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BMW E34 Touring – It’s Top Gear

3

By Chris Pollitt

What you’re looking at here is an E34 BMW M5 Touring. And just by saying that, I can hear some of you cracking your knuckles in readiness to type out an angry email telling me how wrong I am. After all, they never made a right-hand drive M5 Touring. And you’d be right to suggest that. BMW didn’t. But here in the UK we are a nation of tinkerers and garage dabblers. We don’t look at cars from elsewhere and simply accept we can’t have them. Hell no. We get fired up on tea and head into the garage with one objective in mind – we’ll build our own. And that’s exactly what this E34 is. It’s a home-brew M5 Touring.

E34, E34 M5, Top Gear, Chris Harris, BMW, BMW E34, BMW M5, BMW Touring

E34, E34 M5, Top Gear, Chris Harris, BMW, BMW E34, BMW M5, BMW Touring

The wheels, the spoilers and the skirts are justified, because when you open the front-tilting bonnet of the beast, you’ll find a naturally aspirated 3.6 straight-six engine from an early E34 M5. Bolted onto the back of it, you’ll find the right five-speed gearbox and beyond that, you’ll find a limited-slip 3.91:1 differential. It is a proper bit of kit. 

Of course, some of you will tell me it’s not proper. Some of you will claim its an affront to the M5 name, or that at best it’s an M5 replica. But given it houses the heart of an M5, is it a replica? Or is it something more? Shall I spend the next five hundred words or so trying to convince you why this coming together of what was once a 525 and an M5 is a good thing? No. I shouldn’t Because it doesn’t matter. Not a jot. 

All that matters is why the car’s current evolution is perfect for its current owner, Chris Harris. “So I needed an estate car.” Explains Chris. “For the last decade I’ve leased expensive, fast German wagons because they suit me down to the ground. Last one was an E63S, probably the best car I’ve run. But it cost a fortune every month and the list price was well north of £100k. And that’s just stupid for a family wagon.”

E34, E34 M5, Top Gear, Chris Harris, BMW, BMW E34, BMW M5, BMW Touring

E34, E34 M5, Top Gear, Chris Harris, BMW, BMW E34, BMW M5, BMW Touring

You can’t argue with the man’s logic. An estate is a car that you use. And by that, I don’t just mean you drive it. You load it up with stuff; dogs, bikes, shopping, kids, all that jazz. An estate car has to work hard, and it should do so without you having to nanny it. A £100k AMG is nice, right up until you give yourself an emotional crisis when your mountain bike scratches the rear bumper, or when your dog barfs in the spare wheel well. 

It was after “a few scoops of whiskey” that Chris found himself on Car & Classic, it was then he stumbled upon the car you see here. Though it wasn’t the sudden purchase you might imagine, as Chris explains. “I have some history with these E34s. I bought one 15 years ago, a real one, and it was one of the most expensive cars I’ve ever run. It never really ran well and then someone drove into it, the insurance decided to (foolishly) repair it and then the motor started burning oil. I sold it for about seven quid and vowed never to own an E34 again.”

E34, E34 M5, Top Gear, Chris Harris, BMW, BMW E34, BMW M5, BMW Touring

E34, E34 M5, Top Gear, Chris Harris, BMW, BMW E34, BMW M5, BMW Touring

So why, then, does the V5 of this once 525 now say Chris Harris on it? Well, the reality is that this car isn’t a real M5. Again, some people will see that as a bad thing, but not Chris. This wasn’t an overpriced, left-hook, factory M5. It’s a fake, a fugazi, it has no following or any real provenance, and that appealed to Chris. He could (and did) buy it solely on the basis that it didn’t cost the earth, but at the same time, he would get something that was fun. Something with genuine M5 power, but without genuine M5 ‘sales tax’. And it’s an estate. Winner. 

What of the car then? What’s the spec? Well, as I mentioned earlier, it’s running a 3.6 from a pre-facelift E34 M5. It has M5 axles, brakes, differential, steering, Bilstein suspension with H&R springs, ‘throwing star’ alloys along with some other bits like the skirts, chin spoiler and full manual leather interior. The previous owner built the car in 2012 out of a 525 and an M5 that was, bodily, past its best. Given how gutless the 525 is, it was the right call. And with all the oily bits to go with the engine, this car is for all intents and purposes, an M5.

E34, E34 M5, Top Gear, Chris Harris, BMW, BMW E34, BMW M5, BMW Touring

Of course, to test out the M5-ness of this E34, I had to drive it. I’m lucky in that I have past from with a 3.6 E34 M5, albeit a saloon. With this in mind, I was keen to see what this Touring was like. Being a home brew special, I thought it might be a bit rattly, a bit… unresolved. It’s not. 

Credit to whoever built it, because it feels every bit like an E34 should, hell, it feels like an E34 M5 should. It’s got that weight of an E34 M5. If you’ve not driven one, they have a presence. They feel more solid, more dense and solid at their core than a normal E34. You have power steering, you have servo brakes, but everything takes a bit of effort. Not too much. Just enough to pull you in and make you well aware that you are integral to the car’s performance. You feel like a part of an M5, you don’t just feel like a driver. This Touring gave me that sensation, except this time I could put a mattress in the back. Or a kitchen dresser.

E34, E34 M5, Top Gear, Chris Harris, BMW, BMW E34, BMW M5, BMW Touring

Out on the road, the Touring takes some persuasion to get going. The 3.6 isn’t happy at low revs, it needs to breathe and it needs to stretch, and this comes when you get out of second and up into third. From then on, with the revs climbing, the car sings and becomes more alive, it feels lighter and more alert at that point. An M5 at 20mph is very different to an M5 at 80mph, and this Touring is exactly the same. Though I have to admit, I didn’t want to be the guy who crashed Chris Harris’ car, so on that wet Welsh morning, I took things easy. I was just out to see how it compared to the M5 I used to drive.

E34, E34 M5, Top Gear, Chris Harris, BMW, BMW E34, BMW M5, BMW Touring

“It needs some cosmetic work, admits Chris. “But the lack of air-con hasn’t worried me anything like as much I as I feared it would. The suspension needs a re-think, but otherwise it’s spot on. I don’t have to worry where I park and I love that engine. You need to rev it, but the quantity of performance is just what I need. A 600hp estate car is a court case waiting to happen. This isn’t. And it sounds perfect. The exhaust is way too rowdy, but I’ll fix that too.”

E34, E34 M5, Top Gear, Chris Harris, BMW, BMW E34, BMW M5, BMW Touring

For me, this is a refreshing take on what a daily should be. Chris has bought what is right for him, not what’s expected. Not that I needed it to be confirmed, but this further cements Chris as a proper car guy. This M5-u-like has been bought to be used, to be given a damn good kicking, to be parked without fear or anxiety, but to also give Chris the tools he needs when he does want to press on a bit and have some fun. And he can get those bikes and the dogs in the back, and you can’t do that with a right-hand drive E34 M5 – they don’t exist. 

For the last word, I’ll hand you back to Chris. “All in, it’s a honey. And it cost less than the fancy leather and ceramic brakes on the E63S.”

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