E28-chassis BMW M5 | What you need to know before you buy

Photograph Courtesy BMW

Today’s market is littered with high-output sedans produced by nearly every manufacturer, from Hyundai and Lexus to the usual suspects from Germany and America. Go back to the late ‘80s, though, and there was one standout: the original BMW M5.

The M5 was big news for BMW, too. Remember, at the time the manufacturer was pulling out of a rut dominated by its low-revving, fuel-saving Eta engines.

BMW Motorsport, the brand’s performance arm, was tasked with adding some of their M magic to the company’s E28-series chassis. The platform had debuted for the 1981 model year, with American-spec cars showing up the following year. The garden-variety 5 Series featured the right building blocks for a driver’s car, since standard equipment included four-wheel-independent suspension, bucket front seats and, for at least the American market, anti-lock brakes.

The M5 added the twin-cam, 24-valve inline-six originally fitted to the M1 supercar, giving the family hauler 286 horsepower in European trim-a very stout number for the day. Other standard items fitted to the M5 included a five-speed gearbox, limited-slip transmission, and BBS wheels. The model also received a front air dam, trunk spoiler, blacked-out trim and leather interior.

BMW Motorsport started turning 5 Series bodies into M5s at their own offsite facility starting late in 1984, but American-spec cars, marked by four equally sized headlights, didn’t arrive until the 1988 model year. As the line goes, U.S. buyers could choose any color they pleased, so long as it was black. Most cars came with Natur (tan) leather, although a few dozen cars were sent to the U.S. sporting black interiors.

That original M5 gave American buyers a capable, practical, stealthy cruiser. The trunk could swallow a week’s worth of luggage for the entire family, while thin roof pillars offered great visibility in all directions. The back seat could easily handle the average-sized American.

The original M5 didn’t stay around for long: By the time Americans could purchase one, production of the E28 chassis was quickly coming to an end. Its replacement was scheduled for a 1989 model year introduction. According to the BMW M Registry, only 1340 examples of the original M5 came to North America-101 for Canada and the remaining 1239 for the U.S.

A small footnote to the original M5 story: That same proven mechanical package could also be found in the two-door M6. Production of it was equally limited-the BMW M Registry counts only 1632 American-bound cars-and the M6 fetches a bit more than the M5.

Shopping Advice

Adam Goral comes to us from European parts house eEuroparts.com.

The European model got a rare version of the M1 engine, which was called the M88, but here in the States the E28 M5 was fitted with the new, slightly simplified and detuned S38. The S38 was no slouch, though, and still featured some nice hardware that made it worthy of the M badge. This engine got a few updates throughout the years, making it well into the ‘90s in its final form. This is good for parts availability, as better production numbers always means you’ll be able to keep your engine better serviced.

The nice thing about this particular car is that the standard models were quite popular, and luckily some parts are shared between the platforms. While there are several components that are bespoke to the first-generation M5, a very resourceful network of suppliers has made parts such as brakes, clutches, filters and a multitude of other common maintenance parts available at reasonable prices. Even if they aren’t sitting on the shelf, a surprising number of parts can still be special-ordered with a quick email or call to a customer service rep.

The parts that are most difficult to track down are the ones that BMW didn’t make many spares of and/or that aftermarket companies didn’t go on to reproduce. We’re talking about electronic units, interior items such as seat covers and trim, and bodywork.

If you are in the market, be aware that a car with a good body and interior that needs a water pump, belts, an ignition coil and a full brake job will be a relatively easy fix. However, a car that runs like a top with missing trim, torn seats and a broken stereo could be a major headache.

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stuart in mn
stuart in mn UltimaDork
7/30/18 10:47 a.m.

A couple interesting things about the photo above - first, it's a eurospec M5, and in addition it has the M-technic body kit that was optional on an euro M5 but standard on an euro M535i (the M535i had the standard M30 single cam engine, although in european specification it had around 30hp more than the US version.  I own an M535i so I notice these things.  smiley )  The car in the picture is painted diamondschwarz / diamond metallic black; while in the US the M5 was only available in straight black, the euro cars could be had in any color.  I see it also has the optional headlight washers, another thing not available on US spec cars.

Tim Suddard
Tim Suddard Publisher
8/4/18 2:54 p.m.

Good eye!

wspohn Dork
8/4/18 5:27 p.m.

The E28 was notable for being a bit of a break-away model from the mundane stuff that preceded it, but the real deal came later with the E34 and E39 which were the real deal - high output high rev normally aspirated engines, which, along with the versions in the E85/86 Z4M cars and the M3s - E36 and E46 (Canada got a relative handful of E36 Eurospec cars significantly better/faster than the US models) were the last naturally aspirated straight 6 M engines we'll probably ever see.

BimmerMaven Reader
8/16/23 11:47 a.m.

I had an 87 535iS with a Metric Mechanic 3500 HF Sport engine....similar output to the S38, lower revs, cheaper parts, valve adjustment....let's not talk about the fun shims on the S38.

Either way a great family car with fun for Dad as well.

My daughter's first car was a 528e....the gas version of a Mercedes 300D....solid, reliable, economical, fuel efficient; these were the goals of the eta ("efficiency") desisgn started in the face of the late 70s oil crisis.  The eta engine met these goals admirably.  The "i" engines were always there for those looking for more power; hence I'm not sure what the "rut" is referring to.

I still have both cars if anyone is looking for resto projects!


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