BimmerFile Review: 1988 BMW 535is

Having had a half dozen new or late model BMW products over the last 10 years plus the opportunity to test pretty much every new model released this decade, I ‘ve had my share of experience with modern BMW products. As much as some would argue the lack of dipsticks and the introduction of iDrive has harmed them, they are exceptional automobiles that are faster, safer and more efficient than what came before. To go further I would argue that many represent the best in their respective classes when it comes to whatthe enthusiast wants and needs. But that doesn ‘t mean they are more enjoyable than what came before them. In fact as our society has demanded bigger, safer transportation, automobile companies have had to adapt and create cars that cater the whims of customers that don ‘t reflect our own as enthusiasts. Granted BMW and other car companies have been doing this for decades. However with the increase in sales in the US specifically, I can ‘t help but feel like some of the intrinsic character in my dad ‘s ’74 2002 has been lost in a 2009 335i.

It ‘s that 2002 that has stuck in my head over the years in a way that no modern BMW has. And the ’89 535i that introduced me to German luxury or the ’86 325es that I used to drive (before handing it off to my sister). These cars had character that (for better or worse) made driving them an event.

That ‘s not to say I don ‘t love the rough idle of a cold morning with a E92 M3 or even a blast to the grocery store in my E46 ZHP. But neither give you the sense of occasion that these earlier BMWs effortlessly exude.

And that brings me to my point. I am the new owner of an old car. An Alpine White 1988 E28 535is chalk full of European OEM mods, hot cams, hotter headers, no catalytic converter and an interior finished in Pacific Blue leather. It is my new automotive love.

What separates an E28 from an E60? For one form follows function in every detail. The exhaust on the E28 isn ‘t off to the left or centered out of some marketers ploy to denote “sport “. Instead there ‘s one exhaust and two pipes coming out from under the car about two inches to the right of center. Why? I can only assume that ‘s exactly the spot that engineers determined was the most efficient and logical place for it. It makes you wonder how much extra weight and cost come at the expense of a 335i ‘s dual exhaust system.

For those that don ‘t know the ’88 was the last year of the E28 and the 535is represented the fastest most sport oriented model you could get in the US outside of the M5. It featured sport suspension, a unique front and rear spoiler along with a host of other small additions. Its also has a real limited slip differential that turns damp roads into an instant skid pad if you should choose to embrace your inner hoon.

Oh and a 3.5 liter inline six. Three point five… one of the largest inline six ever made by BMW. It ‘s an entire package (especially the engine) that is known for its longevity as much as performance.

Of course the word performance in relative in today ‘s terms. 0-60 around 7 and a half seconds and a top (theoretical) speed of around 135 mph don ‘t really hold up to the fastest cars wearing roundels these days. But it ‘s certainly respectable for a 21 year old car.

Then there ‘s the shape. The shark nose. The angles. The huge headlights (provided they ‘re the Euro versions) tucked every so subtly under the hood. The result is not beautiful in any way. But it has an enormous amount of character and presence. Sitting in 16 ” Alpina wheels (period correct of course) I can ‘t help but feel a little smarter behind the wheel.

Of course that smug feeling quickly goes away when I turn on what has to be the worst sound system sold at the time. Then there ‘s the front and rear US mandated bumpers that could double as picnic tables. Add to that the non-functioning auxiliary power outlet and a clutch that puts your knee precariously close to your chin every time you change gears and there are times when I wonder why I left the 330i in the garage. But you quickly forgive the little niggles of a 21 year old car when you see things like the impossibly confusing seat controls conceived by an old school German engineer when I was still in diapers. I can ‘t imagine the logic behind them but I ‘m sure it ‘s somehow superior to my own.

Then there are the seats. In short they must be the best BMW sport seats of all time. Narrow in a way that modern society won ‘t allow (thank you American fast-food) and with more bolstering than anything short of fixed racing seat, they easily put to shame anything in a modern M3 or M5.

In short it turns a trip to the grocery store into a little adventure. The mechanical feel, the snug seats and the direct steering allow the car to communicate with little if any filters between the driver and the road. Yes I ‘m a sucker for the arcane nature of the entire package but it ‘s simply entertaining in a way that no modern car could ever be. And in case you couldn ‘t tell, I love it.

Photos courtesy of Matt Adams. Look for new photos with a much cleaner and freshly waxed car in our BimmerFile/MotoringFile flickr stream in the coming weeks.

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  • A great review of a great car.

    I was thinking about getting one but didn’t had the balls to do it. Well, with the keys to a track ready E30 in the pocket and the Ring only 1.5 hours away, it may make not so much sense for me anyway.

  • GSP

    Nice story. I had one of these ‘way back in the early ’90s and enjoyed it alot. I even did some autocrossing in it (as well as an early E28 533i and an E12 528i). With a LSD and the right sway bars they were respectable performers and didn’t penalize the comfort factor my wife wanted. My son now has an E90 330i and I’m amazed how similar they are … size-wise!

  • Alan

    I like e28’s. I’ve noticed that some fact-checking would do this site well. An M30B34 (in your car) is actually much closer to 3.4 liters, and yes BMW made bigger inline sixes, including all three S38 variants (S38B38 = 3.8L).

  • Mark Smith a.k.a BMWPro77

    Hey Alan. Thank you for that little tidbit. I love facts like these. Makes for good conversation when discussing the old school BMW’s. This is one model you don’t see too often and I love how you guys report on this stuff. It’s fun, informative, and brings nostalgia to us who had experiences with BMW’s of this period back then. WOuld anyone agree that these old BMW’s age really well? Still a great looking car in my opinion.

  • MJulian

    This makes me miss my 88 e28 535iS.

  • Pete

    Great review! That’s easily the funniest and best car review I’ve read in a long while.

  • Dylan

    Nice review Gabe. It’s great to see this kind of writing filling your back catalog. If you ever found the time to review some or all the previous BMWs you’ve driven I’m sure you’d also find plenty of readers. People respect and enjoy your qualified opinion 🙂

  • chaz

    Wonderful to read the stories about the cars that inspired us to fall in love with the Marque in the first place. Fixing an old car can be a PITA, but a well maintained one is definately unique.

  • GrFa

    Oh the E28 535is. I had two 87s in the past. I love the fact that on a damp road just dab the throttle and you get perfect controllable oversteer. It’s something that no new BMW has and it is tons of fun.

    I remember a rainy drive home from high school, I was in a bad mood and a bit of a rush. The car was sideways more than straight the whole way, and in perfect control. My E39 and E36 M3s can’t hold a candle to it.

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  • CraigE

    I’ve been considering purchasing a late ’80s E24 635. How would the driving experience compare between these two cars?

    Is my research correct about the motors in these cars? Like Alan, I found information showing the motor in the 88 535is is 3430cc displacement and 8.0:1 compression ratio with 182hp. The 82-89 635csi has a long stroke high compression (10.0:1) motor with 3430cc and 208hp.

  • Mine was modified with hotter cams, aggressive headers, chip and the removal of the catalytic converter and the addition of a performance exhaust. So with that said I can only compare what I have with the E24 635csi I’ve drive.

    The E28 seemed more lively and more chuck-able than the E24. In general there was more feel and the E28 (surprisingly to me) felt more like an enthusiasts car. Granted mine is pretty well sorted. But that is a sentiment I’ve heard since.

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  • Bill W.

    Wow, that is a beauty! (seriously…I love these cars, for all the same reasons cited above). I have an R56 and this would be the perfect compliment to it! Even have a garage for one — now all I need is the spare scratch to pick one up. Curious to know how much it set you back Gabe.

    For the handful of E28 junkies out there I hope you post an update every once in awhile. Enjoy it!!

    –Bill W.

  • Zeelos

    Man…I didn’t know what seller’s remorse was ’til I sold my ’88 535i. I still get a little misty when I come across the photo’s of my former ride on my flickr account. Good to know there are those who still appreciate the “big, square-rigger saloon” as Tiff Needell eloquently called the e28 years ago.

    • alex

      So perfectly stated! !

  • tom


    • DCDAD

      I have a 88′ E28 535is in Alpine white with 33k original miles on her. One owner,(my dad) California car. A true time capsule. Pristine condition. This car is for sale, as I am not really a BMW guy, Although this car may turn me into one. Regardless, The car is for sale. Need to get it out of my mothers garage, and over to my house where I will detail it, and list for sale. Any Idea’s on what i should list the price at? Everything is complete on the car, in working order as it was in 1988. My Dad was the F&I guy at the BMW dealership he worked at, and ordered this car himself. Driven very little, and never in the rain, always garaged. Perfect. Thanks for any input in advance, Ron

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  • Syl

    I pick mine up today.. So incredibly excited! A black ’87 on Style 9 wheels!