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.
Curbside Classic: BMW 524td – An Austrian Stroker Powering America (not a post about the governator), by Hannes69117
Curbside Classic: 1986 BMW 535i – Whitewalls? On An E28? Where’s The Vinyl Roof?, by PN
Curbside Classic: 1984 BMW 528e – The Low Rev Modest Driving Machine, by PN
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
Not sure how much credit Claus Luthe should get for this shape; it was essentially a warmed over 1972 E12 – a shape overseen by Bracq with I believe significant input from Pietro Frua. (Perry’s piece on Luthe incorrectly credits Bertone’s Gandini for the E12).
Bracq’s 1970 impression…
Frua sketch from 1969…
You beat me to that, and more eloquently.
Frankly, I thought the E28 was something of a disappointment when it came out, inasmuch as it was nothing more than a slightly refreshed E12, which was already some 9 years old then. I had expected BMW to come out with a new car after all that time. Not so.
Admittedly the face lift was well done, and the E28 looked pretty good in the early ’80s, since they still had a viable package to work with. But when the all-new Mercedes W124 arrived in the fall of 1984, the E28 instantly looked very old. It was too small and cramped, and its late ’60s lines looked very much antiquated.
Of course the Audi 100/5000 C3 had already done pretty much the same thing two years earlier.
But for lovers of vintage boxiness, the E28 was just the ticket.
Without a doubt, the design of this BMW is one of the most beautiful we can find in a sedan of the time.
Regarding the white BMW you saw in Japan, curiously its owner has an instagram account where he usually hangs photos of this great specimen regularly. It is called suzuki_ralph. It also has a Toyota Cressida wagon in perfect condition.
Regarding headlights, by 1985 BMW had already tried rectangular lights and progressed to four round lights.
I was never aware of E28s using different sized round lights in the British Isles – Jaguar used different sized lights but BMW didn’t. Could this have been a French thing ? Remember French lights were allowed less wattage than other countries ( 45W main beam rather than 60W ?).
No European specs had outer 7″dia & inner 5.3/4″ dia lights in both LHD & RHD.
Perhaps Japan only allowed 1 single diameter .
No, there was no French-versus-other-countries wattage difference. Going at least as far back as 1955, French headlamps used the same bulbs as headlamps in the rest of Continental Europe: 45/40w tungsten R2 bulbs, then 55w H1, H2, and H3 bulbs, then 60/55w H4 bulbs (high/low for R2 and H4). British-market headlamps were a mix of sealed beams, halogen sealed beams, English-made composite lamps with bulbs of 40 to 60 watts, and European-type composite lamps.
I will agree that this one hits a design sweet spot that few others inhabited at the time. I thought these cars were styled just right when they were new and still do. I think one secret might be the way the German cars mostly eschewed the sharp edges and creases that enthralled everyone else, preferring softer bends and folds that made the cars look a little “thicker” and more substantial. And this one may have done it the best of all.
I love the styling of these 5 series. My old aunt and uncle have a pair of these, kept very long term. The olive green 528 is the workhorse with something like half a million miles on the chassis and replaced drivetrains. He owned a shop in his small town and did the work himself. The desert sun has baked the paint into a faded patina. The white 535 is used less and kept out of the sun.
I agree with you, and the other commenters, that this is a spectacular and unique design. Somehow, the BMW managed a distinctive, classic style, without appearing overly retro. The E28 followed styling trends established in the previous two decades, yet still managed to present itself as modern and sophisticated. While the Mercedes W123 looked rather antiquated by the mid 1980s, this BMW still looked fresh.
The td was definitely a curiosity here in the US — I remember only seeing a handful of these even when new. And if I’m not mistaken, Ford used 524td engines in diesel-equipped Lincoln Continentals for a few years, which was truly an odd partnership.
You are correct, it was that same BMW engine in the bustleback Continental.
All thanks to dr. Zahnradmacher who was able to convince the BMW board that BMW & Diesel could be a match. If I remember correctly the Diesel was developed together with Steyr in Austria.
I don’t think the one follows necessarily from the other. Wrong- (that is, left-) hand drive vehicles are legal in Japan, and there’s a cachet attached to them there—to the degree that putting one’s left arm in a tanning machine to make it look like one has a left-drive car is a thing there. From what I understand, many LHD BMWs were sold new in Japan.
The big/little headlamp setup is straight out of Europe, yes—and it’s going to make problems for whoever will try to register this car in Japan. Not only because the low beam lamps are in typically poor condition—they don’t age well—but they’re also for the wrong (that is, right) side of the road. And although the lenses are the same diameter as standard 7″ and 5-3/4″ lamps, these are not standard-mount/standard-fit lamps. These are BMW-specific lamps, and no longer made.
As for yellow: H’mm. You were there and I wasn’t, but I’m not seeing yellow headlamps in these pics. The fog lamps are yellow, but the outer headlamps appear to have had their yellow H4 bulbs replaced by white ones, and the inner headlamps, originally with yellow lenses on a French-market car, appear to have been replaced by colourless-lens units—parts breakdown here. France’s requirement for yellow headlamps was deleted in early 1993, and many vehicle owners went right out and changed to white—I’m working on a CC Tech article about that. (The French car has also had a CHMSL retrofitted; those weren’t allowed in Europe until 1993.)
…which are the Japan-spec lights, too; take a look and see. Originally, left-traffic sealed beams would have populated those mounts. Those appear to have been replaced on this car with Japanese-spec, Japanese-made (possibly by Stanley; they’re not Koitos) H4 and H1 lamps.
Further muddying the waters: depending on production date and vehicle equipment, some European-market BMWs of that era got four same-size (5-3/4″) lamps. In late 1982 BMW worked with Hella and Bosch to develop a bi-focal low beam headlamp that used more than the customary-in-Europe 55% of the reflector and lens to gather and distribute light. This made them more efficient and more effective, despite their smaller diameter, than the conventional monofocal lamps on the black car here. Period ad attached shows an E24, but they were also used on other cars including E28s.
(the ad actually shows conventional monofocal lamps with little strips of black tape applied. Perhaps the bifocals weren’t yet available in time for the ad shoot, and/or perhaps it was felt that nobody would go “Hey, lookit the different optics!” in response to a small pic in a magazine ad, so some kind of emphasis was needed. The bifocal lamps don’t actually have black stripes on the lens.)
I remain a bit mystified about European halogen headlamp optics of this era, particularly those little strips of tape that were sometimes seen covering part of the lens. I had always thought these were to reduce the light aimed upward and toward the driver’s side so that cars could be driven between left and right drive countries. Sweden undertook a huge logistical challenge in 1967 when they switched from left to right hand drive (to match that of surrounding countries, and because most cars driven in Sweden were LHD), and cars sold in Sweden in the few years prior had blackout strips with instructions to remove them on the 3 Sept ’67 changeover date. I look forward to the CC Tech article.
Euro-spec headlamp retrofits for the standard US sealed-beam sizes were widely sold in car magazines in the ’70s and ’80s, and I bought a set of Hella H4 lamps to replace the sealed beams in my first car (huge improvement overall, though the sharp cutoff had drawbacks as well as benefits). It was illegal in most states to sell a new car with these European lights, though in most states it was perfectly legal for a third party to sell them (ostensibly for motorcycles or “off-road use”) and for private owners to buy and use them on public roads. It’s a similar legal situation for the Euro and UK spec aspherical outside rear mirrors I retrofitted to my current car – these should be legal here IMO.
Those tape stickers you saw were, yes, a primitive form of what’s officially called a “tourist solution” or “tourist provision” for use when driving on the other side of the English Channel—they cover the part of the lens responsible for creating the upsweep/upstep toward the home-country curb side of the road (upkick to the right in a right-traffic country, e.g.). In this manner they prevent the upkick glaring oncoming drivers. They also destroy the ability of the low beam to provide any seeing distance; it becomes a glorified fog lamp with a straight-across cutoff and no hot spot.
You’re right about the Swedish situation; the Wikipedia article on Dagen H has a pic of such a sticker, with printed instructions, on a Marchal headlamp (at least, it did years ago when I put it there, back when I wasted time editing Wikipedia).
Those Hella H4s you liked were no real improvement; they only felt that way because they gave a lot more/wider foreground (near-field) light, and that’s the top correlate with subjective impressions of headlight performance (And near the bottom of the list of headlight performance aspects that actually affect safety). Seeing distance was much shorter, though if the pedestrian you were trying not to hit was on the left the H4s would’ve been better than the sealed beams. In reality the 5-3/4″ Hella H4s and the 5-3/4″ sealed beams are differently but equally inadequate. 🙁
I agree with you about side mirrors. More than that, it’s a big damn shame this American invention never got commercialised.
It wouldn’t matter even if it was – they would be illegal in the US (at least on the driver’s side) because they’re not flat.
What I liked about the Hella H4 small rectangular lights is the perfectly even light pattern in the illuminated area, which was wide and stretched reasonably far out. The lamps they replaced shone just two bright blobs straight ahead with just scattered illumination surrounding them.
As long as I’m ranting about headlamps, the US once again has archaic regulations, this time prohibiting the new LED matrix headlamps now appearing elsewhere, because our laws were originally built around incandescent low and high beams and not variable-pattern multi-element LED lamps that can selectively dim different areas based on GPS data and input from driver-assist sensors that allow the car to know which way the road will turn, the topography, and whether there are oncoming cars. Theoretically they should allow for the same lamps to be used in LHD or RHD countries too. Several manufacturers and the AAA have petitioned the DOT to make these legal here.
The linked mirror is flat, that’s the point: a larger field of view without optical distortion. I wish for a pair of ’em whenever I back out of a parking space or go to change lanes. But you’re right, it would still not comply with FMVSS № 101. The US regulatory rejection of driver-side mirrors with other than what they call “unit magnification” (that sound you hear is my eyes rolling) is a pisser, and not in accord with the science. I put rest-of-the-world glass in both sideview mirrors on my ’07 Accord; they have a large inboard area that’s slightly convex, and an outer aspherical area that effectively eliminates any blind zone. And though there is some distortion in the aspherical area, I find I really miss those mirrors when I’m driving something else.
The situation with ADB (Adaptive Driving Beam, “glare-free high beam”, the kind of headlamp you’re talking about) is quite a lot more complicated than the simplistic “Stupid ol’ NHTSA and their dumb ol’ regs won’t let us have these” that’s all over the popular-press articles on the subject. There’s a large chunk of that in the mix, yes, but that’s not the totality of it. Still, probably the biggest thing standing in the way is the present U.S. administration, which has a strongly anti-regulation philosophy and has deliberately acted to effectively prevent DOT agencies, including NHTSA, from issuing new regulations. That’s unfortunate; regulations don’t necessarily say “stop, no, you can’t”—sometimes they say “Go ahead, yes, you can”. The only way ADB (real, actual ADB, not a neutered/gutted/useless system that doesn’t improve seeing or reduce glare, which together are the whole point) can get onto U.S. roads is by NHTSA issuing a new version of FMVSS № 108, and that’s probably not going to happen any time soon.
(your favourable subjective impression of those H4s you put in illustrates my earlier point. Small rectangular reflector headlamps are inherently objectively weak because the very small reflector area is made even smaller by floor, ceiling, walls, and corners, but as long as they put out a wash of foreground light, many people will judge them “good”, or “better than sealed beams”. In fact just differently/equally lousy.)
Back in the day I was with Paul on these – the reverse-slanted prow and quad round (sealed beam, I had very limited awareness of non-USDM cars as a kid) headlights screamed early-’70s holdover and struck me as the sort of thing BMWs only got away with because they cost so much.
The cars with a/c had the more protruding lower dash. (Tokyo car). The flatter dash, which I think looks better, no a/c (French car). I wonder if the grill arrangement at the bottom was some sort of air return.
That was a pleasant surprise when we saw that (white) car over at the edge of the lot. I seem to recall the lower level BMW’s in Germany only had one headlight per side (518? and maybe the 520 as well? Making a dual lamp setup a desirable upgrade) Certainly the lesser-engined 3-series’ only had one per side while the US only got the 320i with four lamps.
Have to agree about the size of the cherry bunch you had to choose from. Pretty dismal era for style.
Yet I can recall reading as a young teen the criticism of BMW’s conservatism with the E28, replete with comments such as “it will look dated very quickly” and so on. It never did, even after the quite pretty successor came out. Ofcourse, the smarty-pants riposte to that is that you can always guarantee never going out of style by never doing anything new, and it is for sure a re-warmed E12. But that E12 had a paradoxical glassiness and solidity that made it timeless. Perhaps more importantly for sales, it looked expensive. It still does.
The newer W124 Mercedes and Audi 100 CD were good lookers in their own fashion, and still are, but were also a tad unadorned, arguably even bland. You have to be a car nut to pick them as interesting or exxy: the Beemer announces it decisively, with a slight headlight & hood frown of condescension.
We got the 520i and 528i originally, as both were leaded petrol (the strange ETA’s arrived with lead free from ’86). The 520i automatic was widely panned for being gutless, especially at the whacking prices charged. A small six with a torque peak over 4,000 revs in a 3100lb car wasn’t ideal. Turn on the a/c, knock off some power for a hot day, make your way through thick traffic for some starting moments. I’ve driven a 323i manual years ago – what a car! – and even as a manual in a lighter body AND a bigger small six, it had nothing at all below 3,500 revs+ (though great glories above that).
Our E28’s definitely had the smaller inboard headlamps.
Somebody up above mentioned rectangular headlamps. That’s been done; there were at least two companies that offered rectangular-headlamp conversions for BMWs. Wanna see what they look like on an E28 (…E21, E30, etc)? Look here and here and here. Put your seatbelt on first!
Dear god, that’s comical!
It gives it a face like it’s squeezing out something that was originally low in fibre.
I wonder which car was the first to have blacked out b-pillar with greenhouse chrome surround?
displacement aside, it’s not quite correct to compare the BMW 524td with the MB 240D. The BMW Diesels star-bearing competitors were the 300D for the non-turbo 524d and the 300TD for the turbo 524td. Each similar in outpout.
Lest not forget: the fastest Diesel passenger car of the 80ies was, of course, the Citroën CX 25 TRD Turbo!