These days, I have my beloved BMW E39 on the German equivalent to Autotrader, Craigslist or Bring-A-Trailer. A shame, I know, but I can’t afford to own three cars and the time has come to find another enthusiast for it. As a farewell, I’d like to portrait it to you guys.
Yes, there are plenty of E39s in the U.S. – no doubt about that. But since BMW were always vehicles who went over the pond due to their luxury and status, I figure it would be interesting to hear about a typical Euro-spec one – mine.
Do a ctrl + T and open Craigslist in a new tab. Now look for the ‘95 to ‘03 BMW 5 Series. You have it? Good. I did the same in my family’s vicinity in rural Missouri and even there all of them have leather seats, nice wheels and – of course – an automatic transmission. Most of them have the 3,5 to 4,0-liter-V8 option. Picture well maintained cars with hearing-aid-colored paintjobs over tan interiors that are worth a mere fraction of what they cost new. Nice. The slowest one that got imported into the U.S. was the 525i with 189 hp – which used to be a lot in the old world.
Of course we have these in Germany as well, but they’re much rarer and sought-after. You don’t get them for beater-money, as long as there is at least a little life left in them. What you do get for cheap are the ones like mine. A ‘97 520i. That’s right. TWO liters. Barely more displacement than half a jug of milk. Nevertheless: It’s a straight-six with a manual transmission, because that’s what the grandpas who bought these things new were used to. It delivers a seemingly puny 148 hp with 140 lb-ft of torque. It doesn’t have leather seats, but stock velours upholstery, because that works well with the 90's suits, that the plucky German businessmen were wearing in the olden days. Sit on them with jeans and learn what friction is. It’s so hard to slide your butt over the cloth, that you could mount the seats upside down and wouldn’t fall out. They’re not power operated – as are the rear windows. You gotta get cranky in the back!
The steering wheel is huge and thin. It doesn’t have buttons or leather wrapping. But you can hold it comfortably by all of its four spokes. The radio only plays cassettes, and it isn’t even the cheapest one. I put this one in myself because it has a more sophisticated antenna. It was an expensive option in 1997. Speaking of retrofits: these foglights? I got them from the junkyard and put them in myself, because the car came with factory blank covers. Foglights too were an option and so were keyless entry remotes – which I luckily have.
But I don’t want to make fun of the beamer I love so much. On the contrary. I want to explain, why it is very quintessentially a BMW for me. To do so, we have to embark it and head for the countryside-highways. Sure, it takes a little more throttle to pull off from a standstill with the small base-engine, but once it spools up, the straight-six revs just as weightless as every one of the more powerful motors. It’s barely more audible than a chain smoker’s breath at idle, it’s a decent hum in the midrange and it composes itself to a throaty crescendo until it tops out at around 6000 rpm.
The engine itself is a prime example for the term slow-car-fast. You feel that it wants to rev. And you want it to rev. In doing so, you don’t really notice a lack of power, because you’re always giving it the beans and thus enjoy a larger portion of white-knuckle-driving, that’s actually within the legal realm.
Since there’s only so much fuel that you can inject into two naturally aspirated liters, its economy isn’t even bad. I used it mainly for joyrides and short getaway trips, and usually get mpg’s in the better 30s.
As you know, we Germans travel by Autobahn. How does it behave there? Too slow? Barely. The car is rather light (3260 lbs), has awesome aerodynamics and actually likes to sit at around 120 mph for hours. It only gets dull, when some Dummkopf pulls out in front of you and forces you to brake. But then again, you get to rev-match for 4th gear and go all-in again.
I was in elementary school when the E39 came out. One of my friend’s parents had the exact same car in solemn dark blue. Once as a sedan and afterwards as a wagon. Both were company leasing vehicles. I loved them, because they were so different and so silky compared to my parents’ turboless Mercedes-Diesels. At the time, a 520i was nice. a 523i was already considered fast. It didn’t have a much higher top speed, but it eliminated the power-draught getting there with more torque. A 535i or a 540i were almost obscene. People who needed a true Autobahn-weapon opted for a 530d with the same smooth characteristics as the gas models, but with an awesome fuel-economy and all the torque in the world.
An M5 was just as exotic as it is today
Looking back to my base-model leads to the inevitable comparison with the holy grail of sport-sedans, the mighty M5 – famous for hauling Madonna’s unbuckled ass through New York City in a very wild manner, or (even less timid) being Alex Roy’s chariot for professional road-tripping requiring shady sunglasses.
The only sporty thing about mine are the summer wheels, with optional 17-inch-wheels, which sport a 235-tire-width up front and 255s in the back. They make for some nice stance and are deep-dished enough for a bottle of Bier to fit in. But honestly: I much rather like driving it in the winter with high-wall 205s on 15s. Why? Because a classic BMW is not a muscle car but rather an athletic one. It is my job to test new cars and a lot of them are from renown manufacturers of sports cars and still, my old E39 is on the pinnacle of crisp steering. It’s very light – also due to the standard bus-type wheel – and so precise that you could shave off some guy’s beard at the apex of a corner.
Why ruin that with squishy high-wall tires you ask? Well, for once they are stock sized (optional nevertheless) and secondly, it lowers the limit – and being on the slightly wallowy limit is fun.
I just mentioned, that my 15-inch-alloys were an option. In fact, a bare-bones E39 in Germany came with hubcaps. But don’t be befuddled by the steely looking rims underneath those hubcaps. They are actually aluminum (man, it’s hard for me not to write “Aluminium”...) because of added lightness. You can see it on the spare tire. It carries a warning label that mandates adhesive balancing-weights instead of the ones that get pressed on the brim of the rim. That goes together with the awesome fact, that the E39 was the first mass-produced car with an all-aluminum suspension. And you can feel it. It is the perfect car to learn what unsprung masses are. That made it easy for the engineers to set it up comfortably, without gaining to much body roll. It’s firm, yet supple.
With that suspension, the serenade that the engine sings and the wonderfully notchy shifter, that reins over the revs like an orchestral conductor, the 520i is sheer automotive well-being.
And it’s cheap.
And it’s spacious.
And it’s sometimes unreliable.
do you wanna buy one?