Five in Time

Cometh the hour, cometh the car. 1988’s E34 BMW 5-Series arrived at just the right moment, redefining the model line and clarifying a template that arguably hasn’t been bettered.

Image credit: bmwguide

If 1961’s Neue Klasse saloons served to define Bayerische Motoren Werke’s style template and 1966’s 1600-2 popularised it, the Paul Bracq-inspired E12 5-Series of 1972 would take the design principles of Wilhelm Hofmiester and recast them in a modish, yet still highly disciplined context.

A design which married a sharply pared and engineered steeliness with an almost Latin softness, the E12 became BMW’s visual touchstone for almost two generations. So much so that its replacement, 1981’s E28 was essentially a reskin of the outgoing car.

While selling strongly in its early career, the advent of Mercedes’ hugely accomplished W123 saloon in 1976 saw the 5-Series latterly become a second-fiddle player in its home market, and while the BMW board couldn’t afford to replace the E12 with an all-new model at the time, the third generation Fünfer would remedy that.

1972 E12. Image credit: wikipedia

Originally to have benefited from the sort of common components strategy which is now commonplace across the industry, the E34 programme’s gestation was problematic. Work commenced around 1980 under the supervision of Karlheinz Radermacher, who espoused the shared components policy, but complications soon arose.

It became apparent that sharing a large proportion of its structure with its larger (E32) 7-Series sibling would not only impose onerous restrictions upon chassis engineers and stylists, it caused them to miss the programme’s weight targets by a country mile.

However with the car’s engineering direction redirected under Hans Hagen, a new face within the Petuelring’s Forschungs und Innovationszentrum technical centre began to impose his will, quickly usurping Hagen and directing E34’s final path to market. His name – Wolfgang Reitzle, the man behind the E32 7-Series.

In production form, the E34 shared only a few floorpan pressings, sills and rear axle mounts with its larger sibling. With a near-unique bodyshell, BMW engineers were able to repackage the car, placing the emphasis back on dynamic virtues rather than the final millimetre of head or legroom.

Image credit: channe-lauto

A more driver-focused car than the Seven, E34 employed a similar suspension layout, (struts up front and a well-located semi-trailing arm system aft) but the hardware was lighter, uprated, and differently mounted for superior driver engagement. Electronic driver aids would also form part of the specification.

Engines were initially the familiar BMW in-line fours (M40) and sixes (M30) with capacities ranging from 1.8 litres to 3.5 litres, but 24-valve sixes (M50), larger capacity V8’s (M60) and diesel power units would follow over the course of the car’s lifespan.

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Shaped under the supervision of Claus Luthe with styling duties initially credited to Ercole Spada, body design took its cue from the E32 7-Series that was developed alongside, both of which demonstrated a marked departure from BMW’s previous severe formality. However Spada departed the Petuelring in 1983 with E34 incomplete, with Luthe believed to have assigned its completion to a youthful J. Mays.

Regardless of authorship, E34 was a handsome and superbly proportioned shape; to many eyes, even better looking than its larger sibling, both evolving and simplifying themes which had found their ultimate expression in the 7-er both in exterior style and within its cabin.

More compact in size, with a more coupé-esque roofline, E34 may have looked more athletic, but the larger car was the more definitive and richer design statement. An equally handsome Touring estate model (a first for the 5-er) was added to the range in 1990.

Launched in January 1988, the E34 hit the ground at pace, with a year’s worth of orders taken in a matter of weeks. Critically too, the neue-Fünfer was lauded, with the motoring press as one praising BMW for not only redefining the luxury sports saloon, but by the standards of the day at least, codifying it.

Edging closer to perfection was BMW Motorsport division’s below radar offering, although some might instead have argued in favour of Alpina’s more overt B10 biturbo rival. Thomas Ammerschlager, the M-Division’s lead engineer told journalists in Autumn 1988, “the new M5 doesn’t need go-faster cosmetics”, a statement his modern-day equivalents might wish to meditate upon. With over 300 bhp at its disposal and a maximum (de-restricted) speed of over 170 mph, the M5 proved faster and more capable than any four-door rival – until the advent of the Mercedes 500E at least.

But even at less rarefied sections of the market, the E34 offered a combination of virtues that Mercedes Benz, even with their class-defining W124 rival often struggled to match. Certainly, by most reckoning, the BMW had the Swabian’s measure – a matter of some concern at Stuttgart-Untertürkheim.

The E34 would prove to be BMW’s most rounded product. Less compromised than the 3, more compact and affordable, yet scarcely less desirable than the 7. It also underlined that the Vierzylinder could go toe to toe with Mercedes and match them both in stylistic and engineering terms. Production lasted until 1996, with over 1,300,000 E34’s produced, mostly at BMW’s Dingolfing plant.

Image credit: bmwnews.it

The right car at the right moment, the E34 refined the mid-sized BMW offering to a class-leading pitch. So much so that today’s evolution of 5-er plays second-fiddle to nobody. Yet as competent and class-leading as the current trinket-laden G30 may be, it’s difficult to escape the notion that the 5-Series has lost its way. As E34’s defining characteristics continue to cast the deepest of shadows, surely the time is ripe for a truly neue Five?

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Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

18 thoughts on “Five in Time”

  1. Please note that at the time of the E34’s production start there were no four cylinder versions.
    Initially you could buy a 520 or 525 with the small M20 two valve engine or a 530 or 535 with the big M30 six where the 520 with 125 hp was not exactly what you’d call a fast car.
    When the M50 small four valve engines appeared the 530 was dropped in favour of the 525 and the 535 was replaced by the new V8, much to the disappointment of many a fan of the old six. The 535 in particular had a fascinating ‘steel fist in a velvet glove’ character that couldn’t be matched by the small and revvy new V8.
    The 518 appeared more than a year after the E34’s presentation as the spiritual predecessor of today’s special order only ‘Behördenversion’ with reduced power and top speed so the cars can use T rated tyres.
    Originally the E34 had interior fittings verging on the primitive particularly on low level 520 versions. Early 520s had no cloth inserts in the door trim, manual windows all round and weren’t even fitted with chrome inner door handles.
    The most important feature of the E34 was that shifted BMW’s sales focus from the Three to the Five to finally match Mercedes where the E always was the biggest money spinner. It also helped to kick off the company car lease contract boom for these vehicles.

  2. There seems to have been quite a bit of hand-wringing regarding the use of four cylinder engines at the Vierzylinder. It was reported that Eberhard von Kuenheim himself would’ve preferred BMW to focus on straight six engines for anything but the most entry level models as early as the 1970s, with Radermacher being among the most vocal opponents of this idea. The E39 Five actually was marketed as a truly ‘premium’, straight six and V8 only model – the four cylinder 520d was launched five years into this Five’s production life.

    The E34 Touring is one of the earliest examples of the Reitzle policy of ‘den Ofen warm halten’ (‘keeping the oven warm’), by which he meant the spread introduction of new variants, which was also intended to lessen the impact of declining interest in the established rest of the range.

    Dave: Truly high-spec E34s (with automatic gearboxes, leather seats, etc) were very rare in Germany, certainly pre-facelift. It was seen as a car that didn’t rely on a sense of luxury to exude an air of quality. That trait was introduced with the E39, which was much more of a ‘small Siebener’ than the ’34 ever was.

    1. Into the Nineties, German cars with anything other than basic equipment levels were very rare in general. You at best got central locking and a manual unroof, but no more. Electric windows were for French or Italian small cars only but not for German luxury products.
      Electric windows and climate control got popular only from the mid-Nineties.

      A neighbour got one of the first four valve 525s as a company car with M pack, including BBS cross spoke wheels, endlessly adjustable seats, automatic air con, electric windows all round and a C net phone occupying half the boot. This car was eye wateringly expensive at that time but its sense of well being in the interior was easily beaten by my Alfa. This car also was seriously fast for the time. You just had to thrash the living daylight out of it when its harsh metallic sound made a big contrast to the old big sixes which delivered the same or better performance utterly effortlessly.

      One of my unforgettable memories is a co-drive in an E34 M5 Mk1 on the (at that time still largely unrestricted) A8 from Ulm to Stuttgart. On a warm summer evening that distance was covered in about 45 minutes – if you know that road, you know that the driver really knew how to make that heavy car dance (dead flies on side windows included).

  3. This was where the 5 Series peaked in my opinion. The e39 never felt as solid or special as the e34. I think it was also the sharpest looking, although I do have a soft spot for an early e12 in the right colour. I had an m50 engined Touring model with the optional twin sunroofs. It was a truly lovely car that was perfect for long fast journeys.

    1. Lack of perceived or real solidity is a complaint often addressed at the E39 and even more so at the E36. BMW’s workmanship was at its best with the E30 and E34. An E34 M5 is all you’ll ever need and will last a lifetime.

    2. Having run neither car over a longer period of time, I cannot comment on the ‘real’ quality of either, but in terms of ‘perceived’ quality, I’d rank the E38/39/46 at the very top of the list. Not only did these cars feel highly sophisticated, but they also felt far more expensive and ‘precision engineered’ than their contemporaries from Untertürkheim, SIndelfingen and Sebaldsbrück.

  4. In Sweden there’s a tax bracket that is very favourable for company cars, cars over that bracket becomes prohibitively expensive. It’s basically a game of screwing the state, as the leasee wants as much bang as possible for their bucks. Volvo has to this day company lease specials that are optioned with the sole purpose to fit certain brackets. However, try a premium brand and that premium takes away much of the leverage leaving room only for the most basic poverty spec. That’s why the 518 with no options and manual everything became the most common E34 at the time in Sweden. Because middle management saw more status in driving around in a poverty spec 518 than a fully optioned Volvo, and for snob appeal there was always the option of badge delete.

  5. The e39 was lovely when you had a new or well cared for example but they can feel quite “baggy” when they get old. They just never felt like they had the same debth of quality as the e34 to me. I also used to own an e30 325 Touring which I loved. It was a very well made car also, but you could see the difference in quality between it and the e34 in things like interior trim. The e36, especially early examples, had interior quality issues but they were improved early on and a good e36 is a fine car. It’s certainly a much nicer car than an e46.
    As a car for every occasion my choice would be an early M5 Touring with the “Throwing Star” wheels.

    1. Even my end of days E36 had a glovebox lid which looked as if it was meant for another car. The dashboard and instrument panel was markedly inferior to the E30 carry-over in the supposedly cost-cut Compact, which was an enjoyable drive even in the unfairly maligned 318tds form.

      On the M40/M43 matter, the belt cam drive M40 was an abomination, but BMW acted quickly and the M43 (chain cam drive, roller cam followers) was a decent, if unambitious unit. Despite having only two valves per cylinder, it was much nicer to drive behind than the 20V Audi four, or the Rover K series. Almost as good as the contemporary Ford Zetec 1.8, in fact.

    2. I would tend to agree with you on the ill fitting glove box lid. My ’93 318is was similar. I’ve never tried the the m43 engine but the m40 was indeed awful. The twin cam m42 was a lovely engine. It needed to be revved but that was no hardship really as it was so sweet. I really liked my early e36 318is and miss it greatly.

    3. I forgot to mention that the fitment of the door cards on my early e36 was comically bad, but I did notice they did seem to fit much better on a ’98 model that a friend owned at the same time. This issue was obviously brought to BMW’s attention..

  6. Was a regular driver and passenger in an e34 518. To describe it as sparse would be generous and performance was at best lacklustre. However what really bugged me about it was the cramped interior. I never really sat in the back but in either front seat there was just enough legroom. It was impossible to find a comfortable way to sit as you had to slightly tilt your head to not have it firmly pressed into the headlining.

    1. One of the 518’s biggest faults was its M40/43 engine which always sounded like an old oil drum filled with rusty nails and kicked down a staircase. Hardly inspiring for a car that heavily relied on six cylinder comfort and power.

  7. There is reason to make a serious case for the E34 being the sweet spot of Fünfer generations. While the E39 is revered as the last of the Luthe-line and was perhaps more refined – some said too refined, the E60 too polarising (and its interior was a disgrace), while F10 was perhaps too anodyne and remote and the less said about G30 the better.

    What about the earlier cars? The E12 was nice, if a little wayward in its handling, while E28, while retaining the classic shape (arguably dated even upon introduction) was simply a very pleasant motor car – in six cylinder form at least, but not what one would call commodious.

    It’s worth restating, by the way – a BMW – almost any BMW only really makes sense with a petrol in-line six up front. Those entry level fours were not worth the price of entry in my view.

    One could also make a case for BMW having no real idea of how their cars should look, relying on a succession of Italian designers, Michelotti, Giugiaro, Gandini and Spada to frame their aesthetic for them – at least until a certain American happened along anyway…

  8. Great article. I’ve just posted to my FB page. As good as the E39 was, it’s styling seemed a step back

  9. I well remember the debut of the third generation. I thought it a masterpiece, and still do. For me, it remains the apotheosis of the 5 Series.

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