Defining Our Favorites – The E28 M5 & the Winding Hills of Tuscany, Italy.
Defining Our Favorites – The E28 M5 & the Winding Hills of Tuscany, Italy.
For many of us, cars are as much a part of who we are as the blood that flows through our veins. Over time, that love for cars often culminates with the affinity for one car in particular: our favorite car. Our favorites often fall into one of two categories - classics, or machines built to push the limits of automotive engineering. Sometimes it's both, and on occasion, it's neither. For BMW guys, it may be the E9 CSL, or M1, or even the 507 - cars most of us will never get the chance to drive, let alone own. Perhaps you're one more for the performance side of things, dreaming of cars like the Veyron or the Aventador - cars of a lavish lifestyle only the world's wealthiest enjoy. If you're an American, maybe it's cars like the R34 Skyline - often times, our desires stem from the cars we know we'll never get. Attainability plays a large role in the vehicles we lust after: would BMW's 507 roadster, for example, be as special today if they were as common as a '59 Volkswagen Beetle? It's hard to say.
Nevertheless, it's rare that our favorite cars lie in the realm of obtainability. I'm not talking about our "favorite" as in your favorite car of a given brand or era. I'm not talking about "I love that car, it's in my top 10, one of my favorites." I'm talking about your favorite car. The car you'd point at if you had to choose one and only one. The one that speaks to you above all others, whether it's the intrinsic beauty and lines that captivate you, whether it's the pure performance, the pedigree, the history, the lineage, the brand, the creator, the engine, the sound, the feel... or all of the above. I'm talking about your end-all.
So you're going to have to take my word for it, and truly believe me, when I say my favorite is mundane by most standards. I keep things simple; I don't want Italian hand-crafted aluminum panels, I don't want a twelve-cylinder engine, nor heaps of horsepower, and I'm not relying on racing heritage to give any value to the car I love most. My favorite car is often forgotten - a blip on the radar of automotive history; it's crowning achievement standing as the fastest production sedan in the world for a brief time, although in 1984, that wasn't much of a challenge. Sedan should say enough. My favorite car was never a coupe, nor a convertible. In reality, it began life as a four-door family car, and nothing more.
The E28 is my favorite car, and it has been for a number of years. My affinity for the car began more than a year after I had purchased and sold my first example - a 1986 528e. It was polaris silver with a blue houndstooth interior, and while it was slow, I had no idea how well-packaged and colored the car was. Later, as a senior in high school, I came across an ad for a black '85 535i, and it was almost immediate - the slant of the nose, the perfect window line, the ratio of glass height to door height, the belt line - I fell in love, and I had to have it.
To me, the E28 is how a BMW is supposed to look. While that's not actually for me to decide in any official capacity, those three iconic letters and the blue and white roundel are defined by the shape and styling of the mid-eighties 5-series. Introduced in 1981, the E28 was the replacement for its predecessor and original 5-series, the E12. While the E12s are beautiful in their own right, and only subtly different, the improvements to the E28 simply made the car - it is, in my eyes, the most "BMW" BMW ever built. It'd be foolish to argue that cars such as the Ghia-designed E9, or the Giugiaro-penned M1 aren't better looking cars, but are they definitive of the marque? Hardly.
After spotting the ad for the black car in December of 2007, it became an all-out frenzy for me. By March of 2008, after just three short months, I had four E28 535s in my parents' wooded Tennessee driveway. Now, seven years later, several examples have come and gone; I've owned seven thus far, but I know that I'm only getting started. Of the E28s I've owned, some have been more interesting than others - there's the gorgeous red-over-black 535iS sport-package car I know I shouldn't have sold, and there's the Euro grey-market M30-swapped 520i that I know I shouldn't have bought, but the Euro bumpers and unique color prevailed over my intentions of not buying a rust-infested car. The black 535i that caught my attention, however, has yet to let go. I travelled to North Carolina to buy the car, and now, seven years on, I've yet to part ways with it. It holds a special place in my heart, despite the fact that it in no-way resembled the car I once purchased. It's solely responsible for my undying love of such an arguably "unexciting" chassis.
In any case, there's one that I've yet to tame: the M5. Of the 722,328 E28s built, the M5 tops the totem pole. Hand-assembled in Germany, the M5, the first of its kind, was fitted with the M1's M88 inline-six engine, which produced an astonishing 282 horsepower, ranking the E28 M5 as the fastest production sedan in the world upon its introduction to the European market in 1984. Only 2,129 examples were built, landing it as one of the rarest offerings in BMW Motorsport's history, and in fact, an incredibly rare car by most standards. The E28 M5 was built to be the world's foremost performance sedan, and it hit the mark.
The American market received 1,500 of the 2,191 cars built, fitted with a slightly lesser engine, albeit nearly as powerful and almost as special. However, North America's M5s were cut short on more than just the engine - a reduction in horsepower by 30 horsepower was a shame, but equally disappointing was the single available color: jet black. Interiors were offered only in Natur brown, sans a rumored 29 or 30 examples built with black leather, and worst of all, North American 5s were fitted with low-speed crash-safety bumpers. The result leaves only 691 E28 M5s that can be considered "the real deal." Make no mistake - US M5s are just as well regarded, unlike other US M-car variants, such as the E36 M3. Nonetheless, only the foreign counterparts have everything that combines to form what the E28 M5 was truly meant to be.
With only 2,191 cars available in the world, and only 1500 stateside, acquiring one will be an uphill battle as time goes on. Appreciation on the cars has begun to rise steadily in the past five years, following in the footsteps of the sky-rocketing E30 M3 market. With M3 values soaring past $25,000 regularly, and more than 16,000 units produced, the M5 might see a surge in collector value in the coming years. For now though, the E28 pricing hovers in a range that is, well, surprisingly attainable. Hunt hard, and you'll find them for under $10,000. If you want a nice example, less than $20,000 will buy one hell of a car; and while $20,000 is nothing to scoff at, we're talking about a car that was hand-built, high strung, and produced in very limited quantities. Or you can spend your $20,000 on a new, mid-range Volkswagen Jetta. Your choice.
It's stark in contrast, to me at least, to what I feel a "dream car" is supposed to be. A six-figure price tag is supposed to be the starting point, and everyone has always subconsciously suggested that acquiring your dream car should be more-or-less unachievable. Instead, my sights are set low. Perhaps it's luck of the draw, but one way or another, I escaped the vicious jaws of the lucrative beast that is "dream cars." But even with such pseudo-attainability, it's unlikely I'll be walking into any dealerships to purchase my M5 when I'm ready. They've been on the road for 30 years now, and in that time span, countless cars have been crashed or destroyed. It's a continuously-shrinking market, and inside, I know I need to make moves soon if I want to secure my place in the first-generation M5 ownership demographic.
I've always assumed my first experience with the machine would be somewhat underwhelming. I've spent years building up the M5 in my heart and head - it is, in my opinion, one of the best looking cars ever produced. It's also the pinnacle of E28 performance, and as such, I've mentally given it rather large shoes to fill. Part of me has often considered not driving one in line with the idea that you should "never meet your heroes." What if the car doesn't live up to expectations? After 30 years, what was once the fastest sedan money could buy is now slower than a base-model V6 Toyota Camry. Significantly slower. Has the McPherson-design suspension aged well? Will it grip and grab through the turns like Car & Driver suggested years before I was born?
I've imagined myself M5 shopping, only to experience my "first love" all over again - an online ad, a black car, and an insatiable need to purchase it. But after 30 years, the engine will be thoroughly worn in, and inarguably tired. The car will have aged, but if it has aged well is anyone's guess. The suspension is likely to need an overhaul, and the brakes too. You can only ask so much of a car of its age, and I've feared that all of the build up and faith I've put in to the E28 M5 will rapidly diminish, like a filled balloon struck by the arrow of "realistic expectations." At it's core, the E28 M5 is now a 3-decade old family sedan with a high-strung engine; it's a maintenance nightmare.
In my dream world, I'd be given the chance to experience the E28 M5 as it was the day it left the manufacturing facility in Germany. Obviously, that's not going to happen - but experiencing the essence of not only a new E28, but the best thereof, would be a literal "dream come true." Put me somewhere with fantastic roads.. If we're dreaming, let's make it in the hills of Italy, right? Could it possibly get any better?
I can tell you first hand - it can't.
Three weeks ago, Andrew and I were invited to join BMW in Italy to attend the Concorso d'Eleganza Villa d'Este, of which they are the primary event supporter. As an event itself, it's truly a one-of-a-kind experience - set upon the mountain-surrounded shores of Lake Como, it is a true "destination" event, rich with history ranging from architecture and heritage, to the cars that scatter the lawn. As one of the most highly regarded concours shows in the world, it is home to some of the finest cars displayed, worldwide, each year. Yet, somehow, despite its magnificence, I can't say it was the high point of the trip.
Following the event, we departed towards Parma, Italy, which headed an unbelievable 3 full days of driving an astounding group of cars through the astonishingly beautiful Italian countryside. With three groups of cars for us to enjoy - V8-powered classics, all five generations of M5, and a collection of Rolls Royces, we were let loose on the hills for a weekend of driving I will never forget. There's much to share, but the highlight of the trip was obvious... To put yourself in my shoes for a minute - imagine you're given the keys to your favorite car. I don't care if it's worth $2,000 or $20,000,000; close your eyes, and imagine yourself behind the wheel. You've been given the keys, and sent off on some of the best driving roads in the world.
We had already enjoyed a fair number of truly amazing vehicles - a classic 502 convertible, a 3200 CS Bertone coupe, and a few M5s. We powered through turns in the Rolls Royce Wraith, and made our way through Florence in a beautiful Silver Spur III. We were even offered the keys to the iconic 507,valued at nearly $2,000,000... but the excitement wasn't comparable. For me, at least. After lunch at a mountain-top villa, I was handed the keys to a gorgeous Zinno red E28 M5, for which I had been waiting anxiously for the entire week. We set off down the hill, prepared for an afternoon with the car I had helplessly and hopelessly built up in my head for years.
It wasn't more than 100 yards before I fell in love, head over heels. I had been playing a dangerous game; all week, I had expressed excitement about the M5. I had rambled on to such an extent that even Andrew had grown weary. How good could the car really be? I promised him that he'd fall in love - I knew, before ever getting behind the wheel, that the car had to be perfect... and it was only seconds before I knew I was right. Descending down the mountain, the road twisted back and forth, meandering down the hillside, cutting back on itself 100 times over. Each turn fed more and more truth into the assumptions I had built in my head: the M5 truly was phenomenal.
The M5 had only clocked 28,000 kilometers - just 17,000 miles. It felt brand new, and in most respects, it was. It even laid to rest the myth that E28s come factory with sun-cracked dashboards - they don't. The houndstooth sport seats look as though they hadn't once been sat in, the zinnoberrot paint shined flawlessly, and the engine pulled harder than I could ever have imagined. From the very moment I got behind the wheel, I felt "home" again. It's been three years since I've had real seat time in an E28, but I could tell it was where I belonged. The driving position, although hugged by bolsters and faced by a sport steering wheel, leaves no room for interpretation: this car was born as a family saloon first and a sports car second.
My fears of mediocrity and the mundane were dispelled within the first turn. The tactile feedback of the car was refreshing - raw in every sense. The turning, despite its hydraulic assist, was immediate, linear, and intimately palpable. The tires hugged and gripped, with the body rolling just enough to accentuate the turns, but stable and planted enough to inspire confidence. The growl of the M88 was surreal, revving farther and farther, building anticipation as I waited to hit redline, which seemed ever-receding. The power output was immense; never has 280 horsepower felt so abundant. The E28 M5 scrambled past slow cars and traffic alike, pulling hard and surpassing any expectations, both positive and negative, leaving me to forget that it's 30 years old now.
Driving such a special car - my favorite car - I found it impossibly difficult to focus on the scenery around me. The beautiful hills of Italy, dotted with cities hundreds, and sometimes one thousand years old, passed by without acknowledgement. It was only once Andrew was behind the wheel, after he convinced me to let go, that I was able to absorb what took a truly amazing drive, and made it into one that is once-in-a-lifetime. We passed vineyards, farms, towns, and cities; hills rolled, sprawled, and stretched, unlike anything I had ever seen here in America. It was, perhaps, the most beautiful place I've had the chance to go, but nevertheless, I struggled to take in its beauty. Before me, at my finger tips, was the car of my dreams.
It was, truly, the best car I may ever drive. Before, I found myself worried that the M5 may never meet my "heroic" expectations, but in contrast, it leaves me wondering: will any other M5 ever live up to this? Weeks after, my heart still races at the thought of getting behind the wheel once more. I've had a taste, and my appetite grows. I've met the girl of my dreams, and I've fallen in love. Best of all, it's not quite out of my league, and I have but one option: I'll have to buy one.