Half a century ago, BMW quietly launched its first 5 Series. The automotive world did not realise what a seminal car it would become.
The trio of German so-called ‘premium’ automakers like to represent themselves as operating at the cutting edge of automotive engineering, technology and design. Hence, instead of using whimsical or ephemeral names for their cars, they instead identify them with scientific precision, using alphabetic and/or numerical model designations that are entirely logical in their construction and impossible to confuse(1).
In earlier times, the business of model nomenclature was much more straightforward. Smaller cars had smaller engines and vise-versa, so the engine capacity alone was often enough to distinguish between different models. When BMW introduced its ‘Neue Klasse’ mid-sized saloon in 1962, it was simply called the 1500. Larger-engined versions followed and these were duly called 1600, 1800 and 2000. However, when BMW introduced a range of smaller saloons using the same engines, they had to replace the last zero with the number two to distinguish them from the existing models. Hence, the 2000 was a mid-sized four-door saloon with a two-litre engine, while the 2002 was a smaller two-door saloon with the same power unit, which was somewhat counter-intuitive.
The replacement for the Neue Klasse models was widely expected to carry the ‘04’ suffix. Scoop pictures of the car published in the July 1972 issue of Car Magazine dubbed the prototype ‘2004’. Back in Munich, however, BMW realised that this game of numerical leapfrog would soon run out of road, so they decided to start again. The new mid-line saloon would be known simply as the ‘5 Series’ and would be badged with a three-digit number, beginning with five and followed by the engine capacity expressed in decilitres. This was entirely logical and gave ample room either side of the 5 for future smaller or larger models. For many years to follow, the 3, 5 and 7 Series saloons would form the bedrock of the company’s range(2).
There is, however, a tragic twist to this tale. The first 5 Series, known internally as the E12-generation model, was launched in October 1972, in the wake of the Munich Olympic Games, which took place in August and September of that year. According to some reports, BMW had hoped to celebrate (and, no doubt, capitalise upon) what was expected to be a great local and national success and source of pride by applying the ‘Olympic’ suffix to the new model’s numerical designation. However, the massacre of eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team and death of a West German policeman in a terrorist kidnapping by the Palestinian Black September group cast a pall over the games, so the idea was quietly dropped.
The design of the new 5 Series was attributed to Paul Bracq. However, as Christopher Butt points out in the comments below, Bracq arrived at BMW just two years before its launch, so it is likely to have been well advanced by then. In any event, the design was overseen by Wilhelm Hofmeister, with input from Bertone’s Marcello Gandini. It was less an evolution of the design theme of its decade-old predecessor, but more a downsizing of BMW’s 1968 E3-generation ‘New Six’ 2500 large saloon.
All the signature BMW elements were maintained: the shark-nose double-kidney grille with twin headlamps, the airy glasshouse and the Hofmeister kink in the C-pillar. A new and neat element was a lower bodyside rubbing strip that aligned with the wrap-around bumpers across the wheel arches, visually lowering and lengthening the car. The clamshell bonnet remained but, unlike the Neue Klasse, the boot lid was now of a conventional design. One slightly curious aspect of the front end was that the bottom of the BMW twin-kidney grille was hidden behind the front bumper, giving it a truncated appearance.
The interior featured a new style dashboard that would become a BMW hallmark. It had four dials (two large, flanked by two smaller ones for fuel and temperature) recessed under a cowl in front of the driver, and a vertical centre console(3). The white-on-black instruments were of exemplary clarity, but the 5 Series did not have a tachometer fitted as standard, the right-hand large dial being occupied by a quartz clock. The supportive seats were upholstered in hard-wearing velvet cloth and the interior trim was of high quality, if somewhat austere. It was enlivened by woodgrain(4) inserts in the dashboard and door cards.
While undoubtedly a handsome and distinguished looking car, some commentators expressed disappointment that the new 5 Series was not a more radical step forward, particularly after the Bertone 2200ti Garmisch Concept, a two-door mid-size coupé unveiled at the 1970 Geneva motor show. This was a razor-sharp design with faired-in twin rectangular headlights and a new, twin-hexagonal expression of the BMW kidney grille.
The new 5 Series had a wheelbase of 2,636mm (103¾”) and overall length of 4,620mm (182”). At launch, it was available with only one engine, a 1,990cc SOHC straight-four unit that had been carried over from its predecessor, albeit with a modified cylinder head to improve combustion efficiency and power output. The engine was offered in two forms, one fitted with twin Stromberg carburettors which produced 114bhp (85kW) and another fitted with Kugelfischer fuel injection which produced 129bhp (96kW). The injected model was designated 520i.
Transmission was via a four-speed manual gearbox or three-speed automatic. Suspension was all-independent, with MacPherson struts at the front and trailing arms and coil springs at the rear. Brakes were discs front and drums at the rear. The unassisted steering had a slightly cumbersome 3.7 turns from lock-to lock for a turning circle of 10.4m (34ft).
Car Magazine had its first opportunity to test the 520 in RHD form on British soil in the summer of 1973 and it was pitched against the Citroën DS23 and NSU RO80. The results of this ‘Giant Test’ were published in the July issue of the magazine. The opening comments were an expression of alarm that, thanks to the weakness of Sterling, each of these cars cost in the region of £3,000, a lot of money for “two litres(sic) and four cylinders or, in the case of the NSU, for a journey into the partly unknown.”
In design terms, the 5 Series was “a slightly scaled down [BMW] three-litre in size and not spectacularly different from it aesthetically.” If the Citroën and NSU were revolutionary designs, then the BMW was “the counter-revolutionary…secure stylistically although it fails to turn over a single sod of the firm ground on which it stands.”
The BMW’s engine sat between the other two for both performance and refinement. It had a “low first gear that ensures ample acceleration from rest, and enough mph per 1000rpm [in top] to provide 100mph cruising.” However, it “stumbled badly by being unexpectedly noisy in the zone between 4000 and 5000rpm – right where the moderately law-abiding British motorist will want to plant the tachometer needle.”
Dynamically, the BMW was praised for steering that was “light and quite accurate with the car maintaining a substantially neutral attitude while cornering” which “imparts a feeling of security that can only be appreciated when the car is really hurled at corners.” That said, it suffered in crosswinds, when it “moves around far too much for comfort.” Overall, however, “Only those without a soul – or £3,000 – could fail to be impressed by the 520’s substantial grip on terra firma and its extremely good handling.”
Ride comfort was “not exceptional, merely very good.” Engine and wind noise were “obtrusive at high speeds” but road noise was “a conspicuous absentee.” Seats were “firm, comfortable [but] not very well shaped…so that one is left free to wobble about.” The instrumentation was “superbly arranged but reveals no more than road and engine speeds, fuel content and engine coolant temperature.” The gearchange “works well enough but is still not as positive as one could reasonably want.”
In conclusion, the BMW won the group test, but with some reservations: “the steering [at parking speeds] is too heavy, the engine is not specially exciting nor is the everyday performance. Handling and roadholding are tremendously good even if crosswind stability is not; it lacks the character of the other two but makes up for that by being the best all-rounder if you like down the middle motoring.”
This might have been a less than euphoric verdict, but BMW was only getting started with the 5 Series, which had much more potential to exploit, as we shall see in Part Two of this series.
(1) Or, at least, that was the intention. On more than one occasion and most recently in 2014, Mercedes-Benz had to employ a figurative machete to disentangle itself from the incoherent alphanumeric jungle in which it had become trapped. The revised nomenclature was an improvement but was still not wholly logical or consistent.
(2) Although BMW has occasionally played fast and loose with the engine capacity part of the model designation.
(3) Unlike later BMW models, this was symmetrical and not angled towards the driver.
(4) I have been unable to ascertain whether these were real or simulated wood veneer.