Curbside Classic/COAL: 1975 BMW 530i (E12) – My First Car, At Age 15

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(First posted 6/13/2014. The story is by Richard Swartz. The photos are from Steve Evans, of his incredibly pristine 530i. So we have a first here, a collaborative effort by two CC readers, who have very divergent aspects of the 530i experience to share. I suspect Richard’s 530i wasn’t quite as pristine as Steve’s, though. – PN)

A 1975 BMW 530i was my first car. I bought it when I was about 15 ½ years old, with lawn-mowing money. The purchase price in 1987 was something like $2500 for a non-running car that was going to need a new head, which seems like about what Craigslist sellers expect for the same thing in 2014.

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Because we had an old, temperamental 2-cycle string trimmer for my college-fund lawn mowing business, my father and I had made friends with Jim, the small engine guy at the local garden store. Jim was friendly and talkative, an exception to the gruff lawnmower repair type that used to populate the Midwest. Somehow, it came up that Jim used to work at the local Honda-BMW-Mercedes dealer. He knew a lot about BMWs, but was caught undressed in the arms of the boss’s wife. Or girlfriend. Hence the Homelite gig. Jim said he would be willing to work, shade-tree, on any BMW I could bring his way.

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I, meanwhile, had read about the BMW M10 and M30 engines ever since I realized that I would be allowed to drive at 16. The specific output was what I admired, since a good 5-liter V-8 might make 150 horsepower, then. I knew I wasn’t going to get my hands on any new car, and I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to afford or insure one of the great high-compression V-8s of the 60s. I was thrilled that Jim increased the chance that I could get one of the very limited supply of aged BMWs around Topeka, Kansas. (You could say, my ability to do something stupid had been amplified far beyond the grasp of an ordinary 16-year-old.)

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After a couple of 2002s that were too rusty to work with, I found the 530i in the want ads. I don’t really remember the previous owner. The car had a straight, solid body, a 4-speed, a cracked head and torn-up Bosch fuel injection. Instead of installing catalytic converters, BMW had used thermal reactors to reduce CO emissions from these cars. As you might guess from the name, thermal reactors didn’t help the car in any way. They caused…overheating. Warped and cracked aluminum heads were expected on early e12s in the US.

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image: wikipedia

So, naturally, I bought the thing. We took it to Jim’s garage, probably with my dad’s Mazda B2000 and some rope. I contributed labor, as well as more money, to this E12 insanity. We got the engine out, bought a better head off a guy who must’ve had the only Bavaria in a 50-mile radius, got the pistons out for new rings and rod bearings, and put twin Zeniths my dad patiently fetched from a junkyard 70 miles away on top. (In case you’re not insane, two twin-choke carburetors, Solexenith or Weber, was the standard induction system for the BMW M30 6 from its beginning until the late 1970s; that’s what’s beneath the oblong air cleaner on the rusty Bavaria that you, sensibly enough, did NOT buy.)

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One perfect May evening Jim got the carbs right enough to run and I finally reached teenage nirvana, being as I was slow to pick a girl: we drove the car around the block without the muffler attached. The sound was beautiful, like being in your own airshow.

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My 2 years with the 530 no-longer i were by no means untroubled. We couldn’t figure out how to wire up the tach in a way that didn’t short something else out. A giubo was spat into the street, which was more embarrassing than costly. I’m sure I’ve repressed all memory of many incidents from that long shakedown cruise, my junior year of high school. But somehow, with help from Jim, my dad, and some patient friends, the 530i was becoming drivable and trustworthy, regardless of its long-run issues.

The main thing about the 530i driving experience was amazing stability and tracking. The car practically demanded that you downshift, get on the engine, and speed up through any curve. Long, looping highway entrances marked 35 were best finished at 75, under the mercury vapor light of the interstate night. Left turn with my right foot? Yes! Second-gear scratch? If you like! Three passengers and the AC (which tried) cruising at 70? Relax, it’s fine.

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The brakes weren’t bad, either. I once caught a deer in my headlights, and was able to slow in time that I nudged him off the road with my ugly 5 MPH bumper, instead of taking a hoof through the windshield. And there was no squatting or diving. Once I got some worn bushings replaced, the 4-speed was comfortable and accurate to shift, though the second-gear syncro was one of the long-term issues that meant I couldn’t take my car to college with me. And another thing: the 530i was the first car I ever drove that didn’t generate so much aerodynamic lift as to feel out of control over about 80 MPH.

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I’m not sure when it started or ended, but the E12 was part of a time when BMW, at least, really did seem to be about 10 years ahead of the mainstream manufacturers, maybe more. (Now BMW is one of them, no question.) Of course, with the extended e12-e28 run, BMW gave up some of that lead time, but it seems like it was really a long time between 1975 and the time when somebody else made a plain sedan with 180+ horsepower that felt good at 100 MPH. (I have never driven a Mercedes W116, 6.9 or otherwise, so that might be the obvious exception to my statement.)

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The 530i didn’t have the indestructibility of a Mercedes, but that engine probably ran a long time, once we got the thermal reactors off it. You could feel the strength and intelligence of the design in that engine, and some of the other pieces we worked on, and you could definitely feel it with the sense of the road through the steering wheel. Anyway, other than rich Americans getting tired of buying 70s and 80s American cars, the engineering in the E12 is a big part of where BMW’s positive image came from.

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