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History Hits: BMW M5


Practicality, comfort, and downright fun factor. Those are the three holy grails of most gearheads actual priority list when it comes to looking for cars. Despite bravado-filled talk of, “daily-driving race cars and a damn to practicality!”, real-life has a tendency to force a bit more practicality on most of us come car shopping time whether it be through children, distance, or other annoying realities. Today, when you can buy a W12 powered SUV or a truck that is equally at home in the air or on the ground doing the school run, this isn’t the hard choice that it used to be: fun cars can be made to almost insane levels of practicality these days.

Thirty years ago, this was certainly not the case. Yugo’s were on dealer lots, and that set the tone for the auto industry at large. Finding a fun car was hard: finding a practical, fun car, an impossibility. Luckily, the ever-practical German’s at BMW’s M skunkworks division had the answer; “Ja? You want a fast saloon? Hans! Take ze M1 engine in the back and put it in ze 535i!”. While this may not quite be the M5’s origin story, the M5 was the first fun, practical, fast, four-door saloon in the post-smog-era. While many have since emulated the fast 5-series and its later iterations, the M5 will always be the first, and this week’s History Hits is tracing the lineage back to this origin of the German Super-Saloons for which the country is so famous for now.

1985-1988 BMW M5 (E28)

Red E28
Everyone loves the E30 so much. Scale it up and wha-bang! E32. I for one love the lines of this generation of Bimmers.

While my supposed origin story isn’t exactly factual, it does somewhat convey how the car was developed. Using a 535xi chassis with the body kit from the M535i, the engineers at M inserted a slightly tuned M1 engine (usually, more on that in a second) into the resulting package. With a 3.5L straight-6 engine producing 311hp in most markets, the first M5 had the power that so many craved, while the sorted 535i chassis offered enough control for sporty driving.

The M88-based M5 engine, with the beautiful intake system it is known for.

As the M5 was pioneering the field, each E28 M5 was hand-assembled, depending on the market for which it was bound. There are four total markets that the E28 M5 sold in, which included the UK market, the EU market, the US market, and the embargoed-at-the-time South African market. The UK and the EU market variants were exactly the same, utilizing the 286hp version of the M1’s M88 engine, with the main difference being the side the driver was on in the car.

The South African market car was identical to the European version—on paper. Due to the embargo on South Africa at the time, M5’s had to be assembled in South Africa, and as such were shipped in parts. Whether the mechanics in SA followed the book completely in re-assembly is unknown. The real black sheep in the E28 family tree is the US market car. Due to tight American emission controls the US market car used the next-generation (catted) engine, the 252hp S38 engine, itself an evolution of the M88. Both engines are essentially the same, with the emissions control being the main difference.  Due to the speed at which BMW had to assemble the NA models, they were only offered in in black, with tan leather. Very few were ordered and built with the late-offered black leather.

Black E28
This New Jersey example shows off the *lovely* black that was North America’s only option.

The E28 made a mark on the North American market for more than just its performance pedigree. While E28 production ended in 1987, and you could buy the E34 5-series in 1988, BMW M was still selling E28 M5’s, leading to consumer misinformation, and the lawsuits that tend to follow. Due to this law suit, North American BMW M5 owners were entitled to a $4,000 voucher once the case was settled in 1993, which was a vast sum of money.

1988-1995 BMW M5 (E34)

Black E34
Seeing the updated 5-series, it is easy to see why buyers could be annoyed at getting an E28.

The next generation M5, with the chassis code E34, was built from 1988 until 1995. Again, the same four markets got their own cars, which was aided by the fact that the E34 was certainly more of a slight evolution, rather than the developmental leap the original M5 was. Featuring the larger chassis from the new 5-series, M again hand-built each car. Featuring improvements to the breaks and the suspension—including oddly cheap-seeming “M-system” wheel covers on steel wheels, which helped cool the brake system.

E34 Engine
The same engine as the NA E28 model, which is fine by me. That glorious intake. *Drools*

The E34 was larger and heavier than the E28, and the S38 engine was tuned to compensate for this. European and UK models received a 311hp straight-six sending power to a 5-speed manual, while NA and now SA models received the emissions-choked engines, which still made a respectable 307bhp. Throughout the life of the E34, the UK and EU models got significantly better, outpacing their far-flung brethren. In 1991, the 3.6L engine was enlarged to 3.8L producing 335hp, something which would never come to the States or SA. The last model year—1995—also saw the addition of a 6-speed gearbox as standard.

The rarest of rare, the E34 Touring.

This generation also saw the introduction of the Touring variant, which is essentially the BMW M5 station wagon. Introduced in 1991, and fundamentally unchanged besides the addition of more cargo space, the practicality to fun quotient soared through the roof with this model. Acquiring cult status in following years, the 891 LHD-only Touring models are rare and valued as such.

1999-2003 BMW M5 (E39)

Silver E39
Potentially the least dramatic M5 produced, this may be a reason I am drawn to the design.

The E39 M5 produced between 1999 and 2003 is the first ‘modern’ M5 in many ways. Not only was it more powerful, better sorted, and more produced than previous models, the tradition of hand building the M super saloon was abandoned with this generation. While many decry this as M losing its way, production-line integration of the M-model enabled more customer options, better consistency, and increased reliability.

E39 Engine
As the only naturally aspirated V8 in M5 history, this car may get cult status. But not yet. Despite the lack of love, I think the dual intakes create a purposeful engine bay look.

Those plain Jane looks hid a heart of fire. While previous M5’s were powered by a motorsport-derived straight-six, the new M5 used the mass-produced V8 from ‘lesser’ 5, 6, 7, and 8 series, heated up to produce 396hp. This power was fed into a mechanical LSD spun by a Getrag-sourced 6-speed gearbox.

This engine, combined with looks charitably described as ‘under-the-radar’, creates a sleeper almost unparalleled, while BMW’s use of a modern IBUS system for the stereo means modern units can be installed with ease, meaning this is the oldest M5 which can easily be updated with modern convenience features. These redeeming features may mean this M5 will rise in popularity, but for now, this is the most affordable M5 there is to be had.

2005-2010 BMW M5 (E60)

Silver E60
The E60 M5 was the first which featured specialized body work to compensate for the widened track.

Remember how I said modern cars are becoming insanely practical while maintaining performance? The E60 M5 produced from 2005 until 2010, was the first of the M5’s to benefit from this trend, and while it enables SUVs to perform like sedans, it enables sedans to perform like supercars. Featuring an odd-firing 5.0L V10, feeding into an automated manual transmission with 7 gears, the E60 M5 may be the most special of them all. This odd-firing motor revved to well over 8000rpm, featured two more cylinders than the previous engine, and weighed only 2.2lbs more.

E60 Engine
While I would buy an E39 M5, I want this beast.

To handle all this power—over 100hp more than the previous generation—M was forced to widen the front and rear tracks, enabling larger rubber, and a larger overall footprint increasing stability. Completely reworked suspension, beefy brakes, and insanely-smart electronics binding it all together mean that this saloon can allegedly top 200mph de-limited, and haul itself back down safely—something the next M5 would be incapable of.  Because of this performance, and the insanity of a V10 engine, these M5’s hold their value very well, and will so for a long time to come.

E60 Touring
The Holy Grail: The V10, RWD station wagon we all dream about.

Even more valuable, rare, and downright cooler than the M5 saloon, is the E60 M5 Touring. I feel like this is entirely self-explanatory: a V10 RWD station wagon is badass. Done. End of argument. Produced from 2007 to 2010, this will forever be forbidden fruit in North America, as this was Europe only.

2011-2017 BMW M5 (F10)

Silver F10
Almost as stealth as the E34, many view this as a step back from the E60.

The BMW M5 has evolved into the currently on-sale F10 generation, which started production in 2011. Slated to end production for the 2017 model year, chances are development of this platform has peaked. Featuring a heavier, larger platform than the E60, coupled with a smaller engine, many M fanatics view this as a ‘lame’ M5, with the V10 being the last ‘raw’ M5. With better efficiency, better performance, and more outright power, BMW would likely disagree.

F10 Engine
The packaging to put the turbos IN the V of the engine is pretty insane.

This increase in power and efficiency is achieved by downsizing the engine and adding turbochargers. Like the E39 M5, this is not a unique performance engine, and is instead a ‘breathed-on’ version of the more mundane 550i engine. Producing between 560-575hp depending on options, this 4.4L twin-turbo V8 is no slouch. Turbocharging had an impact on engine sound, as this is the first M car to feature artificial amplification of the engines sounds.

I am going to keep the details on the F10 scant, because come Wednesday I will be posting my review of driving a 2015 BMW M5 Competition Package through LA and the Canyons. Think I missed something about the other M5’s? Let me know, because I am not perfect! Like and share the article with your friends, and stay tuned for Wednesday’s review: it’s a doozy.

Stephen Hyden View All

I recently recieved a degree in History from the University of Nevada, Reno.

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