Der Fünfer (Part Two)

Concluding the story of the BMW E12-generation 5 Series.

Image: autoevolution

The new 5 Series received a generally positive if not euphoric reception from the automotive press. With its 2-litre four-cylinder engine, it was not powerful enough, even in fuel-injected form, to exploit fully the capabilities of its chassis, and the engine itself was somewhat lacking in refinement when pushed hard.

BMW answered these criticisms in 1973 with the introduction of the 525. This was fitted with a straight-six SOHC engine with a capacity of 2,494cc which produced maximum power of 143bhp (107kW). Stiffened front springs and a thicker anti-roll bar were fitted to counter the extra weight of the engine. The 525 was fitted with disc brakes on all four wheels. Power steering and a limited-slip differential were now on the options list. Badging apart, the only external identifier for the new model was a subtly different bonnet: the 525 had a slightly raised centre section instead of the slightly indented section on the 520.

Car Magazine published its first impressions of the 525 in October 1973 and these were very positive: “the sheer performance was predictable, but the smoothness, flexibility and sweetness of [the] package was more of a surprise. It will potter along at very low speeds in top, rarely needs anything lower than third once on the move and will storm to over 120mph with beguiling ease.” The reviewer went on to say that “This is not a busy BMW like the 520 and 520i. It performs with great ease and can turn in some startling acceleration figures when required.”

The heavier, more powerful engine caused some issues with wheelspin, however, affecting both performance and handling: “it was even possible to get a pretty substantial cheep from the rear wheels when going from second to third gears.” When cornering hard, “the inside wheel would lift and chew its rubber off with very little provocation.” The reviewer suggested that the limited-slip differential, not fitted to the test car, would likely mitigate this issue. The reviewer concluded that the 525 was “a remarkably good car that is going to suit a lot of people even as it stands, but a lot more will like it if the inner wheel lifting problem can be overcome gracefully.”

Image: BMW Group

When the magazine next tested the 525, it pitched it against the Jaguar XJ6 and NSU Ro80 in a Giant Test, published in the August 1974 issue. There was no mention of wheelspin with the 525. In fact, it was rated “the best handler of the three and we believe it has the best roadholding. There mightn’t be much between it and the Jaguar in the dry, but the BMW has a clear edge in the wet.” There was no indication as to whether or not the test car was fitted with a limited-slip differential, but one might assume that this was the case.

BMW expanded the 5-Series range in both directions in 1974, adding an entry-level 518, a 528 and range-topping 533i. The 518 was powered by a 1,773cc version of BMW’s M10 inline-four engine fitted to the 520. It produced maximum power of 89bhp (66kW). The 528 was powered by a 2,788cc version of the M30 inline-six, producing 162bhp (121kW). The range-topping 533i was powered by a 3,210cc(1) fuel-injected version of the same engine, which produced maximum power of 197bhp (147kW).

There was a further engine addition to the line-up in 1975, albeit for export markets only. A 2,986cc version of the M30 inline-six was added. This was exported to South Africa in carburettor form producing 178bhp (132kW) where it was badged 530, and to the United States(2) in fuel-injected form producing 197bhp (147kW) where it was badged 530i. On the 520i, the Kugelfischer fuel-injection was replaced by the Bosch K-Jetronic system. This actually caused a slight drop in maximum power output to 123bhp (92kW).

The 5 Series was given a subtle facelift in 1976, overseen by Claus Luthe. The most obvious change was that the leading edge of the bonnet now had a raised centre section to accommodate the double-kidney grille(6), which no longer dipped behind the front bumper. Both four and six-cylinder versions now shared the same bonnet. At the rear, there were enlarged light clusters and the fuel filler was moved from the rear panel to the right-hand rear wing. New, larger door mirrors were now mounted on a sail panel in the corner of the window rather than on the door skin.

Image: autoevolution

In 1977, the 520 received a 1,991cc M30 inline-six in place of the M10 four-cylinder unit and was renamed 520/6. The new engine produced maximum power of 121bhp (90kW). A year later, the 528 was replaced by the 528i, using Bosch L-Jetronic fuel-injection and producing maximum power of 181bhp (135kW).

While there was never an M5 badged high-performance version of the E12-generation 5 Series, the 1980 M535i, built by BMW’s Motorsport division, was one in all but name. The new engine, still a SOHC inline-six, was fitted with Bosch L-Jetronic fuel-injection and tuned to produce maximum power of 215bhp (160kW) and torque of 220 lb ft (310Nm).

The engine was mated to a five-speed Getrag manual gearbox with first gear offset to the left and the other four in an H-pattern. BMW claimed a 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of 7.4 seconds and a top speed of 140mph (226km/h). External modifications were very discreet, just a deeper front air-dam and a rubber spoiler on the boot lid. Inside, it was equipped with individual Recaro bucket seats front and rear, making it a strict four-seater.

Image: classicandsportscars.coml

Car Magazine’s Georg Kacher drove the new model and reported his findings in the January 1980 issue. Kacher was hugely impressed by the M535i, describing it as “just plain fast, and it covers long distances quickly and effortlessly thanks to the beautiful blend of steering, brakes and suspension.” He thought that “the steering is perhaps the biggest advance over the lesser models” being “extremely precise and quick.” The handling was “reassuringly taut instead of slightly nervous” and the brakes were “beyond criticism; four ventilated discs get exactly as much servo assistance as they need.”

On fast secondary roads The M535i was “at its best; fast, safe and – believe it or not – sufficiently comfortable” and it “just goes where you point it.” It was safe because “long before the car actually lets go, it will warn the driver; first the steering gets slightly lighter as more power is applied to the rear wheels, then you have to reduce the lock as the M535i swings from neutral to a progressive oversteer [so] there is enough time for easy and smooth correction at the wheel.”

There were some minor niggles concerning wind noise and the efficiency of the interior heating and ventilation system, but the car was a real tour de force. It might have taken eight years(3) to arrive, but the M535i really cemented BMW’s reputation as a builder of beautifully handling sport saloons. The only disappointment for buyers in the British Isles was that it was not available in RHD.

Over a nine-year production run, just short of 700,000 E12-generation 5 Series were built in Munich and Dingolfing(4) and another 23,000 in South Africa, where the model remained in production until 1984. It was a hard act to follow and when BMW replaced it in 1981, the E28-generation successor was, at first glance a very cautious update which looked more like a heavy facelift than the wholly new model it was.

Same difference? E28 series BMW 5 Series. Image: classic and sportscar

In any event, the new model built on the E12’s success and we have now reached the seventh iteration of the 5 Series, the 2016 G30-generation model. Of course, the proliferation of SUVs, crossovers and, more recently, EVs in BMWs model range means that the 5 Series is no longer nearly as important to the company’s image and success.

(1) It should logically have been badged 532i but BMW preferred to round up in this case.

(2) BMW had a number of early reliability issues with US market E12 cars, mainly due to the modifications required to satisfy federal regulations. The cars were vulnerable to overheating and suffered from warped or cracked cylinder heads, causing expensive warranty (and post-warranty) claims. Which BMW honoured in full.

(3) BMW Motorsport (now renamed BMW M) offered special upgrade packages for E12 models from 1974 on, but the M535i was its first stand-alone model.

(4) A BMW plant in Lower Bavaria opened in September 1973 on the site of the former Glas auto works.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

34 thoughts on “Der Fünfer (Part Two)”

  1. South African 535i s were available in RHD. A friend’s father had one and it was the fastest car I’d been in at the time. But they didn’t have the 4 valve/cylinder 24 valve head so they were never as fast as an M5.

  2. BMW had a strong motorsport presence In South Africa.
    They made a homologation lightweight special E12 535i model. According to video only 7 were made.

    1. The E12 (and E28 ) were rarely used as base for racing cars.
      But some of them were pretty successful – French production car racing champion 1977

    2. I have this copy of Car magazine. The Senator comes across as a pretty decent car. The Monza also received a good reception from Car. I don´t think they´d do this kind of a test today. In the mid´80s the boundaries were more fluid. Perhaps people did cross-shop an Alfa, Opel and BMW. They don´t today.

  3. It was astonishing how BMW managed to push the E12 upmarket despite of the energy crisis of the early Seventies.
    The arrival of the 525 and its M30 engine from the E3 2500 made the E12 the car it should have been from start. At least that was what the press and proud owners said. The small M3o was a phantastic engine with turbine smooth running and for the comparatively small E12 it had enough power.
    The badge in the front grille on the 525 was often called ‘vulgar’ but it slowly became popular to have cars without badges or fit the ‘bavaria’ badge from US market E3s.
    When the 528 arrived the cars often didn’t have badges so we developed a routine of looking under the rear valance for the 528’s twin exhausts.
    A friend was selling Morini motorcycles at that time and he once told me he had a customer just show up ‘in a BMW, you know the one with the twin exhausts’ and just buy a bike from him in cash.
    The 535 mostly was derided for its boy racer looks with the cheap front spoiler and the rubber plank on the boot lid.

    When the E28 arrived BMW was often blamed for having invested the budget for a completely new car on a barely detectable facelift. E28 and E12 are related closely enough that you can fit E28 doors to an E12 with a bit of modification – but not the other way round.

    BMW was very generous when it came to warranty claims from US customers (and not so in their home country). Only shortly before market research in the US had shown that US customers read BMW as ‘British Motor Works’, something BMW didn’t want to be associated with. The result was their IMSA campaign with E9s with ‘Bavarian Motor Works’ stickers on the windscreen

    1. Only shortly before market research in the US had shown that US customers read BMW as ‘British Motor Works’, something BMW didn’t want to be associated with.

      Until 1994. That didn’t go entirely well…

  4. It’s funny that so many reports mention good handling – my memory of 5 Series magazine road tests was that it was always shown oversteering, along with a comment that it was ‘fine in dry conditions, but would catch out the unwary in the wet’ or something similar.

    The journalist would then demonstrate his superior helmsmanship by catching it with a dab of oppo, of course.

    1. Having driven more than a few E12s and E28s in the wet, I can confirm they are just like E3s, E9s, and E21s. Going off the road backwards is likely.

    2. Yes, probably general driving standards were better or more skillful in the ´70s than now, but it has always surprised me that some journalists talked about “good roadholding” and “safe handling” showing a picture of a completely sideways BMW. Even my “modern” Z-axle 328i E36 could be a handful in the wet.

    3. Here’s a test from Car from 1980, pitching (sorry) a BMW 528i against an Alfa Six and a Senator. They said the Alfa was fine if you liked Alfas, the BMW had the best residuals and that the Senator was best all round. They also said that the BMW oversteered rather too easily.

      Five years previously they labelled the BMW ‘crisp and chuckable’ and then two months later ‘the least stable’ of three cars tested.

      Alfa Six - BMW 528i & Opel Senator 3.0 Group Road Test 1980 (1)

    4. Typical ´70s and ´80s BMW magazine test picture.

      Note that its rival isn´t a weedy engined front wheel drive…

    5. One big significant difference between the Alfetta and the 5er was their road manners.
      The Alfa always was confidence inspiring and felt well planted and the BMW (any BMW of that era) in adverse conditions felt as if you tried to ride a shot alligator.

      And that’s before you think of the BMWs’ notorious lack of traction which made many owners living in snow-rich areas put sand bags or concrete blocks in the boot, mostly to not much effect.
      A German child’s rhyme of the Sixties was “der NSU verreckt im Nu, der BMW der steckt im Schnee” – the NSU dies in a flash and a BMW gets stuck in snow.

  5. That E28 5-Series looks so good these days, it can make a grown man weep. The rear view of the facelifted E21 is pretty lovely too. Especially when one compares with the mess of today’s efforts.

  6. Thanks for today’s article, Daniel. A couple of years ago some criminals stole an E12 M535i and used it to ram-raid a jewelry store here in The Netherlands. This used to be Audi territory. anyway, sad to this BMW got damaged badly, especially as it had just been restored.

    1. Why didn’t they nick a contemporary BMW, ideally an SUV? They couldn’t possibly look any worse after being used in a ram-raid…😁

    2. This reminds me of a story from a couple of years ago.
      One of the ultra rare E3 racers had been the victim of an accident when a 40 ton artic hit the trailer on which the E3 was transported from a classic car race and rendered the racer a write-off with a floorpan bent by about 10 centimetres and the whole roof section pushed forward.
      The decision was made to restore the E3 because it was so rare – work took about a year and the racer is alive and kicking with 340 PS.


      If such things are possible this 535 should be repairable, particularly when its owner had the good taste to omit the rubber plank from the bootlid during the restoration.

    3. Stealing a just restored, head-turning M535i E12 to crash it head on against a window shop (in Spain we call that “alunizaje”, a play on words) can only be explained by a certain aversion against its owner…
      At least they didn´t use it to run away; then probably the car would have ended torched.

    4. Using such a classic for a ram-raid is just criminal. In many ways. I suppose it’s easier to steal than a fully alarmed-and-immobilisered-up modern car (though, as Freerk points out, Audis seem more than willing to go along with these thugs).

      As I understand it, repairing a car is often more a matter of cost of materials vs. worth of the car. That’s what makes racing an expensive classic a lot less nerve wracking than it seems: for the really valuable ones, any restauration or repair effort will be covered many times over by the car’s market value, and thus be worthwhile. I don’t know the value of 535s, but repairing it might very well make more economic sense than scrapping it. Aside from emotional value of course.

      The E12 strikes me as just a little more ‘lithe’ than the E28, which makes me like it better. The E28 begins – for me – the trend of a certain ‘heaviness’ prevalent in many BMWs, although you’d probably be equally justified in calling it ‘solidity’. It seems to me the same thing (though not as dramatic) that happened when the Golf went from Mk1 to Mk2.

    5. This particular M535i was delivered new in The Netherlands, judging by its license plate. BMW only sold a handful of these here when new. The good news is that the license plate is still registered, three years after the ram-raid, so I think this car has been restored.

  7. “Using such a classic for a ram-raid is just criminal.”

    Very witty, Tom, even if unintentionally so! 😁

    I know exactly what you mean about the E28 vs the E12, although I would have said “substantial”. I think it’s mainly the higher, squarer tail, although the changes to the C-pillars (body-coloured upright vents instead of the black plastic grilles) also make them look beefier:

    One thing I could never quite take to on the E28 was the thick horizontal chrome bars bisecting the tail lights, which always looked a bit brash and heavy-handed to my eyes. Ditto the off-centre (but not markedly enough to one side) exhaust pipes:

    Only minor criticisms, certainly compared to BMW’s current crimes against good automotive taste.

    1. These are the cars that set my frame of reference for German good design. The last time I saw one in the metal I was reminded how incredibly well-made they are. They really do have a distinct sense of being assemble more thoughtfully from otherwise lovely cars from the mainstream manufacturers. That is just not true today: an Opel or Ford have the same exterior quality as a BMW, not worse and not better.

    2. When BMW moved from E12 to E28, designs were shifting towards more wedge-shaped silhouettes, hence the taller bootline. In addition, it’s worth remembering that the E12 was at the very least based upon a theme set out by Bertone’s Marcello Gandini (albeit how much direct input he had is questionable), whereas the E28 was a wholly in-house job. This perception of visual lightness in the E12 was very much a trait of Gandini’s early 1970s work – certainly his work on saloon designs, before he went full ‘Rainbow’ around mid-decade.

      I always viewed the E28 as the Mark 2 Jag of its era – clearly based on an earlier design, but with very much its own character. It was also the defining sporting saloon of the time – for better or worse.

    3. Thanks Daniel 😉. I typed it and thought “hang on…”

      Excellent points on the E12 to E28 transformation. Those taillights are just a bit ‘meh’, which is not something you want your BMW to evoke. Those exhausts are just… why? Eóin’s point about Gandini – or at least his influence om the E12 – dovetails nicely with the Golf: Giugiaro to in-house.

      Comparing those silhouettes also highlights for me the slow change during the eighties where the underside at the front and back kept getting bigger and closer to the ground, for aerodynamic purposes of course. I think the E12 like many of its contemporaries, has a very intentional taper at both the front and the back aligning roughly with the top of the wheels. The E28 starts the transformation to – as Eóin points out – a wedge shape that also hugs the floor a lot more. To me there’s a slight uncertainty in how it is handled here.

      The side rubbing strip and rubber parts of the bumper being wider and slightly less neatly resolved (the rubbing strip stopping just short of the wheel arches on the E28 as opposed to running all the way to the edges on the E12) might play a part also. All in all, though, the E28 still strikes me as a handsome design.

      Along with other changes, Richard rightly points out that car manufacturers have crept much closer to each other in quality (perceived or otherwise). Probably in part because of production methods improving, but surely also because BMW and Mercedes stopped investing as heavily in their quality to favour expanding their line ups to fill all and sundry niches. Volkswagen seems to have come full circle rapidly, dramatically increasing the quality of the Mk4 Golf cabin before rejoining the ranks of mortals in the newer generations.

    4. Wasn´t the 1966 Mazda Luce styled by Bertone? every time I see a picture, I think in the E12…

    5. The Mazda Luce seems to have begat the BMW look and the Triumph look. Ironic that, if you think that Triumph was the British brand most similar in ethos to BMW.

    6. E12? Hm, that’s not what I think of: I think ‘italianate’ and maybe, just maybe if BMW’d fashioned the E9 as a sedan (in a parallel universe where it wasn’t the coupé version of the Neue Klasse). It’s more ‘upright’ stance reminds me of the discussion under “Die Fünfer part one” where the slightly more modern mien of the E12 was contrasted with the more old fashioned stance of the Alfetta. But basically the Luce puts me in mind of a parallel universe where Alfa had introduced a model line in between the 105 series 1750 and 2000 and the Alfetta.

  8. I understand the E28 exhaust location as a statment of superior engineering confidence:
    ‘The exhaust is where it must be, if you don’t like it it’s your problem’ may be the subliminal message

    1. Then what does the exhaust of the Alfetta say? It’s in the centre of the rear and the tailpipe sits at 45 degrees (later cars had a tailpipe with a bent down end, surely a sign of lack of confidence)

      On older BMWs the end silencer sat between spare wheel well and fuel tank. There either was a swan’s neck tailpipe like in 02 or E21 or a central exhaust.

  9. Because the exhaust is the only component of the ‘engine’ that is visible from the outside of the car, it can not be bothered with aesthetics if you are a performance-led automaker.
    Engineering comes first

  10. Hello Dave

    It is only the way I see it…

    Since the shape of the exhaust is allowed some liberty, you have some degree of aesthetical liberty, blended with funcional/ health needs.

    You can bend it to the kerb side, like on the e10

    You can bend it 45 degrees towards the mid of the road on lhd cars, putting fumes away from the pedestrians.

    You can bend it downwards in order to expel said fumes nearer the pavement, again protecting pedestrians (though killing their dogs)

    Or you can say ‘the exhaust comes out straightly from the engine, on a completely linear shape which is mechanically the more efficient and pure’ (being it the case or not)

    Just my viewpoint…

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