Five Alive – BMW E28 M5

3

By Chris Pollitt

Some cars can, at a mere mention, set pulses racing. Drop certain vehicular nomenclature into conversation and you’re going to lose people as they drift off into thoughts of driving one. There are many cars that can elicit such a response, cars like the BMW M5. Say M5 to someone, or have someone say it to you, and you’ll drift away to thoughts of a luxury saloon going far faster than it has any right to. You’ll send your mind’s eye into a frenzy of sideways, power-sliding imagery and you’ll find yourself lusting for one. 

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The BMW M1 was the first bona fide M car, but it was also a supercar built in limited numbers. The M5, however, was the first M car to be made available to us mere mortals on a slightly less exclusive scale. It was, for many, M car genesis. Yes, there was the M365 and M535 before it, but they were just slightly sportier versions of existing models. The M5 was the first, built for purpose M car. The first true super saloon, and as such, the first in a series of legends. Yet, curiously, that first M5 is often forgotten. 

Fewer than 2,000 E28 M5s were ever built, whereas nearly 10,000 M535i cars were built. This means that for as long as there has been an M5, there has been a bloke down the pub arguing that it’s just an M535i. Many times, said bloke was right. The M5 was a rare thing. Even rarer in right hand-drive guise, as per the white car here, which is currently for sale with Wizard Sports and Classics. The M5 was often overlooked because of the comparative ubiquity of the M535i. In retrospect, that’s somewhat criminal.

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The M5 now is a halo car, the 5 Series in its ultimate form. And it was back in the ‘80s, too. However, only a brave few were willing to buy such a machine. It didn’t have the history, the heritage and the positive press every M5 since has enjoyed. Instead, it relied on the invested few to take the plunge and to see what this new M car was all about. And for those that did, the rewards were plenty. 

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BMW didn’t mess about with the first M5, and in fact plucked the M88 straight-six engine evolved from that of the M1, but 10bhp more powerful. This meant the M5 packed 278bhp. That was, quite literally, supercar amounts of power. In an executive saloon. It was the answer to a question nobody asked, but it was also brilliant. The E28 was the perfect car to take the power. It was well weighted, it handled exceptionally well and, while no doubt something of a handful given it was rear wheel-drive and free of any spoilsport computers, it was an utter joy to drive. Especially at pace. 

It wasn’t just a case of stuffing the M1’s engine into a saloon. BMW’s M Division went to great lengths to make sure the already impressive chassis of the E28 could handle the extra grunt. As such, the anti-roll bars were stiffened, Bilstien springs and dampers were added (until 1986, after which BMW used Boge kit) and a limited slip differential was fitted. The brakes were perhaps the only weak point, as they were carried over from the M535i, and as such, were a little overwhelmed by the M88’s grunt. 

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The changes though, other than a badge and some alloys, were largely hidden. The M5 didn’t shout about what it was, and while that’s cool now, it was perhaps a little lost on the buying public back then. It was the ‘80s, a time of excess. If this new BMW was faster than a Ferrari, why didn’t it shout about it? The notion of a Q car was yet to excite us. It soon did though, happily, and as such, the E34 M5 was an even bigger success. 

Today, the E28 is a very rare car indeed. Many simply rusted away (the metal was really poor), many were wrapped around street furniture, while others were unceremoniously relieved of their engines to power other projects. Few were built in the first place, fewer still in right hand-drive guise, just 187, which is what makes the white car pictured here so special. 

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Perhaps not as subtle as some others, this vision in white stands as an example of what the M5 could be should someone get bold with the options list. Full Pacific Blue leather trim, air-conditioning, the magnificent and completely ‘80s M Technic body-kit and more presence than a modern M5 – this is an E28 M5 in its ultimate form. Perhaps, if BMW had fitted these parts as standard rather than going down the subtle road, the car would have been more successful? Who knows. All we know is that this one is magnificent. 

It may have some 191,000 on the clock, but having just been subjected to a considerable visual and mechanical overhaul, it’s in wonderful condition. The body has been repainted, the wheels refurbished. The suspension, brakes, wheels and tyres, too. The engine has been completely serviced and refurbished, including a new timing chain. It’s been inspected, carefully rebuilt and now stands as one of the finest of its kind. As we all know, white is a colour all too keen to give away any rust or other issues – but as you can see, there are none present here. 

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The M5 and the team behind it had little idea that this car, this small idea that seemed like a good way to get more use out of the M88 engine, would be such an important entry into the automotive history books. Your big, fast, super saloons – they all owe a debt of gratitude to this. This is the original, the one that created an appetite for power and performance in an otherwise ‘normal’ package. It’s the M car.

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