Edit 12/9/2017: With new photos, a new description and apparently a few things fixed, the current owner of this ‘346i’ that we looked almost exactly one year ago has it back up for sale in a reserve auction format. Last time it didn’t meet reserve at only $10,000. Will it clear the reserve this time around?
The E21. By far, it is the 3-series we feature least frequently (barring new models). In U.S. trim, it is also by far the least sporting 3-series. But don’t throw the baby BMW out with the bath water, because it’s still a classic BMW, it looks nice and it’s quite affordable relative to some other hyperbolic models.
For one, I really like the E21. I’ve even enjoyed driving a few. Of course, never once did I think when driving one “You know what this needs? A M60 V8.” And certainly, even in the very unlikely scenario that idea sprang into my head, there’s no way I would have said “Right, now, off to Dinan to bump it out to 4.6 liters!”
But, if nothing else, this Golf Yellow example of an extreme E21 dispels the myth that they’re all underpowered?
Update 5/28/18 – further price reduction from $14,950 to $12,995.
Update 3/23/18 – The asking price of this 540i has dropped from $15,995 in November to $14,950.
By the early 1990s, even though the S38 was an incredible engine there was no denying that it was from another era. BMW’s new lineup of V8s – all-aluminum, quad-cam units were cheaper and easier to build, run and nearly as powerful – especially so in everyday use. As a result, BMW phased the S38 M5 out of production for the North American market. Yet there were still cadres of M-devotees who wanted to fly the 5-series flag here. The result was two special models for Canada and the U.S..
The more rare of the two was the Canadian market M540i. For all intents and purposes, it was a European-specification M5 without the inline-6 – they even moved production of them from Dingolfing to M’s home base of Garching. In total, they built 32 of them – making them one of the least-frequently seen M products out there. It’s no surprise that it’s been quite a while since we last saw one for sale.
The U.S. market got a slightly de-tuned version of the M540i. Known as the 540i M-Sport, unlike the M540i it was available as either a manual or automatic and didn’t carry quite as much M-content as the Canadian car. But you did get M5 looks, M5 suspension and M5 wheels – in this case, the M-system II “Throwing Stars” found on later U.S. production cars opposed to the M-Parallels found on the M540i. They were also not finished at Garching, but alongside normal E34 production. A reported total of 205 were produced for the U.S. market and we last saw one about a year ago.
So when today’s car popped into my recent searches, I was immediately pretty excited as it appeared at first glance to be one of the elusive examples of the M-Sport. And it was certainly priced like one, as asks are usually in M5-territory. But was it love at first sight?
My recent M5 v. Alpina B10 post took a look at two exotic versions of the E34. Of course, BMW offered their own alternative to the M5 late in the production cycle, as the introduction of the M60 V8-powered 540i produced nearly as much usable power as the more expensive M variant. Such was the success of the 540i that BMW initially judged the M5 dead in this market; it was removed from the U.S. in 1993 after slow sales and wouldn’t return until the new millennium.
As a result, the 540i flew the 5-series performance flag for two generations and still is very popular today. Especially in Sport versions, the E34 and E39 540is offered power, refinement and outstanding chassis dynamics in a package that was attainable for more people. So which is the better buy today – the first or second generation?
The E32 7-series is a rare sight on today’s roads. And that’s a shame. These big-body behemoths from Bavaria exemplify a design language that’s now firmly in BMW’s past: menacing yet restrained, large but well proportioned, mixing brawny lines with classic cues like round headlights, angular kidneys and the Hoffmeister kink. On Friday, Carter wrote up a 735i. It was, he admitted, a bit sad, with oversized wheels and a tired look. While the 5-speed manual transmission made it tempting, I’m not sure it was enough to redeem the car, especially given the asking price. A neat alternative would be a clean, late model, bone stock V8 740i, if you can find one. The 4.0 liter M60 engine is relatively stout (apart from the Nikasil problem, which by now is unlikely to be an issue) and, putting out about 282 hp, sufficient to propel the car quite nicely to cruising speeds. While it may not give you the bragging rights associated with the V12 in the 750, it’s generally less of a headache to maintain.
Towards the end of the E34 run, the 540i was offered in the US with an M-Sport package. This added sport seats, an M-tech body kit and mirrors plus suspension and steering components borrowed from the M5. Only 200 units were produced, and of those only 139 came equipped with the 6-speed manual gearbox. So equipped, the 540i is an attractive and cheaper alternative to the M5, whose values we’ve seen creep up lately as the M-enthusiast crowd has rediscovered their love for the E34. This clean, low-mileage example is one of those manual cars.
I’ve posted a couple of non-M E34s recently (see here, and here), since I’m a fan of this iteration of the 5-series (I even daily drive one myself). I’ve noted before however that it’s quite hard to find one in good condition. While it’s relatively easy to find an inexpensive, equivalent-era Mercedes Benz in nice shape, BMWs of a similar age in the affordable sector of the market are often tired and worn. Perhaps it’s because Stuttgart simply made better cars during the period. Perhaps it’s because many Mercedes owners seem to feel it’s their responsibility to steward their cars into the future, and take care of them accordingly. In any event, when a nice E34 pops up it’s always a nice surprise.
Thanks to our reader Corbin for suggesting this Canadian 540i 6-speed. Not only does it look like a clean example, it’s a well equipped car with a few tasteful modifications.
What is your tolerance for risk? That’s the question you need to ask yourself if you’re thinking about buying a cheap, high mileage German executive sedan. The used car market is littered with them: cars whose values have fallen so far off a cliff that they can now be had for a fraction of their original price. This E38 740iL is one such car, on sale for just $3,800. Let that sink in for a moment: a mere thirty eight hundred dollars (EDIT: it’s listed even cheaper on their website at $3,100). The yuppie bike store a few blocks from my house sells bicycles that are more expensive than that. Sounds tempting, doesn’t it? Sure, the asking price might simply turn out to be the cost of entry into money-pit hell. But on the other hand, if you go in with your eyes open, and especially if you can turn a wrench yourself, this could be a great deal on a cool car that lets you live out your Transporter fantasies on a shoestring budget.
It’s surprisingly difficult to find a clean, low-mileage E34 5-series. I should know: I recently bought one myself. Although I eventually found a nice example, I had to wade through a lot of sad and tired cars before finding it. That’s a shame because these are among the most attractive and well-balanced cars produced by BMW in recent memory. The design neatly bridges the angular, four-headlight era with the softer, more rounded period to come in the late 90s, and is likely to be looked back upon as a classic. The styling is purposeful, handsome and unmistakably BMW. Even the hot versions, the 540i M-Sport and the M5, are only distinguished from the lower models by subtly modified bumpers and side skirts, leaving owners of base models, like myself, able to kid themselves that they are driving something a bit more special than they really are. The finely weighted chassis makes the car feel surprisingly throwable and sporty for an executive sedan; if the equivalent car from Mercedes, the W124, is built for autobahn cruising, the E34 is well suited to driving the back roads.
But unfortunately, a lot of these have already been driven into the ground. Every now and again however a nice one pops up, like this mint condition example for sale in Canada and eligible for import into the US.
A few days ago driving through traffic, a lean, low and angular shape drifted in between cars ahead of me. It stood out mostly because it was so different than the pool of SUVs it swam through. Like a shark parting a school of mackerel, it was a beautiful 840ci with M-System II wheels fit, and it was positively beautiful to see. What really struck me was the size though, more than anything else. I’ve never really thought of the 8-series as a small car – but there it was, dwarfed by the modern automobiles that surrounded it. Most other drivers ignored the door-wedge profile, but I sat transfixed remembering how revolutionary this car was when it was launched. When I happened across this 1995 840ci in my searches, a car which Paul featured back in January, I couldn’t help but want to write it up:
The below post originally appeared on our site January 10, 2015:
Last week’s E34 M5 Double Take left many feeling a little cold; sure, they were both neat cars, but the general consensus was that both were probably at least a bit (or a lot) overpriced. While finding another good M5 in the marketplace can be difficult, if you’re willing to forgo the M badge – or at least part of it – there are great options in the E34 market. One of the neatest is arguably the Canadian market M540i. Only 32 of these special 5 series were produced, all with a 6-speed manual 540i basis. But the special M5 details that were added created a defacto M car that is very special indeed. The M Adaptive suspension was fit, along with the floating M5 brake system featuring 13.6″ front brakes hidden not well under the equally massive 18″ M Parallel wheels. Outside there was M tech pieces front, sides and rear, matched inside by the M cloth. So exclusive were these M540is that there were only two options offered; a CD changer and ASC traction control.