My Curbside Classic: 1986 BMW 528i – The Ecstasy of Beige, Part 1

This serialised Curbside Classic is the tale of a car that has become dear to me. The story features prominent and unnecessary swearing.

A couple of days ago, I locked the door to my car. I was wearing a long herringbone coat, driving gloves and my best black shoes (this isn’t unusual; I often dress like a jerk). A child, maybe 7 years old, approached me. He walked around my car and asked if I was a gangster.

“No, I’m in advertising.”

He seemed disappointed.

The first E28 I took notice of was in my university car park. I was walking to my car, at that time a hideous metallic gold Toyota Yaris, and spied a shark-nosed saloon tucked protectively into a corner. It sat low on deep-dished alloys from an E38, with leather Recaro seats, a dog-leg 5-speed manual, M535i badging and a come-hither chin spoiler.
It made quite an impression, but afterwards I drove away and more or less forgot about it for 2 years.

My old Scirocco Scala 1.8 carb

In the spring of 2010, a friend and I planned a great pan-European road trip. By then I was driving a MKII Scirocco, which while charming was plainly unsuited to the task of crossing a continent. I began checking Pistonheads ads for something more appropriate; it needed to be large, very comfortable, reasonably quick, not too thirsty, and hopefully have a bit of shagged-out retro cool. I would be doing all the driving, and wanted something with a manual transmission and rear-wheel-drive.

I went to see a few E34 BMWs and got unlucky. One was snatched from under my nose, another was a total heap (although the dealership promised to get it running if I bought it), and the third was a wonderful 535i that sent insurance skyrocketing out of our budget.

One day, entirely by accident, I clicked through to the E28s instead of the E34s. The shark from the car park popped back into my brain with an audible sound. One was for sale in London! It was only a grand (yes). Some cretin had cut up the rear skirt (no). It was a manual with a 2.8 (oh yes). It was beige (bugger).

I went to see it, and in a decision that I should have regretted for the rest of my life, bought it £950. Even the petrol tank was empty.

Still, there I was, lost in South London in a drug dealer’s BMW in May. People gave me nods, thumbs up, and there were headlight flashes from the ex-yuppie E30s that still litter the streets of London.

I made it as far as Hammersmith when the front right brake bound. I waited for it to cool and reflected on my prize.

Originally purchased by a doctor in Yorkshire, the car was a 528i SE equipped with a 181bhp straight six, a cloth ‘comfort’ interior, cruise control, hilarious traction-free metric tyres, a sunroof, electric windows, a Thatcher-era trip computer and check system, and only 79,000 miles on the clock. The engine was unbelievably smooth, and the clutch was unbelievably heavy. Wheel arch crust was minimal, and the jacking points were tidy. Ray Charles or somebody had left scuffs around the door locks, and the boot leaked.

I was overcome with a wave of post-purchase euphoria. I own a BMW! A world of possibilities was opening up before me. I could cut up bus drivers and single mums without remorse, double-park in disabled spaces and blow my horn at pensioners. Smokey burnouts and drifting heroics awaited me in my hairy-chested man’s car.

But I would never be free of the shame.

My spirits remained high as I reached the M4. For the first time in my journey, I hit 40 miles per hour, when holy god in heaven what the fuck!? The steering wheel was trying to dislodge itself from the splines! It was like steering with a Shake Weight. My eyes began to unfocus as I pulled into a service station, where I checked my wheel nuts and walked around the car, pawing at my face.

“I can’t believe I was so stupid! The brakes, this wobble; I should have driven faster when I tested it! Also, what’s that horrible whining sound in first gear? And couldn’t that stingy bastard at least have left me a fucking radio?”

I ate a packet of cheap nuts and braved the motorway again. At higher speeds the wobble was less violent, so I had the unpleasant choice of crawling the 100 miles home at low speed or doing 75 and hoping that none of the wheels would liberate themselves from their hubs. Spoiler: I lived!

On my return I had the wheels balanced. They were truly ragged ‘bottlecap’ alloys, missing chunks of metal from the centres and covered with a rash of wheel weights. Proper balancing largely solved the vibrations, and after a fluid and filter change I took the boat to the local B-roads to determine its true character.