1981 BMW 528i

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The E12 5-series is kind of like the E21 3-series, being the first of its name but not quite as cool as the Bavaria/2002s before them, nor as desired as the E28/E30s that succeeded them. This is a pretty sweet example though that has been subtly updated over time so that after nearly 35 years and over 200k miles, it still looks and runs great. The original 2.8-liter inline-6 has been replaced with a stronger 3.2, the wheels are from an E28, and both the interior and exterior have been tastefully redone. It’s old and has a few issues that will keep it a project, but odometer gears and door handles are easy items to start with. There’s definite interest but bidding is very low, making this a nice opportunity to get in a rareish classic BMW for cheap.

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1981 BMW 533i Dietel Alpina Conversion

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As even 3-series models of real, full-blooded Alpinas go for big money, they pull up the wide range of tributes as well. Today’s E12 533i is more than just a sticker job, as it brings with it one of those cool, “back in the day this guy was the MAN!” stories. Here, BMW importer Mike Dietel is the hero with a magical line on Alpina parts who built up this 533i with Euro and Alpina parts when it was fresh from the dealership. On top of the unique provenance, a respected enthusiast spent a good amount of time and energy restoring it, yielding a gorgeous and unique 80s tuner car. It may not be straight from the Alpina shop, but that won’t stop the seller from asking for very serious money.

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1977 BMW 530i

Being an Audi fan, I’m aware of what a bad reputation can do to cars. In the 1970s, Audi gained a reputation for unreliability and poor electronics; perhaps justified, considering the many stories that people have about early Audi 100 ownership. However, it’s a haunting reputation that amazingly nearly 40 years on they’re still trying to shake. It looked as if by the early 2000s they had done so, but now a generation on, the cars from that generation have their own problems and have bred more discontent generally from enthusiasts on the outside looking in. The result is that it’s damn near impossible to find a nice condition Audi from the 1970s, and in just a few years we’ll see the same thing with 1990s Audis, too.

Where am I going with this, considering this is a listing for a BMW? Well, the early E12s had their own problems, but notably that was an issue in the U.S.. That’s because to meet U.S. market regulations, the E12 was made slower and more ugly. Large 5 m.p.h. bumpers were fitted, and compression on the M30 was dropped to meet lower fuel standards. Additionally, to burn off hydrocarbons to meet emissions regulations, the 530i was fitted with thermal reactor manifolds. They did as their name suggested, though the reaction unfortunately many times was with the internals of the engine – warping heads and frying valves. It was a debacle which spelled the death of the 530i, reborn as the 528i in 1979. Coupled with rust issues that this generation BMW had, it’s now quite hard to find an original U.S. spec 530i:

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1979 BMW 520 Dinan 3.9

An interesting conversation erupted in Andrew’s post about the 2003 BMW 540i M-Sport yesterday. Andrew suggested that the E39 was not only the best looking 5-series, but perhaps the best looking sedan ever produced. I think for many that opinion will depend on the generation that they grew up in; for example, I bet you could find some folks who would contend that the early fourth generation Lincoln Continental (early 60s) or even the Bugatti Royale was better looking. But taking a break from arguing the best looking ever, how about within the 5-series? There are a lot of E28 fans out there, our own author Nate being one since he owns a M5. I grew up with a ’88 M5 in the family, too – but for me the E28, while a definitive and landmark step for BMW, was not as “pretty” as the E12 which preceded it. That’s especially true of the early E12s, but in terms of motivation there aren’t many that can match the punch of the later M5 and 540i models. To solve that problem, one owner took the pretty look of a 1979 Euro-market 520i but ditched the M20 inline-6, replacing it with a Dinan built 3.9 M30 with accompanying upgrades. The result is certainly impressive:

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1980 BMW M535i

It would be easy to credit the BMW M5 as the first super sedan, and in many ways, it is. With a motorsport-derived twin cam 24V inline-6 under the hood good for over 280 horsepower in Europe, the E28 M535i and M5 were nothing to trifle with. However, well before the Motorsports division of BMW had their way with the E28, they built the prototype for what would become the definitive sports sedan in the E12 M535i. Granted, the E12 didn’t have the super M1 motor under the hood. However, like the later M5 would, the E12 had upgraded brakes, a re-tuned suspension featuring unique springs and Bilstein shocks, a deep front air dam and rear spoiler and BBS mesh wheels. Because this was basically still the 1970s, they also received some spectacular Motorsports stripes outside to help differentiate them as something special. Inside you got special Recaro seats with a unique corduroy fabric and an M1 steering wheel – not a bad touch. All of that was coupled with the uncatalyst M30B34 seen in several other BMWs, good for 218 horsepower. It was in just about every way the stepping stone to creating the M5. They were even produced in similar numbers to the M5, with only around 1,400 made – 450 of them being right drive like this 1980 example for sale today:

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1977 BMW 530i

If the E28 defined BMW as the defact mid-range sports sedan manufacturer, it was the E12 that established the trend. There’s a beautiful simplicity to the original Paul Bracq design; it is both stately and organic, subtle and understated but strong and elegant. The 5-series announced that you had arrived in a distinctly more sporty manner than the Audi 100 or Mercedes W123. Unfortunately, unlike the W123, it’s become exceedingly difficult to find good examples of the E12 – especially when you wind the clock back to the U.S. thermal-reactor 530i. Many suffered death by mechanical disregard or worse yet the ignominious death by tin worm. That’s why it’s especially awesome to see one pop up in fantastic shape, such as this 1977 Topaz Brown model that was spotted by our reader John via Daily Turismo.

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Double Take: 1978 BMW 530i

I’d like to think that Paul Bracq winces a bit every time he sees one of his beautiful creations saddled with what the government deemed necessary to survive a 5 m.p.h. impact. It’s rather ironic, seeing as how today most cars can’t even rub up against another without deforming the plastic bumper covers. But back in the 1980s, the solution to the problem wasn’t aerodynamic, well integrated covers – no, as if to say “that’s not a real regulation, is it?” to the government, manufacturers went overboard. They adopted massive impact bumpers for U.S. markets, many extending improbably far from the body lines of the car. The E12 was a perfect example of this; of course, take a BMW from the 1970s, take the bumpers off and drive it at something and you’ll quickly learn what will hit first – the hood. The chiseled looks Bracq refined were great though, almost good enough to overlook the saddling of U.S. safety equipment. In many ways, I prefer the simplicity of the E12 to the refined E28; to me, the early car is prettier, a 5 series with some of the best parts of the 6 series design incorporated. But there were many drawbacks besides the look of the bumpers for E12s in the U.S. market. Most notably, the pre-catalyst engine used thermal reactors and air pumps to help superheat the exhaust to burn off pollutants – remember, these cars were delivered when leaded gasoline was still around, meaning catalytic converters would quickly be clogged. However, the thermal reactors wreaked their own havoc with the M30, sometimes resulting in warping the head. Coupled with diminished performance and a propensity to rust, it’s therefore become rare to find good condition E12s still floating around today – but there are two for sale on Ebay right now:

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1981 BMW 528i

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The Bavaria down the street from me always gets a second look, and the progression to the classic E28 was a smooth one. Bridging the gap was the first generation of Bimmers named 5, and today’s E12 has been putting in some serious work since it was built over 30 years ago. It looks fantastically late-70s/early-80s with gold wheels matching the pinstriping. The grey paint has a few blemishes but overall this car still shows classy and sporty in a way few cars of this era can. Think about what the American car companies were putting out in 1981… and then stop because it’s horrifying. One thing I love about 80s cars is they represent one of the last generations that can be maintained and continue running forever. With the computer invasion, I find it hard to believe that an E60 5er will ever see 300k miles. This 528i, however, has covered those miles gracefully and is ready for someone to help it go another 300k.

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1976 BMW 530i with 53,000 Miles

It may sound crazy, but there was actually a point in time when items like “automatic” and “fuel injection” were enough of a headline grabber to mount badges to the outside of your car. It was a sign that you had arrived, that you were driving a luxury automobile. Yet take a look at this BMW; most of the accoutrements we’re used to seeing in the cars from Bavaria are notably absent. Automatic seats? Not likely here. Automatic mirrors? No, you’ll need to adjust before you leave – especially on a cool day. Speaking of those cool days, take a look at the doors – notice anything odd? How about manual crank windows! As an enthusiast and having owned older cars, I find these things particularly exciting, if for no other reason than there’s less to go wrong. Check out this excellent condition E12:

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One-owner 1981 BMW 528i

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I love my E28 and it’s still the generation for me, but the earlier BMW model lineup intrigues me, piqued by the Bavaria down the street I bike by every day and ranging from the 2002 to the E9 and E12. Today’s example of the first BMW midsize sedan to truly be a 5er is impeccable, even after 130k miles thanks to one careful owner. The interior’s leather and wood combo looks fantastic over three decades on. There are a few bumps and dings, reflecting that it is a real car that has seen real use, but overall it shows the kind of love and attention that I wish all classic car owners would give to their autos, from the well-maintained engine bay to the impressively-clean tool tray. With no reserve and a low starting point, this could be a cheap entry into a great mix of classic luxury and sportiness.

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