GCFSB Legend: 1988 BMW E28 M5 Part 1

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I’ve alluded to my M5 ownership throughout my posts here, but haven’t really put together a more informative piece about what it’s been like to own my dream car. No, the experience has not always been a dream, but having a firm belief going into ownership that the car is a dream has been a great baseline attitude when something breaks or the mechanic’s bills come. To quote Walter Sobchak paraphrasing Theodor Herzl: “If you will it, dude, it is no dream.”


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I’ve now had the M5 for exactly 2.5 years. For a quick refresh, I found it in Tennessee after a tempting-but-rough local example almost snagged me. MyE28.com pointed me towards this car and its seller, and the Tennessee one was nicer and better cared for while sharing similar mileage and a recent rebuild. It was $2k less than the local, so I figured that savings warranted an adventure. I flew my brother and myself to Nashville, we met Curtis (seller), looked over the car (I had spoken with him for hours about the car’s intricacies, maintenance, and work done), and was more than pleased. We decided to forego taking Curtis up on his generous offer to let us stay and left Tennessee at 8pm – not stopping until 8pm the next night in Arizona. 24 hours straight a good clip is a pretty good shakedown, methinks.

Passing California’s smog took a new cat and the taxes weren’t great, but I considered it all part of the purchase price, which still barely eclipsed the local’s list price.

For a long while after that, the M5 was just a true joy. It’s my first fast car, having started on a VW Caddy and then inheriting my 1988 Toyota 4×4 Pickup, which I still own. As time went on though, small things began to seem bigger and annoy me more. The two main issues were a significant exhaust buzz beneath the center console and failing synchros in 2nd. I tolerated them for a while, but they slowly diminished the joy I felt taking driving it. I tried different mechanics for little things – the electric seats can be annoying, etc. – but was frustrated in never finding a shop that felt right. I wanted someone to work with me, to help educate me, and who would truly care for my car. I found that in German Auto Sport in Berkeley where the head tech owns an E28 M5 and an M535i, and they were all welcoming, mellow, smart guys.

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With that, I knew it was time to take Mean Marcus in for some surgery. After some back and forth looking for a suitable Getrag 280, it became apparent that there’s a reason no one rebuilds them anymore. Too difficult, too expensive, not worth it. Luckily, MyE28 contributor and German Auto Sport-patron Devinder literally wrote the guide to converting M5s to a G265, so I went for it. My S38’s been rebuilt, it has suspension and exhaust and a chip, and it has over 200k miles, so it’s never going to be an all-original creampuff. Now that it’s done, I love it; the slightly altered lower gears make it feel even faster, and I know that when I crack 500k miles (years from now), the transmission will be easier to deal with.

The next biggest thing was the exhaust buzz, which turned out to be a few cracks in the manifold and flexpipe. Fixing this has had some interesting/amazing repercussions: it sounds better and smoother, but at the same time more exhaust is going straight out through the B&B, making it grumble lower and louder. YES. It’s also contributed to the car feeling noticeably faster as it breathes better than ever.

After the transmission, there were plenty of little things I wanted taken care of while it was under the knife – new radio antenna, fixed trip computer, fixed A/C, fixed ABS, repainted mirrors, fixed central locking. The one thing I was looking to do at the time that didn’t get done was fixing my cracked front spoiler – I’ll have to keep looking for that.

Which brings me to what’s next. It’s the first time I’ve really felt what I’ve read about in all those “project car” articles – the continuous desire to see what you can do next and how great the car can be. My plans include fixing that front spoiler, a possible conversion to Euro lighting (US E28 lights are truly a joke, which is scary on a 150+ mph car), a few more electrical fixes, and possibly exploring the common swap of 7-series brakes. My interior could use a little love as the front seats show every one of the 215k miles, but everyone says to do it right you should go to this guy in San Diego, and that can be a $4-6k job. I think I’ll wait on that, as it looks pretty darn good overall and I’m more worried about it driving perfectly than looking perfect.

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So, E28 M5s. Is the maintenance expensive? Certainly. Is the gas mileage awful? For sure, especially because you can’t keep your foot out of it. Do I feel like it’s worth it every single day? Abso-fricking-lutely. As someone constantly looking at and appreciating the rare, unique, and cool cars out there, putting money into this thing feels like a public service. I’m keeping one of the most badass cars BMW’s ever made rumbling through the neighborhood, screaming up the hills, and flying down the highway.

-NR

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15 Comments

  1. Great post. Thanks for sharing! Perfectly captures what’s so enjoyable about the hobby- creating memorable adventures while learning about all kinds of interesting things and meeting some great folks along the way.

  2. I want one of those shirts! I only rowed (but not raced) an Empacher once so I’m not worthy, but I fear many people may consider a shirt with “Pocock” emblazoned across the front a tad inappropriate.

    Back on topic, thanks for the story. Reading about your never ending quest to keep your pride and joy alive rings true to this owner of a 20 year old German performance car which seems hell bent on making sure my bank account remains permanently tapped. The latest round of failures has left my car sidelined for the past month while more pressing things occupy my time, but reading this post has elevated my motivation to dig in and get it going again…eventually.

  3. Thanks for the feedback and positive words, guys. Fun to think back over all the trials and tribulations.

    @Markiteight, Empacher shirts are hard to come by; I’ve asked the company several times and they never get it quite right. Found this one at Head of the Charles, and it gets worn once a week. Next time I see them for sale, I will buying them out. Also, what’s your car? Always like your posts and would love to know what you’re keeping alive.

  4. An E28 M5 owner AND able to quote the Gospel of Lebowski? We could be friends. Looks like a great car. And it sounds like you plan to keep it for a long time. So even though the maintenance is expensive, know that prices have gone WAY up since you bought it and will probably keep going up.

    Can’t wait to read more.

  5. A bigger joke are the beams from my 90 200tq. Even on high they are so low, like a diffuse glow from a nightlight, that my mother actually got out of the car at dusk to see if they were on … in the road.

  6. Man I think we can all relate.. somewhere in the back of my mind I know my S6 gets appalling gas mileage (better than the M5, but still), and I can’t bring myself to care. What are modern conveniences like rain sensors, blue tooth, nav, working headlights,* and gas mileage against the roar of your engine of choice?

    * The Ur-S6 has dim, dim projector beams. I leave the front fogs on to fill in a bit, but they are still dim.

  7. Nate, loved the story. My father and I have had many adventures in his M5; as it doesn’t often get driven at night the headlights aren’t an issue and he went to the Euro tubular headers amongst many, many other modifications…it’s a joy to drive, if somewhat ear-piercing.

    Brad and Walter, the S6 and 200 lights are downright spectacular compared to the original DOT 4000/GT lights. There were some nights driving home in light rain when you could quite literally turn the headlights off with no perceivable change in output. I used to pick a line and hug in. I’ve since swapped in Euros and while there isn’t much night driving in the GT, they at least illuminate things (and look a lot, lot better!)

  8. Great post, I can definitely relate. The age old cure for early DOT headlight woes, even when these cars were new; Euro lenses, relays and 55/100w E-code bulbs. The setup I had on my old 200 20v could flash fry a buffalo, dip the high beams and yokel’s get out of the left lane quick. I find the DOT headlights on a UrS4 adequate, not good but a vast improvement over the Type 44 cars.

  9. Lol at 5 Blades…

  10. @JC – major points for catching the obscure reference.

    For those who haven’t laughed hard yet today, this was written 4 years before the release of Gillette Fusion:

    http://www.theonion.com/articles/fuck-everything-were-doing-five-blades,11056/

  11. Pingback: 10K Friday – Please Be Real: 2000 BMW M5 | German Cars For Sale Blog

  12. @Nate: A German company that can’t get it quite right?! Unpossible!!! 😉 Still, if you ever manage to get your hands on a few shirts let me know. I’ll buy one from you. Opening Day/Windermere Cup is coming up on May 3rd and that’s probably my chance to find one locally, but I’ll be in San Francisco that day.

    I have a ’95 Audi S6 Avant named Angela (pronounced like Merkel). Angela has a major appetite for accessory belts. She chews them up at the rate of one every 15 minutes due to a seized fan bearing, which is buried deep in the bowels of the engine and requires major surgery to get it out. Between school, flight training, keeping the other VAG vehicles in the family alive (practically a full time job in itself!), and forthcoming travel plans it’ll be at least a month before I can get to it.

    If you couldn’t already tell by my screen name, TBL is one of my all time favorite movies!

  13. The headlight fix for E28s can be as simple as replacing the sealed beam units with 5.75″ E-code assemblies. There are cheap brands, there are Hellas (very good and used by many) and there are Cibies (more expensive than Hellas but do seem to be the best).

    Of course you can also change the grills and headlight buckets to accommodate the Euro staggered headlight setup (7″ H4/5.75″ H1). In my experience this is more cosmetic than a lighting performance upgrade over the four 5.75″ arrangement.

    On my last E28, I went with 5.75″ Hellas – 55/100w for the H4 outers and 100w for the H1 inners. I had no problems seeing at night after that upgrade.

  14. Pingback: 1988 BMW M5 | German Cars For Sale Blog

  15. So glad I found this site!! I’m not an enthusiast, but hope to be one! In 1990, I was stationed in Germany and I saw an E28 M5 race by me on the Autobahn. I owned a ’84 Audi then, so lots of cars raced by me on the Autobahn, but that car really did it for me. Of course at that time I couldn’t even imagine being able to afford one, but I’ve wanted one ever since. So recently I began to entertain the thought, and reading these posts and reviews have really been a great help, especially since, as my wife likes to point out, I usually get carried away when I decide to make a major purchase. I would love to own one of the great cars that have always struck a cord with me, but I want to make a good decision on price and finding one I can “care for!”

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