Great drives in great vintage cars don’t happen that often. Yes, the automotive press is full of impossibly cool scenarios with vintage cars and some famous mountain road. The truth is we’re usually dropped in a handpicked location and given the keys to BMW’s newest and best thing. Whatever that thing is, it’s usually incredibly capable and enjoyable. Sometimes we just want to get into a car that doesn’t indicate future thinking or the latest Efficient Dynamics. Sometimes we want the raw emotional appeal of something classic in our hands and under our foot. So when we heard that BMW was going to be bringing some vintage metal along with 8 new Z4s up Highway 1 from LA to Monterey, we immediately started to do some digging. What cars would they bring? Would they actually let us drive them like they were meant to be (i.e. in anger)? Lastly, how in the world could we fight off our colleagues from other publications (Dan Neil is a surprisingly big guy) for a chance at whatever showed up?
Then we got the list and immediately one stood out. It was BMWNA’s pristine E28 M5 plucked from the museum floor in Spartanburg. With just over 13,000 miles, this could be the best example of the breed in the world. So a plan was hatched; awkwardly speed-walk to the M5 when our morning presentation on the Z4 ended. If all goes right we’d be rounding the corner to our pick of some glistening Bavarian metal. Moments later, I slipped into the Recaro buckets and took a deep breath; mission accomplished. Yes, that is the satisfying smell of vintage 1980′s German leather warming up in the California sun.
Getting reacquainted with the E28 (I just sold my own 535is a few months prior) was a delight. Conceived in a time when half of Germany was communist and cup-holders were relegated to speed-boats, the E28 5 Series is a statement of German authority on the subject of designing and building cars. Eccentric power seat buttons and front heated seats controllable only by those sitting in the back, the E28′s cabin is an engineer’s masterpiece and a usability nightmare. By God is it perfect. The spindly steering wheel, while thicker than the standard 5 Series, feels less like a pillow (as found on modern M cars) and more like a tool. It suits the car’s communicative steering well as it almost feels like it will disappear in your hand as you guide the car from corner to corner. These days it’s clichéd but it feels as if there’s little in the way between you and the surface of the road. With the car warmed up, mirrors adjusted and the Van Halen tape turned off, I was ready to find out if the hype was warranted. The idea was simple. Drive north from southern California to Monterey via the Pacific Coast highway and along the way decode the myth of the very first M5.
With only 13,000 miles on the odometer the first thing that strikes you is how new the suspension feels. The M5 is well damped and frankly quite comfortable. This has to be one of the biggest differences between a modern M car without electronic dampers. And I can’t help but feel the E28 is a more pure statement from the engineers. At the time there wasn’t much in the way of competition. Sure there was a little tuning shop called AMG building fast Mercs. but as far as super car baiting factory four doors, the M5 was in a class of its own. Yet I’m struck by how docile and livable it is. 30 years before the horsepower wars and the intense competition in the sports sedan segment, the E28 M5 was able to be a simpler car designed for the engineers who created it. As you might expect, it’s also incredibly neutral and balanced. The E28 is probably the best large sedan I’ve ever driven when it comes to balance and the M5 takes an already great platform to another level. It’s such a refreshing moment to get into an M product that isn’t as much about all-out ‘Ring performance as it is purity of feel and what the M engineers simply wanted to drive. The connection your hands have with the road through the steering wheel almost feels magical. The road feel is there of course but it’s the weighting that is so noticeable coming from a modern BMW. It feels perfectly mechanical.
It all works flawlessly with the famed inline six S38 B35 under the hood. However the 256 hp engine (286 PS in EU spec) felt down on power in our test example – dirty injectors likely being the issue. Certainly that was part of what kept the M5 from being as quick as I had expected. Truthfully, I don’t think this famed engine could have ever lived up to my expectations. Below 3,500 rpms I was surprised at how pedestrian it felt. Yes it was quicker than my own E28 535is (with all sorts of mods mind you), but not by much. To make the situation worse, I was battling a clutch that felt as if it had seen too many journalists’ left feet. It’s also a big car. It’s easy to forget that, despite our rose tinted memories, even BMW’s from the 80′s weren’t lightweights. With only 256 hp to motivate 3,417 lbs the first M5 wasn’t a stoplight racer and certainly didn’t feel fast mingled with modern cars on today’s roads Then it happened, I put my foot all the way down and opened it up fully. Above 3,500 rpms it suddenly made a lot more sense. The Paul Rosche designed powerplant magically came to life and seemed to get more eager as the revs rose to the redline. Once again, it’s all so mechanical. From the sound to the throttle feel, to the engine output, the E28 gives the driver the impression that it’s just a tool (albeit a sophisticated one) ready to be exploited. It has no electric brain under the hood to override any of your inputs. Just you and the car without the middle man.
Driving along the coast, the M5 flowed organically from turn to turn. Again, the inherent balance of the chassis combined with the tactile steering gave it all a very simple and pure feel. No the E28 M5 doesn’t drift out of corners (easily) and can’t out-runmost modern sports sedans from light to light. When you want a simple driving experience on a great road, there are few four doors that feel this good. As every subsequent generation of M5 gets faster and more sophisticated, the further away we get from the purity of the original. There aren’t a lot of tangible ways that the E28 M5 immediately impresses you. When looked at one corner at a time it will win you over. On that sunny day driving north up the California coast it did just that for me.