The BMW E28 M5 Buying Guide – The super saloon journey begins here

The BMW E28 M5 was the progenitor of the super saloon category, offering a level of performance that until then had been the sole preserve of sports cars. It remains a great drive to this day.

By the time the BMW M5 was unveiled at the Amsterdam Motor Show in 1985, the idea of putting a powerful engine in to a four-door bodyshell wasn’t exactly new, even BMW had been there before with its E12 M535i. What the E28 M5 brought to the table was a blend of performance, handling and practicality that elevated it into a different class altogether, the super saloon. Using a recipe that is unfortunately rather diluted in today’s M cars, BMW’s Motorsports division fitted a slightly updated 3.5-litre M88 motor as used in the M1 supercar into a 535i bodyshell, upgraded the already sporty suspension setup from the M535i and finished it off with a limited-slip differential and unique Getrag five-speed manual transmission.

With 282bhp being sent to the rear wheels (up 9bhp on the M1), the E28 M5 was not only the quickest four-door saloon ever, it eclipsed many sports cars of its day too. US models had a slightly detuned version of the M88 called the S38B35 which came fitted with a catalytic converter and made 256bhp. Just 2,241 cars were built over a five-year production run, making it the rarest four-door M car ever.

Drive one today and you will be surprised by how much body roll there is compared to modern sports saloons, the brakes aren’t the sharpest either, while the steering is not quite as responsive as you would expect. Just as you start wondering what all the fuss is about, the rev needle passes 3,000rpm and the car seems to shrink around you, the compliant suspension responding well to measured steering inputs as the M5 flows from corner to corner in a wail of straight-six induction and exhaust noise. The biddable chassis at the limit makes tail out cornering a measured and controllable affair, nothing like the snappy responses of more modern machinery. For much of the ‘80s, nothing else even came close.

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BMW E28 M5 Engine and gearbox

The M88 engine as fitted to all RHD cars and European LHD models is a robust motor that should not give much trouble except for one rather important area; the timing chain. The single row chains on these engines can break, sometimes well before the 100,000-mile replacement intervals, leading to a very big bill. Make sure that there is proof of it having been replaced or get the job done once you take delivery.

In most other areas the M88 has proven to be a strong and reliable power unit, just make sure the valve clearances are regularly checked and the oil change intervals have been adhered to. These motors are very rare now and most parts are incompatible with other E28 5 Series models so some components can be rather pricey.

The US-spec S38B35 engine may give up some top end power thanks to less aggressive cam timing, lower compression and the fitment of a catalytic converter, but its single-row timing chain is far more reliable and unlikely to snap. No, you can’t convert your M88 to this setup as there are too many parts to swap out.

All M5s came fitted with a five-speed Getrag 280 manual transmission linked to a limited-slip differential. Worn synchros are rare and a sloppy gearchange can be a simple fix but parts are hard to come by and clutch changes are pricey too.

BMW E28 M5 Suspension and Brakes

The M5 will feel far softer than a modern sports saloon but if it wanders in a straight line or the rear end feels unsettled then the suspension rubbers, shocks and control arms will need attention. Aftermarket suspension bushes can tighten up the feel of the car and reduce steering shimmy at highway speeds.

Either Boge or Bilstein shocks were used in period, most cars will hopefully have had replacement units by now, modern Bilsteins seem to be the most popular choice. The braking system was a four-piston ATE setup and are very expensive if you go through BMW, slightly less so if sourced from specialists or ATE themselves. The rear discs and pads as well as the ABS system is the same as on some other E28 models so should be easier to source at a decent price.

BMW E28 M5 Bodywork

The E28 is a solid car with good rust proofing from the factory but three decades on, resprays, parking lot dings and accident damage can all take their toll on the bodywork. Check the usual problem areas such as the footwells, boot floor and sills as well as corrosion around the front and rear window frames. As standard the M5 came with a plastic front airdam and an M-Technic rear spoiler. From 1986-on the M-Technic aerodynamic package could be ordered which was the same as the one fitted to the M535i.

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BMW E28 M5 Interior

The interior of the E28 M5 is just as sober and unpretentious as the exterior, cracked dashboards, hanging headliners and worn leather seats are not uncommon. Some cars had the extended leather-clad interior which looks great when well-maintained but can be expensive to retrim if it is tatty. Most other trim components are available but can be pricey, check that the air conditioner, electric windows and electric seat headrests are still working.
The SII (Service Interval Indicator) cluster can fail due to a leaking battery; this should be rectified as the potential damage to the rest of the instrument cluster can be costly.

Model History Of The BMW E28 M5

1984: BMW E28 M5 production begins, 282bhp 3.5-litre engine, five-speed manual transmission and limited-slip differential standard fitment
1986: US-market E28 M5 begins production, minor engine differences and the fitment of a catalytic-converter reduces power to 256bhp.
1987: US-spec M5 production ends
1988: All E28 M5 production ends

Which BMW E28 M5 To Buy

Just 187 of those 2,241 cars were built in RHD for the UK market so don’t get too hung up with low mileages and colour choices. Silver, black and grey were the most popular hues and most cars have done over 100,000 miles. Casting further afield, another 96 RHD models were built in South Africa while the balance were LHD models split between the US, Canada, Europe and Japan.

Unlike some modern M cars, the E28 M5 really was a bespoke creation that shares very few components with the rest of the E28 range, the downside is that most parts are pricey so be sure to have the car professionally inspected to ensure that it is as the factory intended.

Values have been firm and rising for some years now but there are still some good deals to be had, just be aware that restoring a tired example can often outweigh the savings you may have made when buying the car. There is much to like about the first-generation M5, it remains the rarest of the lot and a good one can still put a smile on your face that will take days to wear off.

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BMW E28 M5 Specifications

3.5-litre Inline-Six

Power: 282bhp (256bhp for US-spec cars)
Top speed: 155mph (limited)
0-60mph: 6.1sec
Economy: 25mpg est.

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Text John Tallodi  Photos Newspress, RSD Wöchtl – Classic Cars

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