BMW M5 E28 road test

2014 Drive-My

Just 96 right-hand drive South African E28 M5s were made and this one must be the best in existence. Words: Bob Harper. Photography: Gus Gregory.

Like many M cars of the period the E28 M5 has seen some pretty impressive increases in value over the last few years and it’s not hard to understand why. For starters they have rarity on their side; just 2241 were made over a four-year period and with 1340 of those destined for the North American market which left just 901 examples for the rest of the world to enjoy.

BMW M5 E28 road test

And as the first of a long and desirable dynasty of Super Saloons it has an enviable heritage. But when this particular machine came up for sale recently even I experienced a sharp intake of breath when I saw the asking price. I can’t remember seeing many being offered before at such strong money and while it looked good in the pictures I did have some doubts as to whether it could possibly be worth that much. The fact that it sold very quickly ably demonstrates that I’m probably not the guy to go to when it comes to classic BMW valuations…

BMW M5 E28 road test

Munich Legends was the vendor and it was selling the car on behalf of its Australian owner and in order to satisfy my curiosity I had to pop down to its Sussex HQ to sample the car for myself. I must admit that I hadn’t looked all that closely at the details of the car when I’d seen it for sale on the internet but when I saw it in the flesh I realised that this was indeed something a little out of the ordinary – not that any E28 M5 can really be referred to as ordinary. I should have twigged when I first saw the pictures but my aged brain doesn’t work quite as fast as it used to, but the fact that the car was finished in the attractive shade of Henna red should have set alarm bells ringing. M in Munich never painted M5s in this shade which pointed to the fact that this was one of the 96 E28 M5s that were lovingly assembled from Complete Knock Down (CKD) kits at the Rosslyn plant in South Africa.

BMW M5 E28 road test

Production of these 96 cars started pretty late in the day as far as the manufacture of E28 M5s goes. BMW Motorsport had been assembling them at its Preussenstrasse HQ since October 1984 (even though the car wasn’t actually officially presented to the world until the Amsterdam motor show in early 1985) and post-September 1986 at its new premises in Garching, yet the first South African assembled M5s didn’t see the light of day until June 1987 – just three months before Munich stopped making lefthand drive European-spec E28s to turn its attention to fettling the new BMW E34 M5. Production continued at Rosslyn until November 1988 when the last of the 96 rolled out into the southern hemisphere sunshine.

Mechanically the northern and southern hemisphere cars were identical. Both featured the M88 3453cc 24-valve twin-cam engine that was good for 286hp at 6500rpm and 251lb ft of torque at 4500rpm. Both cars featured the same Getrag 280/5 five-speed manual gearbox and 25 per cent limited-slip differential with a 3.73:1 final drive. Their suspension setups were the same, too, and the South African M5s featured the later European M5 underpinnings – Boge shock absorbers and 25mm (front) and 18mm (rear) anti-roll bars.

So what makes a South African M5 special? At first nothing obvious jumps out but delve a little deeper and you’ll find a number of differences between the Munich and Rosslyn assembled machines. You could be forgiven for thinking that as the South African M5s were built from CKD kits that the cars would be identical to the German ones but the most basic difference was that as the SA machines were painted locally they could only be spec’d in the five colours that the E28 5 Series was available in there. Thus they’re all either Diamond black, Cirrus blue, Dolphin grey, Ice white or Henna red, and those last two colours were unique to South Africa for the M5 as they weren’t offered in Germany at this time.

Those with exceptionally good eyes might also clock the fact that the car is also missing the very subtle wheel arch extensions that were fitted to German built cars and that the headlight wash wipe is missing here – neither item was offered on the South African cars. Items that were fitted as standard were the 7.5×16-inch cross-spoke alloys that were fitted to the UK cars and were optional in most other markets, Shadowline trim, and, perhaps most obviously, the M Tech body kit was fitted to each and every one of the 96 South African machines – it was optional in all other markets bar North America where the car was sold exclusively without the kit with standard US-spec impact bumpers fitted instead.

BMW M5 E28 road test

Bar the two unique colours the differences so far aren’t huge but it’s when you delve inside the South African M5 that you notice a number of unique features that weren’t offered in other markets. For starters the South African M5 was equipped with just about every single factory option that was offered on the E28 5 Series in South Africa and the only cost option when the car was new was a power sunroof – all the South African potential owners had to decide was whether or not to spec the roof and what colour they wanted for the exterior and the leather interior. And it was that leather that really made the cars unique as those assembled at Rosslyn featured a Highline interior very similar to that fitted to the last of-the-line E24 6 Series models. The regular quality leather was replaced with softer Nappa leather and not just on the seats – the centre console, glovebox, interior door trim panels, sun visors, headlining, upper door trim panels and the dashboard were all swathed in it, which endowed the car with a real luxury feel.

Due to the dash being leather-clad one feature the Rosslyn M5s didn’t have was the recessed oddments tray that would normally have been found in front of the passenger on the top of the dash in European assembled examples. For those that really love their M5s, the fact that the South African M5s featured plastic M5 kick plates on the sills of the front door apertures will be duly noted, and if they opened the boot they might notice some very slightly different trim panels, too. A closer examination of the glass might also reveal that this was locally sourced rather than being shipped from Germany as the safety mark etching is slightly different, too.

So, apologies for the geek-fest of M5 minutiae but once all the changes have been taken into account it’s easy to see that the South African machines did have enough differences to warrant a closer look.

What all this still doesn’t explain, though, is what this car is doing over here. Its first owner was a wellheeled South African who used the car once a week to complete the 130km round trip from his home in Johannesburg to his factory and when he emigrated to Australia in 1996 he took the lightly used machine with him, at which time the M5 had covered just 36,000km and was still in its unmarked original factory condition.

After that the car was owned by a BMW main dealer service advisor who was obviously in a good position to keep the car in perfect condition but in 2002 the third owner of the car, Stewart Garmey, entered the picture. He was already a big BMW fan having owned several examples of the brand and in an interview in BMW Magazine he said that the car’s “condition and rarity” appealed to him – it was the only South African-built example in Australia and with its low mileage and original unspoiled condition it had to be one of the best on the continent. In the ensuing 12 years Stewart used the car sparingly – it had a once-monthly outing to keep all the mechanical components ticking over nicely and it was shown at many BMW events and became a very well-known machine down under.

All good things have to come to an end though and so earlier this year Stewart decided to part with the car. Knowing Munich Legends’ reputation for all things M he decided to have the car shipped to the UK where it was likely to achieve the best price. In the 12 years he owned the car Stewart only added another 25,000km and as it never suffered the ignominy of a crash or even a car park bump it’s still 100 per cent original. And in the flesh it looks utterly stunning. Initially when I see it on Munich Legends’ forecourt I can’t quite make up my mind over the Henna Red paintwork – one becomes so accustomed to seeing them in the European hue of Zinnobar red that to start with it seems a little incongruous but once I’ve spent a couple of hours poring over the car’s every detail while we photograph it in the Ashdown Forest I become quite smitten with the colour.

Its 60,000km odometer reading equates to less than 40,000 miles and it really does still feel like a factory fresh example. The little noises it makes are so evocative of the period that were it not for the selection of more modern machinery that we encounter on the roads I feel like I could have been transported straight back to my dealership days of the late 1980s. The starter motor has a higher pitched whine to it as it engages briefly before the lusty ‘six bursts into life with its busy mechanical hum. Even before you’ve twisted the key the wonderfully period ‘twang’ sound the doors give when they’re closed has also taken you back in time – it’s a noise that’s so much a part of an E28 5 Series that I think I could tell it apart from other cars even with my eyes closed!

In deference to the car’s low mileage, value and provenance I don’t give it a jolly good thrashing – although I have to admit that I was sorely tempted – but even without really extending the car you can really see the appeal of these first generation M5s.

Everything has an immediacy to it that’s completely missing from modern cars – it chats to you as you rumble down the road with an engine note that changes ever so subtly in almost 100rpm increments. The steering talks to you, too, with every bump and road imperfection seemingly coming back through the wheel rim and there’s enough compliance in the suspension to allow for a fair bit of body roll so you know when you’re starting to push on. The relatively soft damping and pretty generous 50 section rubber allow for a decent ride too – to those who have grown up with the latest stiffly suspended and overtyred machines it would be a revelation. The engine’s an absolute jewel, too, with none of the low-rev fluffiness that can affect these units if they’re not in perfect fettle.

After having spent a day with the car I’ve become utterly smitten and various plans are dreamed up for some sort of get rich quick scheme so I can put in an offer and gazump the car’s lucky new owner. To some the car’s South African parentage might make them feel that this is somehow a lesser M5 – it wasn’t hand built in Germany – but to me it’s not important as it was built with the same components by technicians trained by M’s engineers and the driving experience is every bit as good as you’d expect. And having sampled this machine you can almost make a case for its asking price being reasonable, too. It really was that good.

Car

BMW M5 E28

Produced

1984-1988

Engine

In-line six-cylinder, DOHC, 24-valve

Capacity (cc)

3453

Valves

24V, DOHC

Bore/stroke (mm)

93.4/84

Compression (to one)

10.5:1

Aspiration

Bosch Motronic F1

Power/rpm (bhp)

286/6500

Torque/rpm (lb ft)

251/4500

Transmission

Five-speed, manual

Top gear ratio/mph/1000rpm

Direct/23.9

Final drive (to one)

3.07

Body, type

Four door, saloon

Suspension, front

MacPherson struts, transverse links, anti-roll bar

Suspension, rear

Semi trailing arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar

Steering

Recirculating ball, power assisted

Brakes

ABS, discs front/rear

Wheels

Alloy, 6.5in rims

Tyres

220/55VR390 TRX

Dimensions (in)

Wheelbase

103.4

Track, front

56.3

Track, rear

57.5

Length

181.9

Width

66.9

Kerb weight (lb)

2890

Price in UK (1986)

£19,950

Weight

1470kg

Acceleration (sec) 0-62mph

6.7 seconds

Top speed

153mph

Economy, MPG 18.8

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