I have made no secret of my relative distaste for the ‘80s car designs (though the early ‘90s were the actual absolute pits, as far as I’m concerned). There are a number of exceptions of course; the 1981-88 BMW 5-series is one of them. And as luck would have it, I found one in Tokyo recently and I had taken photos of one in France a while back. Somehow these two turned out to be quite complementary.
The Tokyo car is probably a recent import, as it’s not RHD. Jim Klein and I found it at that famous giant BMW dealership we serendipitously visited last October. Unlike the other CCs (see: this, that and also these) I harvested from that place, this one was not a museum piece – it seemed to belong to one of the dealership employees. It’s a very clean (and obviously well-maintained) late model 520i with automatic transmission and a lovely blue interior.
Now for the dark side of the Force. Quite a contrast to the Tokyo Bimmer, this scruffy French-registered model is a 524td with manual transmission, a trailer hitch and a gray interior. This one hasn’t seen a car wash in a very long time and seems to have had a few scrapes along the way, but probably runs quite satisfactorily regardless.
Interior-wise, our smoker’s lounge could use a deep clean – not unlike the rest of the car. It looks like the driver’s seat is susceptible to a bit of wear and tear, which I suppose is only normal after 30-plus years of use. Still, you wouldn’t see something like this in a MB-Tex interior…
The blue interior of the Japanese 520i is much cleaner, if less tidy. Looks like the driver’s seat is starting to go exactly the way of the French Diesel. The center console on these cars is markedly different. It seems there were two types, one with radio on top, then HVAC, then a sort of cooling-fin-esque piece of trim. On the 525td, the HVAC controls are on top and the “cooling-fin” thing is absent. Having looked into photographic evidence online, the fact that one car is a manual and the other an automatic doesn’t seem to be in play, nor the model year (or so it seems, the web is notoriously untrustworthy on some of this stuff)… Somebody might know the reason for this.
It’s a testament to Claus Luthe’s design skills that this BMW looks great both in white and in black. The styling of these cars is truly masterful. A perfectly balanced blend of aggressiveness, tradition and restraint, it managed to provide an airy cabin, a sizable boot and bags of character in a seemingly effortless way. We ought to remember the context of the early ‘80s, when this car was launched.
Just look at a few other three-box designs of that era. We’re navigating between deadly dull, boringly boxy and atrociously atrophied, with about as much collective appeal, individuality and character as the East German Politburo. Yes, I’m cherry-picking here, but there really were a bunch of cherries to be picked. BMW styling really stood out of the crowd then – in a good way.
The NSU Ro80 is justly feted as Luthe’s masterpiece, but the BMW E28 is surely in second place. That chunky chrome surround on the greenhouse, emphasizing the infamous rear window kink, is as distinctive a piece of side-trim design as the Buick ventiports. Credit for its invention should go to Paul Bracq’s E23, but the blacked-out B-pillar on the E28 make this quintessentially BMW shape stand out all the more. Many subsequent BMW saloons and coupés have used it.
Another successful styling trait of BMWs since the ‘60s was their highly distinctive reverse-canted front end, complete with the famous double-kidney snout and quad round headlamps set within a wide grille. It would have been tempting to follow fashion and switch to square headlamps – or some sort of big rectangular composite thing, like the BMW 2000 of yore, but no. Round quads were just perfect for this face, so they stayed.
On the black 524td, said headlamps are in the normal Euro-style configuration, with slightly bigger outboard headlamps whose very uppermost part is concealed by the grille surround. They’re also yellow, as per French regulations of the era, which does add to this particular car’s charm…
On the white Tokyo car, however, we find the US-spec lights, which are both identical in diameter. This doesn’t affect the look of the car all that much (certainly less than the dreaded US-spec sealed beams have affected many other European cars), but it is a bit of a puzzler. The rest of the car is definitely not US-spec, with those thin bumpers. Besides, the 520i was never sold in the US. I guess someone fitted those lights after the fact because they liked the look of them.
Setting the issue of styling to one side, the question of the E28’s performance and dynamics also put it head and shoulders above the rest. The turbodiesel era was just spooling up and BMW were already claiming the high-performance crown. The 524td was renowned as being the fastest Diesel production car on the planet when it debuted in late 1983. The M21 engine, a 2443cc straight-6 delivering 115hp, was BMW’s first-ever foray into the smoker’s corner and was quite a performer for the times. The 524td took about 12 seconds from 0 to 100kph, when the Mercedes 240D took over 22 seconds. The BMW Diesel was also quieter and thriftier, but it was, like all Diesels of the period, pretty apt at belching great puffs of noxious black smoke.
Many people still preferred their E28 Bimmers with a petrol engine. The big-block 3.5 litre was the E28 of choice in North America, I gather. The European market wasn’t as keen on big engines, though. One could get a 1.8 liter 4-cyl., but the 1991cc straight-6 was the one you’d probably want, if for no other reason than a 2-litre straight-6 was something of a BMW tradition, harking back to the marque’s pre-war heydays. Only this one, the M20, was a mite more modern, with EFI, OHC and many other impressive acronyms besides. It propelled the E28 to a respectable 190kph thanks to its 127hp.
In places where tax and displacement were intimately linked, the 520i made sense. Elsewhere, the 2.7 litre 525e/528e was probably preferable, providing identical performance with less stress and less thirst. The 524td is even more frugal of course, and a well-sorted one is probably just as quick as a 520i with a slushbox, so it really is just a matter of spelling: the 520i will suit you and the 524td will soot you. Either way, it’ll look good doing it.
Vintage Road Test: 1982 BMW 528e, by Perry Shoar
My Curbside Classic: 1986 BMW 528i – The Ecstasy of Beige, Part 1, by James Pembroke Tenneson