Amongst BMW aficionados there’s often a feeling that ‘they don’t make them like they used to’; you only need to have a look at an E34 Five for this to be ably demonstrated. There’s a wonderfully solid feel to the car, no doubt the result of it being overengineered in the first place and if you can find one today that has been looked after it’s still a wonderful place to while away the miles. The doors will still close with a satisfying ‘clumph’, a less metallic sound than the E28 that went before it but no less solid and, providing the example you’re looking at has been well-maintained, an E34 is still an entertaining machine to drive.
BMW made them by the barrow-load. It was the first 5 Series to break the one million barrier and, indeed, the E34’s production run of 1.3 million units was almost double that of the BMW E28 Five. It was available with a variety of engines – from the slightly asthmatic four-cylinder BMW 518i E34 up to the V8-powered 540i. Of course, there was also the fire-breathing M5, too. If you’re after the ultimate example then an M5 would be the way to go, although there’s no doubting these are complex machines and will require a significant amount of money to be spent on them. As such, we’d be inclined to point those with a hankering for an E34 in the direction of another model: the 535i. BMW made very nearly 100,000 examples but they’re now becoming quite a rare sight on our roads so if you want one you better start looking.
The E34 was thrust into the spotlight at the Detroit motor show at the beginning of 1988 and by June 1988 it was available to buy in the UK. After the previous two generations of Five, the E34 was quite a revolution, being very much a scaled down version of the E32 7 Series that had made its debut in 1986.
The styling was significantly more rounded and overall the new car was lower, longer and wider than before. Thanks to its sleeker shape it saw an 18 per cent improvement in aerodynamic efficiency despite being wider than the outgoing E28.
The wheelbase had increased by five inches which pushed the wheels out towards each corner and was also supposed to give more interior room, especially for rear seat passengers. Despite this, it was actually the one area where the Five was still criticised by the motoring press of the day. In its first full test of the 535i Autocar found it to be a step up over the old 5 Series in virtually every respect apart from “the slight lack of room for rear seat passengers”. That was its only gripe, though, and it’s not as if the E34 is unique amongst Fives for having meagre rear seat accommodation – even the latest F10 version is a little mean when you consider how huge the car is! Apart from the rear seat issue Autocar loved the 535i: “It is one of the finest BMWs we have ever driven. It is superbly engineered with a very high standard of fit and finish, has deceptively good performance with brakes to match and reasonable fuel consumption.”
At the heart of the 535i was the same M30 3430cc straight-six that had featured in the E28. This offered up 211hp at 5700rpm and 225lb ft at 4000rpm, which equated to performance figures of 7.7 seconds to 62mph, a top speed of 146mph, and a combined economy of 22mpg. When it was introduced in 1988 the 535i had a £25,390 price tag in SE trim but by today’s standards it had a fairly scant equipment list. Naturally enough there were electric mirrors and windows, central locking, the on-board check control system and a few ‘extras’ such as headlight washers, but if you wanted your 535i to be fully loaded you’d have needed to have been friendly with your bank manager. The standard gearbox was the five-speed manual – the four-speed auto was a £1400 option – and if you’d wanted to keep cool while punting your 535i along the nation’s roads you’d have needed an additional £2132! The standard interior featured cloth seats but these could be spec’d up with leather and electric adjustment and Sports seats were also available as an option.
Around this time BMW started to offer the Sport pack on its cars – what we now know as the M Sport – and the E30 325i and the E34 535i were the first recipients of this. The E28 Five had been available as an M535i, but for some reason BMW decided to drop the M connection for the E34 535i Sport when it was launched in 1989. It followed the formula that had proved successful on the M535i so there was aerodynamic styling kit that was reckoned to reduce front and rear lift by 33 and 50 per cent front and rear respectively. The kit comprised a deeper and more aggressive front spoiler assembly, side skirts and a reshaped lower rear bumper moulding as well as a hoop spoiler on the bootlid. Combined with a set of beefy cross-spoke alloys carrying metric 240/45 ZR415 Michelin TRX tyres it certainly looked the part and was visually very similar to the E34 M5. Those TRX tyres weren’t the best, though, and contemporary road testers did comment that there wasn’t as much grip as on the standard tyres and that there was less feedback with the TRXs fitted. Inside there were a set of finely sculpted BMW Sport seats while under the skin there was stiffer Sport suspension and a limitedslip differential, too. The Sport model attracted a £3000 premium over the standard car.
From there on in there weren’t a huge number of changes wrought on the 535i, although in 1990 (for the 1991 model year) the 535i did see its overall gearing being lowered as the new multi-valve M50-engined 525i was starting to run the old 535i pretty close in terms of outright acceleration. It continued to be produced with minor tinkering to spec levels until it was replaced by the V8-engined 540i in late 1992.
Your main problem here is going to be finding one! Despite being manufactured and sold in large numbers there are actually more E34 M5s for sale in the UK at the moment than 535is. This means that when one does crop up for sale you need to move fast.
It’s fine to have your ideal spec in mind but if you have your heart set on a Glacier blue 535i Sport with a manual ‘box and a Dolphin grey 535i auto crops up in the classifieds we’d advise against immediately discounting it. The most important thing to buy on is condition as a rusty example could well be expensive to put back together properly and with a wide variation in pricing between different examples you need to be careful when buying.
At the very top end of the market you have examples like the one pictured – currently up for sale at KGF Classic Cars for £17,395 – and while that might seem like a lot of money it’s a one-owner-from-new machine with less than 10k miles on the clock! The best left? It could well be! At the other end of the market you can still find sub-£2000 machines being offered and while some of these really are too far gone to be economically brought up to a decent condition others in this price bracket appear to be pretty decent machines. We found an 1988 F-plate example with 75k miles for £1750 that looked to be in fine fettle; in fact, we were so taken with it we almost went to have a look.
The bottom line is that you need to keep your eyes open and search out the good cars. It might take a while to find one but when you do you’ll have bought a modern classic that can be enjoyed without breaking the bank.
Steering and suspension
The E34 carried on where the E28 left off with McPherson front struts and semi-trailing arm rear suspension. But the E34 setup was far better resolved and eradicated the E28 535i’s frightening lack of wet road grip as well as giving a better ride. Standard dampers were Boge Sachs and whilst some Sport cars had Bilsteins, most had an uprated Boge Sachs insert. Sports also have shorter, stiffer springs plus thicker anti-roll bars. Faults? At the front, worn upper control arm bushes give the infamous 55mph wobble so replace the arms for E32 750i items (same arm, stronger bush – but make very sure the new arm comes with the bush fitted as many do not). Rotten strut spring cups (front and rear) are less common than the E28 but these are old cars now. Be aware that the front struts changed in November 1991 when BMW repositioned the ABS sensor and fitted a different front hub. The unit is not interchangeable and whilst it will bolt on, the ABS won’t work. All 535is use the E32 type front top mounts and if you find E34 dampers are scarce, E32 ones are a direct swap… but be aware that the diameter of the top damper pin (where it passes through the top mount) changed in July 1990. Early ones have an M12 (19mm) top nut, later ones use a M14 (21mm) nut. From Euro Car Parts, a pair of Boge Sach gas front dampers are under £200; from BMW standard 535i dampers are £250… each.
Steering boxes can wear and only so much adjustment is possible but good used E34 boxes are plentiful. Wear in the front steering rods and drag links can cause steering wander, as can a worn out idler arm bush – all cheaply replaced. At the back, very little wears out apart from the Pitman arms, often called ‘dog bones’ – another inexpensive fix. One last thing, the E34 (like the E28 and E24) can suffer a bit of play in the steering column splines where the upper and lower halves fit together. There is a 32mm adjuster nut and when you have the wheel where you want it, you can just tighten it fully. The column won’t adjust anymore but the play has all gone.
Some 535i cars had Servotronic steering as an option, an idea that was great on paper but failed to live up to the promise. It took readings from the speedo sensor and progressively lightened the steering the slower the car went. It can be replaced with a standard item if you really don’t like it.
The E34 carried on with the E32 system of pre-Canbus electrics with control modules. Under the rear seat there are both the GM (general module) and the RM (relay module) units that control the wipers, locking, windows and so on. They are very reliable and if one should fail, you can just replace it – no coding is needed.
Door lock units can fail but are cheap to replace (if not exactly easy). Instrument clusters are at the age now where they are failing. They have a rear circuit board that is quickly removed but the new price from BMW is in the Disneyland realm – at around £2300. Yes, you read that correctly – someone at BMW must have been smoking something pretty potent! There are three basic types of cluster: the very early grey back until early 1989; a bluebacked unit; and a white-backed unit. They interchange as a complete clusters but the coding chips (mileage, automatic or manual gearbox, tank capacity) do not (although six cylinder E32 clusters are the same). As mentioned, the Motronic 1.3 management system is excellent and the E34 body electrics have been very good.
The only other area of caution is the relay under the rear seat for the heated rear window. A failing relay allied to crusty terminals can lead to a fire under the rear seat, so check it carefully and fit a new relay. Want to fit cruise control? It’s dead easy on most 535is. Cars built until September 1991 had the type of loom where all the connectors for various options are there. Fitting a cruise kit takes about an hour. After that an E36 type loom with no accessory sub-looms was used, making it much harder.
Transmission and drivetrain
Most 535is came with the ZF4HP22 EH switchable auto ’box. All the rage in 1988, they can feel prehistoric now, although they work well enough with noticeable gear changes. What goes wrong? General wear and tear, of course. Check the oil colour on the dipstick: pinky red is good, black is not. ECUs rarely give trouble but corrosion on the connector pins on the side of the box will cause problems. A converter lock up clutch engages at around 55-60mph to lock the converter sold, almost making the ’box a five speeder. Any slipping or a ’box that takes ages to shift from first to second when cold means a rebuild is imminent.
The few manual cars built were a lot better. The unit they use is a Getrag 260 five-speed, another 200,000-mile-plus unit that rarely gives trouble. E34s use big heavy flywheels but the clutch kits are still available without the eyewatering cost of the E28 535i clutches – around £200 for a Sachs 3000-207-001 kit. Slave and master cylinders are all robust enough. Thinking of converting an auto to manual? Expect to pay £500 for a kit of good used parts and double that in labour. Propshafts are tough, as are the differentials. Two types of diff are used: the massive Type 210/215 from the 735i E32; and the smaller Type 188 from the 525i. Ratios vary between 3.91 and 3.64 but both are very strong and you are unlikely to break one. Sport models all had the limited-slip diff (LSD) with 25 per cent lock up.
The BMW E34 interior was another selling point when new. Whilst BMW did make a standard 535i, almost all cars in the UK will be SE-spec with an on-board computer, front armrests and an electric sunroof. All UK E34s had central locking and four electric windows, whilst cruise control was a popular option. Sport models added the sport seats, black headlining, plus a nice three-spoke M Technic steering wheel.
Air-con was an option that comes in three forms: standard (three rotary knobs and an AC push button); automatic (E32-style with knurled adjuster wheels); and DeAvia that was a dealer fit option. They’re all old enough to cause problems. Knackered condensers and compressors, control units on the auto system (aka the ‘Roman sword’) can fail, whilst the Italian-made DeAvia system can be challenging to get parts for now. The heater valves can stick causing hot air on one side but not the other but they’re easily replaced. Steam when demisting will be a failing heater matrix – easy to replace on non-air con cars but a bit more involved on cars with factory AC. A new one is around £300 so buy a good used one. Leather trim is a fairly rare option but worth having. Electric seats were an option.
The M30 engine had been produced for 20 years when the E34 arrived in 1988. BMW refined it here with a lighter block, revised head with new ports and valves, revised manifolds and a new Motronic 1.3 management. It’s a superb engine but, beware if the cam isn’t silent.
Some light noise could just be a bit of wear in the rocker shafts but a worn cam is bad news. They are now BMW-only and cost around £450 with VAT. To avoid cam wear, whip the cam cover off and replace the two spray bar banjo bolts with new BMW pre-thread locked ones. These also have a very slightly different thread pitch to make sure they cannot work loose. Do not thread lock the old ones as it will congeal in the oil bore and starve the cam of oil. Also, set the tappets and clean the spray bar out. Head gasket failure isn’t unknown and running with poor antifreeze will result in head corrosion.
The bottom end is near enough unbreakable and the single row timing chain is good for 300,000 miles. The cooling system comprises a big alloy radiator up front, the header tank up on the bulkhead and a sturdy water pump. Not much goes wrong. Replace dirty oily fan couplings immediately (the oil has leaked from it) and make sure the small bore hose from the header tank to the top of the radiator is clear. Running problems are rare but can be due to a sticky airflow meter, knackered cap and rotor arm or dripping injectors. There aren’t any Vanos or cam sensors here, just a crank sensor on the front pulley and most of this old Bosch stuff is good for 20-odd-years. In-tank fuel pumps can suddenly seize whilst aftermarket exhausts are getting scarce. But to be honest, it’s worth considering the cost of a genuine BMW system. It’s pricey at around £800 but they last between ten to 20 years and sound superb. A Klarius aftermarket system (centre and back box) is around £350. Finally, you may find a later model with an early version of ASC. These cars had an electronic EML throttle body and whilst they weren’t troublesome, you will struggle to find a good used one now. Thankfully, the ABS unit is the same on all cars and converting to a cable throttle is possible.
The E34 was superbly built for its time, and is up there with the W124 Mercedes-Benz for sheer quality. But the very first E34s are now approaching 30 years old and rust has no respect for a badge.
Serious structural rot isn’t often a problem, though. It’s more cosmetic damage. Start at the front and examine the front arch lips. They’re not as prone as an E46, for example, but you may well find bubbling under the paint. New wings are still available from BMW and the aftermarket.
Doors can suffer cosmetic rust at the bottom corners where the plastic moulding strips fit on but actual rot is pretty rare. Rear arches are generally okay but they can rust at either end, whilst rot can also strike underneath the fuel filler flap. Sunroof panels rarely rust and neither do bonnets but the bootlid can rust where the numberplate lights fit.
It’s not common, though, and used bootlids are cheap enough. Sport models had plastic sill covers as part of the M Technic aerodynamic package and the sills can rot under them. On all cars examine the rear sills, all four jacking pads and, at the front, the crossmember under the radiator. As with all old cars, you need to have a good look underneath for lifting underseal, nasty welding, rusty brake pipes and so on.
Examine the wiper linkage for wear – a wellknown E34 problem. The passenger wiper arm spindle will probably exhibit a lot of wear and will bear marks where it’s been clouting the bonnet. A new link is around £250 plus VAT. Be aware that the 535i used the driver’s wiper arm with a wiper pressure motor (AKS) to tension the arm. This idea came from the E32 (no, E32 racks don’t fit!) and was used on the 530i and 540i, plus the M5. Be aware that replacing the wiper rack can be a real mission. If you can find a standard 518i-525i unit, this will fit and work. The fuel tanks were plastic, but there is a metal fuel pipe running along the back of it, whip the rear bumper off asap and with the car very low on fuel replace it if it’s rotten – most are.
Wheels, tyres and brakes
Most 535is will have the classic 15-inch BBS Style 5s, although they’re made by Fundo to a BBS design. The tyres are 225/60×15 and this size is becoming rare now. The centre caps are plastic, not metal as on the E30 BBS alloys. Most Sport models had the dreaded 415mm TRX BBS wheels. These look superb with the black line around the spokes but the tyres are a fearsome price – around £300 each. In our opinion they are just not worth it. You will find quite a few cars have aftermarket wheels of varying quality and if you can find a nice set, the 16-inch BBS wheel from the E38 or E39 is a great compromise. Be aware that the E39 wheels have a bigger centre bore and require a spigot ring.
Brakes hold no surprises as they use a regular vacuum servo. Brake pipes can rust and the flexible hoses can perish but discs and pads are readily available for very little – under £90 a pair for Pagid fronts and reconditioned callipers are around £75 each. All cars have ABS and it was always a very reliable system. The sensors are encased in stainless steel and the ECU lives in the E box under the bonnet, so there is very little to go wrong.
It’s about time the market woke up to the E34 535i. Whilst it wasn’t quite as quick as the E28, it was undeniably a much better car and, following on from the BMW E32 7-Series, it confirmed BMW as a manufacturer of the world’s best cars. It ran rings around the W124 Mercedes-Benz and many consider the E34 to be BMW’s high-water mark. Sadly, there are very few left. Whilst they were never that common (the 525i took the lion’s share), the numbers remaining are scarily low. Many were modified and abused and once the V8 540i arrived it kind of fell out of favour. Sport or SE? Both are rare cars now but the Sport is extremely so, especially the much sought-after manual version. But sat on the BBS wheels, a diamond black 535i SE is a superb old thing and a car that’s creeping up in value.
TECHNICAL DATA BMW E34 535i 1988-1992 M30 Engined
ENGINE: M30 straight-six, SOHC, 12-valve
MAX POWER: 211hp @ 5700rpm
MAX TORQUE: 225lb ft @ 4000rpm
0-62MPH: 7.7 seconds
TOP SPEED: 146mph
PRICE (OTR): From £25,390 (UK 1988)
OIL SERVICE £130
INSPECTION I £230
INSPECTION II £300
BRAKE FLUID £70
FRONT PADS £90
REAR PADS £90
The E34 535i is too old for BMW’s quoting system so this month we’re just quoting prices taken from a cross section of specialists.