Classic Road Test: 1972 BMW 520

During his short stint as a motoring technical editor-at-large, legendary motoring correspondent Archie Vicar wrote for the Whitchurch Advertiser & Bugle. This appears to be a transcript of a review of the BMW 520 from September 1972 entitled “Another new car from BMW”.

1972 BMW “520” – Autocar

(Sept. 22, 1972. Original photos by Douglas Land-Windmanure (sic.). Due to abrasion and scuffing of the originals, stock photos have been used).

As Rolls-Royce like to say of their engines’ power output, English engineering is never less than adequate. If you want something safe and solid, Ford and Vauxhall have some quite good cars for you: the indomitable Granada 3000 and the fine Ventora; Triumph offer the notably louche and brash 2500 while Rover can sell you a 3500 with its innovative and rust-prone body engineering.

Not to mention BMC, of course, with their fine and ever-improving Wolseley range. Why would I say all of this? It is by way of underlining the superfluity of German-manufacturer BMW’s new entrant to the medium-sized executive car market, the oddly-named “520”.

Few of the old 2000 found takers here and so it seems that BMW wants to correct that car’s failings and improve the sales tally. Maybe in so doing they can attract business from Vauxhall and Ford too and perhaps sell a few hundred more cars. It’s small beer and won’t trouble the main players in the volume market. So, we ask is the 520 cutting the butter nonetheless?

1972 BMW engine

Let’s compare! The engine capacity of the 520 is much the same as the outgoing 2000, with Stromberg carburetors shoveling the juice; compression ratio jumps from 8.5 to 9.0 while the torque goes up from 100 to 115 bhp at 5800 rpm. The final drive is exactly the same…. And without wanting to wear out the good readers of the Whitchurch Advertiser & Bugle .. (continued on page 13)

1972 BMW 520

(continued from p. 4)

I shall avoid going further. The gist of it is that while Austin, Hillman and Rover and others are working hard to innovate in these increasingly competitive times, BMW is sitting on its single 2000-shaped laurel and merely (continued on page 14)

(continued from p. 13) making incremental changes to an already out-dated design. (continued on page 18)

(continued from p. 14) In order to appraise the relative merits of the 520 I took the car on an extended tour, starting at BMW’s London offices and ending 2400 miles later, a little short of BMW’s proving ground in Bavaria (I will go into detail about the car’s woeful on-the-limit handling below).

The first thing on my mind concerned BMW´s suspension choice. This being BMW, a firm of inveterate conservatives if ever there was one, the front set-up is the same as the old set-up! That means McPherson struts and it looks like they were inspired by the 2500 cars, since the struts are angled rearwards by an apostolic number of degrees. Supposedly the effect of this is to improve the castor angle and attain acceptable steering behaviour.

For the layman, this means that the car tends to revert to straight-ahead when the tiller is left unmolested (as when one is using both hands to light a troublesome cigar – you need to stuff a match into the end if the tobacco is rolled too tightly, for instance, or if you need to pack some Latakia into your briar) and it means that when the steering is activated there’s a usefully non-linear steering output. Ask Citroën about this, or indeed my former editor at the High Wycombe Times who is still getting letters from Slough about their damaged car!

By the time we had reached Paris I had come to terms with the front suspension. It’s not that different than that which Ford used to do: there’s a single lower link and and a trailing strut which is one with part of the anti-roll bar. All of this is attached to a sub-frame along with the main engine mountings.

Paris challenged the BMW’s suspension – the wretched lumpy asphalt and awful pavé made my dentures rattle. Wolseley and Simca are comparably better in this regard. BMW seem to have a hidden agenda with the 520, hinting it is some manner of sports car though the door count clearly says saloon. Maybe something got lost on the way from Bavarian to English!!

Having collected a few cigars from S.J Dupont I pointed the nose of the car (it’s very slanted!) towards the south, meaning to make it to Madrid after three days of hard charging. First stop, Bordeaux.

The ashtray is too small meaning I had to empty it as often as the car needed refuelling, which is often. 15 gallons don’t take you far when you are averaging 85 mph on the autoroute and getting through forty-three Gauloise a day. I ran out of Craven “A” in Paris but by good fortune the British consul in Bilbao had a supply waiting for us when we reached there.  On the way, the rear suspension made its presence felt. It’s a complicated set-up. BMW have semi-trailing arms mounted on an entirely new design of subframe. Goodness me, what happened in Munich to let that happen?

The hinge points are set up so as to be enclosed in the lattices of the frame and not above. Furthermore, to save space and make it harder to remove for maintenance, the prop shaft shoots through the frame instead of going over it as on the old 2000. It’s heavier and more complex and that goes some way to explaining the lardy, lazy nature of the 520 along with its painfully high price. That cost has to be met and it means the BMW lacks the equipment of even the most Spartan car from Ford or Vauxhall.

Land-Windermere knew a good spot in Hendaye so we stopped there for the third night (hence the lovely photos and the lovely models draped over the car!) and the meal proved to be most acceptable. Say what you like about the French, their suspect cars and fish-scented hotels, the food is often not bad! I had steak and chips and jolly good they were too!

After some drama at the Spanish border concerning the car (something to do with the vehicle identification number), I squeezed the BMW into the land of Valencia oranges, sherry and sardines. Land-Windermere wasn’t so lucky but as he had taken the requisite six photos I left him to return to Blighty under his own steam, watched closely by the Spanish copper who was alert enough to notice Land-Windermere had brought his wife’s passport and not his own. The sozzled chap at customs didn’t notice that at Calais!

Most drivers will hate the (continued on p. 32)

(continued from p. 14) fussy appearance of the door (continued on p.9 of the Gardening Supplement)

Due to vibration damage, the rest of the original is illegible.


Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

50 thoughts on “Classic Road Test: 1972 BMW 520”

  1. Mr. Vicar was wrong with his statements about the E21’s front suspension.
    As can clearly be seen in the picture the front anti roll bar is not used as a stressed member of the suspension which has a separate trailing arm element that’s set up to provide the necessary degree of longitudinal elasticity.

    By definition this is not a McPherson design.

    1. Lovely picture diagram, Dave. I love that kind of thing. Do you by any chance have a similar one for the Ford Consul Mark II? I used to wonder at that setup from the dark pit of the local rural garage on the main road where my father’s 1959 used to get its oil changes and lube. Made friends with the owner as a young car nut, and almost a decade later he’d let me use the pit to change my old Volvo’s oil and filter and give it a grease. He approved of the 544, said it reminded him of ’40s Buicks underneath. I was able to show him how it really wasn’t – no torque tube drive but an almost hidden driveshaft, boxed in by welded frame bodywork. He used to charge me a quarter for the use of the pit, two bob, and we’d have a fine old chat afterwards, reminiscing on what was by then old times. He maintained a pristine 1925 Marmon, all polished deep green, yellow pinstriping, bright red wheels, brass and giant castings, but refused to do major mechanical work on current cars because the locals were too poor to pay, as he found out to his detriment. Light service work was it, and he pretended he wasn’t competent for more, so that the wheedlers looking to con a cheap repair from an apparent country rube went away.

      The Consul had real Mac struts I think, as did my Mum’s 1960 Anglia. However, I could never work out the function of the angled light trailing arms from the front that seemed to be clipped/riveted on each side to the anti-roll bar just before it went into the cast iron main lateral links. Seemed as though the fore-aft location was helped by those spindly trailing links, but they disappeared forrard into the bodywork gubbins. Solid beast that Consul, unlike the Anglebox, but not in any way nippy. It was just a solid old bus that made the new 1960 Detroit Ford Falcon look as though it were made from tissue paper. And the Falcon was the basis of the Mustang, a true rustbucket, just four years later. Not having the courage of their Mac strut convictions in England, the front suspension was a nasty conconction with the coil spring/damper mounted on the top non-wishbone arm so that the uncovered damper shaft protruded into the engine compartment, just perfect for non-corrosion control. Cheap ‘n nasty design.

    2. Are you talking about Item 11 on the image?
      I can´t say anything about Vicar´s text – all I did was “transcribe” it. There´s a possibility the editor at the newspaper messed it up.

    3. Item 11 in the picture is the anti roll bar, item 9 is the trailing arm which is independent from but connected to item 8 the wishbone. It is clearly visible that the anti roll bar does not have any locating function for the hub carrier.

    4. Archie Vicar was not the only one confused. Autocar wrote “At first sight the suspension layout looks like the one BMW have always used: MacPherson struts at the front and semi-trailing arms behind” (21 September 1972, p.38)

  2. Great to have Archie back, putting those funny foreign cars firmly in their place (which was in the wrong, mainly!)

    Regarding the original E12 generation 5 Series, wasn’t it odd the way the kidney grille dipped behind the bumper? BMW facelifted the car in 1976, adding a raised centre section to the bonnet which allowed the kidneys to be seen properly:

    I remember when the 5 Series was launched in late 1972, there was a story doing the rounds that the car was going to be called ‘Olympic’ in honour of the Munich games, but the terrorist atrocity that took place there put paid to that. I wonder if it was true?

    1. The grille isn´t really a grille at all. It´s very post-modern. It´s a representation of the earlier BMW grilles set in a larger area that is the functioning aperture for taking in air. Well spotted about the oddness of the 1972 version. It looks like the bumper was put on after the kidney forms had been placed. If you don´t know what the shape really looks like it resembles a big M (for Munich?)

    2. It begs the question of why they didn’t simply use a shallower kidney grille instead. Incidentally, I always liked the way the rear bumper smoothly transitioned into the side rubbing strip on the E12:

      Another interesting* (safety related, presumably) change they made when they facelifted the E12 was to move fuel filler from beside the rear number plate to the rear wing. Here’s the original arrangement:

      And the facelifted version:

      * I’m easily interested…

    3. The early Fives remind me a little of the Rolls Silver Shadow in that the early Shadows suffered from a slightly weak stance, with the road wheels notably inset from the body edges. Somewhere along the way – perhaps when RR engineers got over their aversion to radial tyres – but I would posit it to be some time during the early ’70s, the Shadow’s stance was improved notably.

      Similarly, with some quite subtle changes, the ’76 fünfer was tightened up and (in my view) looked so much the better for it.

    4. Hi Richard, Daniel

      The disapearing kidney grille is the first thing I noticed today upon laying my eyes on the car. Strange because BMWs that were sold before and after this car had the kidney grille in full view.

  3. Now that you’ve brought that to our attention Daniel the question is; why didn’t they start with a smaller kidney? Great to read another road test from Archie, does wonders for morale at the moment.

    1. Actually, I came across a sketch of a coupé version of the E12 that had a lowered central section in the bumper, to reveal the kidneys in full. (Unfortunately, I can’t seem to copy or share the image.) My guess is that is what was originally intended for the saloon too, but it was changed late in the design process to a straight bar.

    2. Here’s the sketch I mentioned above of an E12 coupé with a step in the bumper to clear the kidneys:

    3. Interestingly*, the 1970 Garmisch had a gap in the bumper for the grille, so perhaps that was considered, too, at some point?

      * possibly

    4. Thanks for the Garmisch video link. That proved to be a real delight. They spent big on that: a hired helicopter and a location shoot in what looks like the Alps. I have to say that apart from the grille (which I am unsure about) the rest of the car is lovely, packed with good details. The craftsmanship is exquisite and I love the trop of the L-shaped dashboard marked out in white. It has an oddly mounted radio and no ashtray (that I can see). If I was humongously rich I´d be very interested in a car like that. I notice that for the most part custom cars are merely more crass versions of the stuff sold in the dealers (with exceptions). The bodyside treatment of the Garmisch avoids the crease at the base of the C-pillar that you see on the 520. I wonder why they did that on the production version. It seems more contemporary, I suppose and not as spare the 1972 car which seems more like a development of 60s modelling.

    5. Here is a nice article and a cheerful studio walk-around (video) from Auto Motor Und Sport. The interior colours were unknown from the black and white photos so BMW spoke to Gandini who said they were dark brown and beige. The grill and the brightwork were made from chromed brass. This car must have cost at least a million euros to do. Worth every penny. Take a look at the rear windscreen cover, which must have been a nightmare to model and mill.

  4. Is this a U.S version ? Indicator lamps as attractive as verrucas in my opinion. Did they have to be that big by law ?

    1. Combined indicators and side marker lamps, I would guess. Interestingly, early European prototypes had the indicators in the same position:

      As did the 1968 E3 Generation 2500:

      Perhaps the E12 was originally intended to feature these indicators, rather than the under-bumper items fitted to the production European spec cars?

    2. One thing the E12 was always accused of was that it looked too similar to the E3. Maybe they chose the bumper mounted indicators to differentiate it from the larger car.

  5. All hail the Vicar’s return; as you say, it’s quite some relief. But I’m glad the review ended where it did. In this heat, sound judgment can be hard to define. Thus my only defence being the high temperatures, this, I am sure will be go down like the lead balloon…or hot, spicy soup

    1. Hi Andrew. I take it that your image refers to the forthcoming 5 Series facelift. I wonder what horrors await us?

    1. I like the headlight’s shape on that big picture in blue but I’am not a fan of the D-shaped aperture with silver surround in the front bumper of some versions above.

    1. Am I missing something, or is that a complete non-sequitur?

      I’ll give it some thought, nevertheless, as I like a challenge!

    2. Hello NRJ,

      I’d suggest Volkswagen Golf Cabriolet, or Volkswagen Karmann Ghia. Do they qualify?

    3. Bentley Continental Flying Spur

      Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme Classic

      Cadillac Fleetwood Sixty Special

    4. Lots of Ford ones:

      Ford Consul Cortina

      Ford Cortina Lotus

      Ford Consul Classic

      Ford Consul Capri

      Ford Zodiac Executive

    5. Coupe De Ville?

      I think BMW strove to make E12 appear cruder, less voluptuous, cheaper looking, and less desirable than E3. Even the glass looks flatter, seems as if they wanted E12 to appear to fit exactly between the Neue Klass (2002) and E3. This reminds me of the differences in appearance between Luthe’s K70 and Ro80, or Golf Mk1/Scirocco.

      I’ve read that E9 (CS coupe) is said to have been very expensive to make, and doesn’t it look the part? However, in the case of E3/E12 it seems the downmarket look was more a marketing choice than a technical one. Can anyone lend more insight to this observation?

    6. Hi Charles. I would guess that NRJ means three words for the model name (excluding the marque name) and won’t allow generic descriptors such as coupé, convertible etc. Otherwise, there’s loads.

    7. Thanks, Daniel. I thought that seemed a bit easy.

      I’ll go with Range Rover Sport Autobiography. I’m sure some van names are quite long.

    8. Actually, I’m still wrong with the Range Rover example. Dur. It’s been a long day.

    9. Charles, are you drunk ? We’ve already explained the brand name is excluded so Range Rover is out. Autobiography sounds like a special edition so that would only leave Sport as the name of the car. Not even 2 words, let alone 3.

      Thanks for playing 😀

    1. Oh wow I didn’t expect so many answers. Charles, 10/10 for effort but Daniel was right when he said that the brand name is excluded, it had to be just the car’s name, excluding trim level names, engine displacement, etc…..
      Myself I only thought of Chrysler’s Town and Country which was always a strange name for me as it’s almost a sentence. Coupé de Ville works, so well done gooddog, we’ll send you a bone by post.

      Thank you all for all the other examples, I thought the Town and Country would be the only one but you proved me wrong.

    2. Hi Freerk,

      I’ve investigated your entry and this is what I’ve painstakingly uncovered (I read wikipedia really):

      “The Plymouth Superbird was a highly modified, short-lived version of the Plymouth Road Runner”

      So yes I guess that works, well done.

    1. No the Polo doesn’t work. I’am too tired to investigate the AMC entry. The game is closed now anyway Charles and you’ve used up your 10 chances. Again thank you for playing. Please go to bed.

    2. You can’t close the competition NRJ, I’ve only just arrived at DTW for my daily fix!

      Alfa Romeo Alfa 33 Boxer 4c ?

      I’ll heed your instruction and go to bed now…..

  6. After reading some of the prior transcripts of Vicar’s work to much amusement, I wondered on wether he ever road-tested anything from Stuttgart-Untertürkheim?
    He was in good terms with Rudolf Uhlenhaut if I recall correctly, so he surely must have offered press cars

  7. Hi Adrian,

    Sorry for being late replying. I’ve created the game so I close it whenever I want. Still, I’ll take your entry because I’am nice. But I think it’s not valid, wouldn’t the name of the car just be ’33’ in your example ?

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