1979 6-cylinder BMW 520 Automatic E12 in Garage

What’s in your Garage? We chart the history of the E12 5 Series and have a close look at an owner’s lovely 520.

Without doubt, the Neue Klasse 1500 saloon programme, which began in 1959 and saw the model introduced at the Frankfurt Show in 1961 set BMW on the road to growth and success. From its shaky start with over 12 month’s delay on deliveries to the showrooms and early design shortfalls with rear suspension and gearbox components the car soon proved its worth laying the foundation for the 1600 version, a more thoroughly engineered model introduced in 1964. Clearly, BMW’s history at this point was bound up with sharp ‘back from the brink’ business management models and solid investment, its rise to fame and fortune fully justifying German industrialist Herbert Quandt’s faith in the marque when he increased his shares holding in the company to 50 percent.

By the beginning of the 1970s BMW’s range was comprehensive encompassing the two door ’02 models, including the elegant Baur convertible and the exciting Turbo version to the range-topping E3 2500 – 3.3Li saloons, supported by the sleek six-cylinder coupés.

However, this decade was to herald a major change in automotive vision on many fronts. The 1973 Arab-Israeli war signalled the start of a severe oil crisis impacting strongly on petrol costs with thoughts being turned to more fuel efficient vehicles aligned with increasingly stringent regulations affecting carbon emission levels. In addition, the best selling non-fiction book ‘Unsafe at Any Speed’ written by Ralph Nader and published in 1965 occasioned the start of major concerns worldwide over safety on the highway and the integrity of automobile designs. Globally, manufacturers ramped up their test and research programmes in bodyshell protection and cabin safety, all of which would be reflected in changes to shape, style and technology.

Also, considerable research was made into the effects of a serious crash on cadavers, especially in the head and chest regions, which in turn brought about the introduction of new materials and changes to interior designs, which would keep impact injury to a minimum while the bodyshell ‘safety cell’ concept surrounded by crumple zones was another area of research to create enhanced driver and passenger safety.

In 1972 Munich was preparing to host the next Summer Olympic games (highlighted by the horrific terrorist massacre), which was to be held at the site of the old Oberwiesenfeld airfield, home to the Bayerische Motoren Works and Bayerische Flugzeug Werke, set up in 1932. Futuristic looking office accommodation, nicknamed the ‘BMW Four- Cylinder Building’ because of its quadruple turrets was built close by to the old airfield and formed the company’s new HQ while an assembly facility was constructed at Dingolfing, which would handle assembly of BMW’s expanding range.

That year the sleek and stylish BMW Turbo was introduced. Designed by the gifted BMW stylist Paul Bracq the car featured striking gull wing doors and a mid-mounted turbocharged 2002 engine. For added safety it encompassed foam-filled impact areas front and rear, with side impact intrusion beams and a device for warning the driver over safe braking distances to the car ahead.

The next generation of mid-range BMW saloons could be said to have started with a Bertone styling exercise project called the 2200TI Garmisch designed at the Bertone styling studios in Turin and exhibited at the Geneva Salon in 1970. A two-door four-seater coupé critical features of the car were full width slanting Plexiglas panels covering the headlights either side of the twin grille apertures, slim A and B pillars, a linear motif that ran along the wings and a honeycomb-effect cover overlaid onto the rear windscreen. Inside, an unusual vertical centre console housed a vertically mounted radio while the passenger’s glove box hid a large vanity mirror, which flipped up when the glove box was pulled forward to open it.

Elegant and stylish the Garmisch coupé would form the foundation for the BMW E12. In charge of chassis design for the new range was Eberhard Wolff, the drive train team leader was the gifted Wilhelm Hofmeister while the design group was led by the capable Paul Bracq, it would prove a formidable team. The first of the new 5 Series (this in itself marked the beginning of a new BMW identity scheme), was the 520 and 520i models and encompassed the latest thinking in design, safely, performance and styling. While there was a clear similarity between its Neue Klasse fore bears sharing the same dog leg knuckle to the line of the rear door and generous glass area the overall effect suggested a sharpening up of shape from the earlier models: gone was the fussy fold in the body sides extending the full length of the flanks of the car to be replaced by a black rubbing strake which linked up with the wrap around bumpers front and rear while the frontal treatment was given twin headlights, aligning with the latest 1970s design theme thinking. As with the Neue Klasse cars before it the characteristics that set the 520 aside from its competitors was its overall packaging; good performance for its engine size linked to sure footed handling and braking together with a light and spacious interior.

When compared with the earlier saloons, the E12 5 Series was three-inches longer and one-and-a-half-inches wider. Also, the wheelbase was increased by four-inches resulting in a dimension only two-inches shorter than that of the larger E3 type saloons of the same period while the track was increased by three-inches and the wheel size went up from five- to five-and- a-half-inches to enhance road holding.

Announced on the German market in September 1971 the 520 series reached UK shores soon after when The Autocar tested a carburettor version. However, surprisingly disappointed with its performance they decided to postpone publication, preferring to wait and test a 520i in mid-1972. Under scrutiny their patience proved a positive move and the uprated model was not only brisker in response to the throttle, but was both more frugal and flexible in daily driving.

Under the 520’s bonnet was the now familiar overhead camshaft four cylinder M10 type engine, which was based on a cast iron cylinder block with an aluminium head. To align with ever more demanding exhaust emission regulations the combustion chamber shape was redesigned to create more efficient combustion characteristics while the compression ratio was dropped to enable the engine to run on lower octane fuel. The 520 model was fitted with twin Stromberg carburettors and produced 115hp at 5800rpm. Performance of this version was rated as having a 0-60mph acceleration time of 12 seconds with a maximum speed of 106mph. The injected version was given the Kugelfischer mechanical system as used in the 2002 Turbo and produced 125hp at 5700rpm.

 Drive was taken through a single dry plate clutch to a four speed manual gearbox. Notably, in 1975 the fuel injection system was changed to the Bosch K Jetronic set up.

As The Autocar was to comment in its road test report of the 520i BMW’s rise from exhibiting the new four-door saloon in 1960 to the time of their evaluation of the 2.0-litre E12 the company’s growth had been nothing short of meteoric with production levels at Munich now running at some 172,000 units per year, equivalent to that of the specialist divisions of Rover and Triumph, now part of British Leyland.

Over its nine year production cycle the E12’s range would grow to become as comprehensive as it was somewhat confusing. Two years after the launch of the 520 models, to qualify for fuel consumption reduction the 518 version was introduced, again based on the four cylinder M10 engine series. Of 1766cc and with carburetion it delivered 90hp at 5500rpm. Finally, the late model 520, which was based on the six-cylinder M20 engine series and the only E12 to use this power unit, became available in 1979 in both naturally aspirated form along with a fuel injection model alongside.

The next E12 models utilised the six-cylinder M30 engine series, as fitted to the large E3 saloons and E9 coupés. First came the 525 model in 1973 (producing 145hp at 6000rpm, increased to 150bhp in 1976) and the 528 version the following year (delivering 165hp at 5800rpm and increased to 170hp at 5800rpm in 1976) with an injection version becoming available in 1977 giving a healthy 177hp at 5800rpm.

In addition to the slight increases in power delivery 1976 was to be a notable year in the E12’s evolution coinciding with the introduction of the E23 7 Series luxury saloon. Subtle styling changes on the E12 included relocating the petrol filler from the transom panel to the offside rear flanks of the car, the rear tail lights were enlarged while the bonnet was given a slight styling crease running forward to align with the BMW branding kidney intake grilles.

The 528i, based on a 2788cc injected version of the M30 type engine was upgraded and introduced in 1978 (delivering 184hp at 5800rpm) and was used almost as a production development vehicle for the soon to arrive M series car; few were made and are now quite rare. However, the BMW enthusiast would have to wait until 1980 before the M535i version of the E12 was introduced using the drive train from the 635 CSi. Based on the 3453cc version of the M30 engine but still using the two-valves per cylinder layout head, single-row timing chain and Kugelfischer fuel injection system it delivered 218hp at 5200rpm. The gearbox was the dog leg Getrag five-speed type while the final drive was given an integral oil cooler and the interior boasted Recaro type seats.

The four-cylinder 520 vehicles were fitted with disc/drum brakes while the larger six-cylinder models had discs all round, overall the set up being largely based on that fitted to the two-door 2002 system. Final drive ratios varied considerably dependent on engine power and torque delivery.

Nath’s car that we are testing is a 1979 6-cylinder 520 model with a single Solex carburettor and automatic transmission. “I was born in Colchester in 1991 and with the exception of an 18 month sabbatical during which I worked in Australia I’ve always lived in this area of Essex,” explains Nath Lam, owner of the rare E12 520 automatic we are featuring here. “My father and his brothers have always had a lifelong interest in cars while initially my passion for classic cars was for early Mercedes models such as the SL of the 1980s. However, my father and uncles began driving BMWs and I think their fascination for Munich motor cars passed down to me and today my father drives an F10 M5.

“Although I hadn’t passed my test at the time my first car was a 1983 Mk1 VW Golf Campaign, which I bought in 2010,” explains Nath. “It came with a sliding sun roof, green tinted windows, 14-inch alloy wheels, twin headlights, leather steering wheel and different interior door locking pins. It started me on the road to servicing and repairing my own cars and undertaking bodywork restoration. And the Golf did go wrong many times.

“Next, I bought a VW Camper Van,” grins Nath at the memory. “It was pretty tatty and needed a lot of work and it was then that I learnt how to weld. Then, in 2012 I went off to Australia working in vineyards and fitting replacement windows. It was a great opportunity to see the muscle cars they like to drive over there. When I came back to the UK I had no money so I had to find a job, quickly, and start saving.”

“When I came back to the UK from Australia I wanted to find a car which was unusual, something different to the average vehicle on the road, a car that represented my personality,” asserts Nath. “There was no science in choosing the E12. Every night I would search the Internet and when I eventually found it I immediately thought what a wonderful looking car. The E12 had the aura of something rather special. Reading the description it sounded just what I was looking for so I went and had a look. The owner explained that the car had spent fifteen years in Ireland and had just been relocated to the UK. I took it up the drive and just fell in love with the sound of the engine. By the time I’d arrived home I’d decided to purchase it. In fact, my father said that if I didn’t buy it he would. In the event he loaned me half of the £2500 asking price so I was able to close the deal.”

Today, the 520 still looks delightfully compact and elegant, the 1970s styling and decor giving the car distinctive poise and presence. The doors open wide providing easy access to the roomy interior. Inside, the attention to seating, trim and dashboard design is obvious. Clearly, considerable attention was given to ensuring the seats are comfortable and supportive emulating those fitted to the larger E3 models with excellent support for thighs and lumbar.

Ahead is a simple and ergonomically laid out dashboard arranged to make the driver’s task easy and straightforward. Ahead is a large speedometer and matching clock flanked by easily read fuel and water temperature gauges with a strip of supplementary warning lights below. Curiously, there is no rev counter suggesting that BMW did not deem it necessary to fit such a device in those days. Centrally, an angular shaped console provides the controls for the heating and ventilation system. Significantly, the indicator control stalk is located on the left hand side of the column, setting a trend for future BMWs and aligning with general automotive convention.

The ignition switch is high up and to the right on the steering column. A twist of the key and the engine fires into life without hesitation. The transmission is a three-speed ‘box with kick down facility. Move the selector into drive, release the handbrake and with adequate pressure on the throttle the 520 moves away smoothly.

Under normal driving conditions first gear is markedly low, giving a maximum speed of only around 20mph before it changes up to second. In normal 30mph town motoring the transmission stays in second for much of the time happy to keep up with busy traffic.

“When I drove my 520 on the road for the first time after buying it the car really lived up to all my expectations, especially the interior,” sighs Nath at the memory. “For example, the dashboard looked pristine with no marks or scrapes and I love the wooden inlays to the extreme of the dashboard, they give the car a feeling of real quality. As for its performance and road holding it seemed so solid and handled really well despite its soft suspension.”

However, Nath says that when he bought the car his knowledge of BMWs, especially the first generation of 5 Series was pretty limited. “For example, when I came across the car on the Internet I thought it was an E28, I didn’t know there was an earlier model. And I didn’t know that the bonnet covered the wing tops and lifted forward. Then I started to do some research and I soon realized what a rare and special car it is.”

Out on the open road the E12 quickly changes up into top, which gives a wide 30-100mph plus spread of speed capability. However, just slight additional pressure on the throttle has the system kick down snapping in, changing down, responding to press on type motoring.

While The Autocar’s test revealed that even the carburettor version of the 520 like Nath’s is capable of topping 110mph and cruising at over the ‘ton’ in reality, road roar, engine noise and background vibration suggest that it would really rather you keep to within 80-85mph. At the legal limit the slim A and B post pillars restrict wind noise noticeably while limited vibration form the super smooth straight-six makes the car relaxing to drive on the open road.

Continued development on BMW’s braking systems was another aspect commented on in the The Autocar’s report with good retarding performance once the system had been warmed through adding that after several high speed stops there was none of the roughness and rumbling which had been revealed on earlier BMWs. In reality, despite its servoed set up there is nothing to suggest the braking system on this car is working on its limits, even when hauling the car down from high speed.

As for the car’s handling qualities the combined effect of good traction and road holding together make the 520 a joy to handle and there is a strong temptation to explore the car’s capabilities with verve. In fact, when it was introduced the 520’s ride qualities, especially at high speed were reckoned to be the best among BMW’s models of the time. Praise indeed.

One characteristic of the BMW’s steering that does reveal itself quickly to the novice 520 driver is that it demands a full four turns from lock-to-lock, which translates to a marked degree of arm twirling on a winding country road. Nevertheless, there is an immediate response from just a small adjustment to the steering giving confidence in the car’s ability.

“Initially, to make the 520 look different I lowered the suspension and put alloy wheels on it,” says Nath. “Then, I replaced the original wheels and now I’m quite happy with the way it looks and behaves. “ After owning the car for around six months, it was coming up to summer time and Nath thought he’d love to take it on a long run, down to Bordeaux, round the south of France, taking in Lake Como, Monte Carlo and on into Spain. “I didn’t put a time limit on it I just took off. I specially recall driving into Monte Carlo and despite all the luxury and high performance cars my BMW drew a lot of admiring glances. Overall, it was totally reliable covering over 4000 miles on what was a most memorable trip”.


Nath’s rare E12 520 is for sale.

Tel: 07843 631706

Email: [email protected]

“I specially recall driving into Monte Carlo and despite all the luxury and high performance cars my BMW drew a lot of admiring glances”

“I started to do some research and I soon realised what a rare and special car it is” 

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