M5 went to a V8, then a V10, then a twin-turbo V8 where it’s been the past two generations.

Displacement increased a little over the years and some other adjustments were made—sites UnixNerd’s BMW Domain and some wacky old-internet sites will take you deeper if you’re interested in getting technical—but the basic engine architecture stayed the same.

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The cool thing about that S38 is that it’s based on the M88, which powered the BMW Motorsport progenitor: the M1. In that car, the M88 had individual throttle bodies, Kugelfischer fuel injection, sounded like a demon and was juiced to 500 horsepower for Group 4 racing and allegedly tweaked even more to compete with the likes of Porsche’s Moby Dick in Group 5. This is one of the last M-cars that could truly lay claim to a motorsports heritage.

Still, the S38 was reeled back to reality for the street. Every article I found about it seems to cite emissions as the main reason for detuning, but I think it’s safe to say longevity was a factor, too.

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Here in the U.S., the E34 M5’s 3.6-liter S38 was rated at 310 horsepower and 265 lb-ft of torque, which was a pretty healthy jump over the original M5. When it was new, Motor Trend got it to take the car to 60 mph in 6.4 seconds. Meanwhile, Car and Driver tripped over themselves with excitement: “Given some perfectly reasonable criteria, BMW’s new-generation M5 just might be the best car in the world,” Kevin Smith wrote for the magazine in 1991.

Driving that-era M5 today, it’s definitely still a cool and interesting car. But I’m thinking the buffet at that launch party was probably pretty good. I’m also thinking I’ll inevitably get called out for some similarly euphuistic statement if anybody’s still reading car blogs in 2047. So. Anyway.

The E34 obviously had plenty of charm 28 years ago, and it still does, it just looks a little different in the light of 2019.

The End Of The ’80s Embodied On Wheels

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After you’re done admiring an E34 M5’s engine and close the front-hinged hood, climb inside and drown in the charming simplicity of hi-fi ’90s Euro styling.

Giant buttons and switches are assigned simple tasks; swaths of console are allowed to be nothing but empty storage slots. It would be jarring to climb out of a 2019 M5 and into this car. Even a modern Honda Fit gives you more gadgets.

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I’ll stop short of going full car-guy cliché and describing this elemental M5 as “refreshing,” but, know that I was tempted.

On the road, this ’91 M5 is reasonably quiet and weighty to steer but, at civilized side-street speeds, generally unremarkable. Though that in itself testifies to how well-sealed the car must have seemed a quarter-century ago. It still felt pretty smooth and sophisticated through potholes and traffic.

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To make the car move is pretty effortless—to make it move quickly takes commitment.

“Yeah, there’s really nobody home below, like, 4,000 RPM,” the car’s owner Jay Kavanagh said from the passenger seat. “It’s warmed up—don’t be afraid to drive it.” He emphasized the end of that sentence so I obliged and ran the engine to the top of the rev counter for a couple gears.

Finally, the E34 M5 started to scoot. It doesn’t pull hard from a deep squat, like a modern big-body BMW. It surges at screaming-engine RPMs, kind of more like a Honda. We forget, in our age of instant turbo gratification, that these old M cars used to thrive at high RPMs, like the race cars they were trying to emulate.

The shifter itself is almost disconcertingly light and throws are relatively short; they find their way to the right notches easily enough

The Back Seat Is Uniquely Rad

The greater joy of the E34 M5, for me, is more about design than driving. I already mentioned how quintessentially retro-Euro the cockpit feels; there are strong Star Trek: The Next Generation aesthetic vibes and I’m all about it. But I think my favorite part of the whole car is the oddly unique rear seat.

With a giant storage block between the left and right passenger, colloquially known as “the breadbox” among owners I was told, the rear seats have heavy bolstering and backward seatbelts.

Have you ever seen belts that click on the outboard sides of the seats? Neat, right?

I wish I could say I rode home in one of those thrones, closing deals on a phone plugged into the center console (obviously), but alas, I just pretended while we were parked. Still fun.

It Still Blends In Beverly Hills

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I’m not exactly sure when it happened, but the E34 design has definitively crossed over from “dated” to “classic.” That’s especially true now that the whole car community is sick with Radwood fever and all things ’80s and ’90s are hot again.

This one in particular, without a dent or wheel scuff to be found and a freshly waxed coat of black paint, looked like it still belonged in Beverly Hills where we pulled over for a few pictures.

It’s the kind of car that exudes “Notorious” energy, Duran Duran or Biggie, take your pick, whether the stereo’s on or not.

The second BMW M5 is a great representative of its time from the perspective of design and kind of a novel oddity in its guts. It’s a cool car you should definitely try to take a closer look at if you get a chance—and take care of if one’s in your garage.