1988 BMW M5
Today’s car buyers have a wide selection of fast sedans to choose from if they need to transport anything more than one other person at high speed. In the first half of the 1980s, however, the options were all but non-existent, and the idea that one might also have fun in such a device was equally unheard of. Mercedes had laid the groundwork for rapid sedans with the legendary 6.3 and 6.9, but these were not sports cars.
And that was the gap that BMW sought to fill when they created the first ever M5. Its performance was better than both the Porsche Carrera 3.2 and Ferrari 328 in a straight line (0-60 mph in 6.3 seconds and a top speed a shade under 150 mph), and furthermore, it could hang on twisty roads as well. The centerpiece of the car is the motor: descended from the legendary M1 race car powerplant, the S38 engine fitted to the North American spec M5 is a spectacle of exotic figures: two cams, four valves per cylinder, six cylinders (inline of course), Bosch Motronic electronic fuel injection through six individual throttle bodies, and undersquare dimensions giving a lofty 6,900 RPM redline. Although exotic, the motor is civilized, relatively, and at low RPMs, it’s docile and unobtrusive. Should the driver desire, however, a wallop of power lives in the upper rev range, delivered with a clarity and precision that reflects the racey origins of the motor.
The rest of the car wasn’t too bad either. The power flowed exclusively through a 5-speed manual Getrag gearbox, and chassis was thoughtfully upgraded to improve roadholding. Not only is the car capable, but it is playful and communicative in a way that simply does not exist in modern BMWs. A limited slip differential was standard, as were brakes with ABS and four-piston calipers at the front. Car and Driver magazine observed in their December 1987 road test that the only cars they had ever tested to beat the M5’s 70 mph to 0 braking performance were the C4 Corvette and Porsche 928 S4.
What the M5 was then, was a car that, independent of its number of doors, delivered the experience of a world class sports car in many respects. Not only in terms of straight line performance or even cornering capability, but in terms of driving enjoyment and communication with the driver. It just happened to have four doors. Each subsequent generation of the M5 has gotten heavier, more refined, more luxurious and a little bit farther away from feeling like a sports car. Unsure of how the car would perform in the US market, BMW offered the car for only one model year in North America and just 1,340 examples were imported. Their practicality made them attractive daily drivers for red-blooded enthusiasts in a quiet hurry, and many examples were simply used up, but they have rightfully emerged as icons. So iconic is the E28 M5 in fact, that Road & Track selected the M5 as their 1980s contender for their eight car “Greatest Sports Car of All Time” shootout in 2020.
That collectibility and the car’s iconic stature has made it worthwhile to lavish care (and money) on them in a way that wouldn’t have been reasonable when they were just used cars, and this car reflects that, having been extensively restored at a cost of nearly $82,000 in 2019-2020. The work was performed by the highly-regarded specialist Vintage Sports & Restoration in New Hampshire and included virtually every mechanical and cosmetic aspect of the car.
The car was stripped to a shell, which was stripped to bare metal, restored, and repainted. During this process, the car was converted to European headlights and bumpers and a European M5 chin spoiler was also added. New gaskets and rubber trim were fitted throughout, and the license plate lights were even replaced. The engine was completely disassembled and rebuilt, with new main and rod bearings, bored/honed cylinders, resurfaced block and head, and a full valve job performed. The ancillaries such as the alternator and water pump were also renewed, as was the AC system, which was upgraded with a higher flow condenser and upgraded electric fan. The fuel injectors were rebuilt and a Maxx Alpha N fuel management system was also installed, and then the engine was dyno tuned. The exterior of the engine was restored as well, and the zinc plating renewed on the underhood components. The car received Euro type headers which were jet hot ceramic coated, while a stainless center exhaust with dual catalysts were fitted, together with a new rear exhaust section. An aluminum radiator was also fitted, along with an auxiliary electric fan. A new clutch and flywheel were also fitted.
The suspension, steering, and brake systems were also extensively rebuilt. Included among this was new Spax lowering springs, new control arms and bushings, new shocks, reinforced steering box mount, resealed steering box, rebuilt brake calipers, stainless steel lines, and new pads and rotors. The wheels were also refinished, and new center caps installed along with new Michelin tires.
Inside the car, the leather on the shift boot and front and rear seats was renewed, and a ZHP shift knob added. The leather trimmed door panels, lower dash, and center console were redyed, and the upper dashboard was restored with new stitched upholster. A new stereo with Blaupunkt head unit was installed, and numerous components which often show age were replaced such as seat switches, ash trays, and seatbelt receivers. The inoperable cruise control and passenger side mirror were also rectified.
The resulting car is absolutely stunning. Having covered approximately 2,500 miles since its restoration, the car is extremely cosmetically fresh and mechanically crisp, benefitting from subtle upgrades that enhance the car’s usability, appearance, and performance while preserving the vintage BMW magic that has made this car such a legend.
The driving experience is markedly different from a standard US E28 M5; of particular note is the powertrain. The headers, rebuild, and fuel injection system make the engine much more responsive and add appreciable urgency and power. The freshness of the gear linkage and weighted ZHP shift knob modernize and tighten the gear change just the right amount, and the resulting powertrain has a liveliness that is extremely enjoyable and represents the biggest departure from the comparatively sedate temperament of the standard AFM-equipped S38 B35. The synchromesh works quickly and smoothly. The exhaust is marginally louder than stock, but most driver’s will not notice the increased volume unless they have just driven a stock E28 M5 or have spent a great many miles in one. The chassis is firmed up just the right amount for spirited driving, feeling more buttoned down but still quite civilized, thanks in no small part to the decision to retain 16” wheels and the sidewalls they permit. Brakes are one of the high points of any E28 M5 and these are no exception, with a confidence-inspiring, firm, high pedal that feels natural and pairs well with the throttle pedal position for heel-toeing. The mechanical changes incorporated in the car’s restoration are incredibly well-judged, preserving the character and personality of the car while improving performance, responsiveness, and driver enjoyment while giving up virtually no comfort or usability. The subtle aesthetic upgrades are equally well-judged and the overall experience of the car is compelling, thoughtful, and most importantly, a ton of fun.