You could ask any BMW M5 enthusiast the question “what is the best M5 BMW has ever produced” and get a different answer from each one. E39 owners will swear by the superiority of their V8 engines. Though US E28 owners filed a class action lawsuit against BMW related to production numbers, they will put their classic front end designs against any M5 model. Still, modern M5 owners will wonder why the nostalgic owners even want to have the conversation. For this reason alone, I don’t even like to ask the question as I don’t think there is a conclusive answer. However, I think there is a strong argument in inferring that the most unique M5 BMW ever produced is the E34 M5. Here is why I think it is unique.
The Last of Several Era’s
In the 1990’s BMW made several transitions that impacted both the 5 series and Motorsport editions of their cars.
The E34 was the last 5 series to feature that classic BMW 5 series design. Specifically, the E34 5 series featured round headlamps, a classic “boxy” BMW front end, and the interior is decorated with those classic European climate control levers and dials. After the E34, both the interior and exterior design of the 5 series changed forever.
The E34 was also the last 5 series that was fairly easy to customize and featured an extensive variety of aftermarket parts. Don’t read too much into this statement as in making it I realize there was plenty of customization work done on post E34 5 series. Still, mechanic made his point to me in comparing a rear spring job on the E34 to its predecessor the E39. “It was the difference between 2.5 hours and 12 hours,” he said. After the E34, BMW became less “tuner” and aftermarket friendly.
Most important, the E34 M5 was the last hand assembled M series car and the last M5 to feature a race inspired inline six cylinder engine. In Fast Lane’s September 1992 article entitled “The Iron Fist”, BMW Motorsport Director Karl-Heinz Kalbfell was questioned about the future of the M5 and specifically about the 540i’s V8 engine. He responded,
In all our M-Cars, the engine has had a racing history. This is not the case with the V-8. We have a new business unit called BMW Individual, so maybe the successor to the M5 could come from that side.
The E34 was the last of several eras at BMW. Though I’m not sure if it was related, an interesting phenomenon occurred in the USA market during that transition. BMW continued to sell the 1995 versions of the E34 in 1996 and did not introduce the E39 5 series until 1997. It was like they weren’t prepared for the next generation or simply arrived so late to the 1996 car year that they couldn’t market a 5 series model. Regardless, the mid nineties and the E34 5 series clearly marked times of significant change for BMW.
The Ugliest And Coolest Wheels
The E34 M5 has the dubious distinction of having production runs with both the ugliest wheels and the coolest wheels ever shipped on a production sedan. In 1988 when the E34 M5 debuted, it boasted a very functional 3 piece 17″ rim that featured a turbine brake cooling system. Whereas it received an A+ for its functionality, it garnered an F for aesthetics. In fact, at a distance the design was so bad that it actually looked like a 16″ rim with whitewall tires. In 1992 BMW corrected this problem by introducing what is perhaps the coolest rim designs ever featured on a sedan–the M System II Throwing Stars. These rims were not only functional but they gave the M5 the aggressive look it deserved. Some M5’s shipped with offset versions that supported 9″ wide rear tires and 8″ wide front tires. The E34 M5’s wheel history is another detail that simply makes the car unique.
An Abused Classic
Many E34 M5’s were abused over the years. This is a phenomenon that contributes to the car’s uniqueness and has driven a significant decline in the number of cars that are in good condition today. Before I elaborate on why this is unique, I have to answer the question “Does the M5 deserve to be seen as a coveted vehicle?”
To answer this question I’ll refer to Car & Driver Magazine’s 1991 M5 review where they summarized the E34 M5 with this quote:
Given some perfectly reasonable criteria, BMW’s new-generation M5 just might be the best car in the world.
Just because a car was great when it debuted does not mean that this opinion would stand the test of time and therefore shouldn’t plummet in value. However, Top Gear’s Lance Branquinho poses that exact hypothesis in his 2013 review of the M5 legend when he begins the article with the sentence:
Expectation multiplied by time is usually a formula for crippling disappointment.
Still, as he concludes in his article, the E34 M5 actually does stand the test of time and is still considered a great.
Despite the E34 M5’s hand assembled mechanics, timeless aesthetics, and extremely low production numbers, values of the sedan plummeted over the years. In fact this Fifth Gear YouTube review values the E34 M5 in terms of “beer money”. When that happens to a powerful car, street racers and drifters move in for purchase and preservation is not one of their top priorities.
One of the most infamous E34 M5 owners was a Georgian based drifter who posted to YouTube reckless videos of himself driving his E34 M5. In referencing these videos, I do have to clarify that I do not condone reckless driving nor abuse of limited production cars. Despite of my dislike for what he did, like many, I was saddened to learn that he eventually lost his life in the passenger seat of an E34 M5. The photo of it post wreck is an extreme example of what has happened to many of these cars over the years.
Other E34 M5’s became the target of thieves which left owners with no choice but to part their cars out for money since replacement parts are no longer available (NLA) or simply too expensive to consider. This is exactly how I became an owner of an E34 M5–I purchased it from an original owner who was the victim of thieves.
Another reason why well kept E34 M5’s are unique is because they are expensive of maintain. A properly maintained E34 M5 can easily have a maintenance history that reaches $20K USD or more. In many cases, this is 3X the price that street racers and drifters invested in their initial purchase. And for owners who purchase with the intent of maintaining their E34 M5, limited availability of parts and mechanics who are versed in rebuilding throttle body assemblies, troubleshooting vacuum lines, or performing upper engine rebuilds can easily sour their plans for being a good owner.
It can be argued that the E34 M5 is a great BMW model. It can also be argued that it is one of the more unique automobiles that BMW has produced. It is harder to argue that it is the greatest M5 or even greatest car the manufacturer has produced. Still, for those of us proud owners who choose to hang on to these cars, we are quick to make the case that they are our favorite car in the garage.