Shark Attack. The sharknosed ’80s BMW saloon which offers practical retro appeal. Words: Andrew Everett. When it was launched in 1981, the motoring press were surprised to see that BMW’s all-new ‘E28’ 5-Series looked like little more than a facelift of the previous ‘E12’ generation, a car that had been around since 1972. The E12 had earned itself a fine reputation as a well made mid range saloon that ranged from the prosaic 518 to the hot rod 528i and M535i.
This was only a year before cars like the Sierra started to appear so the E28 already looked slightly old fashioned when it was launched – but to be fair it had a distinct BMW identity and it was superbly proportioned and detailed both inside and out.
Despite looking like the older car, very little of the body was carried over – the roof skin, doors (with modifications), front and rear screens... and that was about it. The 518’s M10 fourcylinder 1766cc engine was a carry-over but the six-cylinder carburettor 520 became a 520i with K-Jetronic fuel injection whilst the 525 and 528i units were revised and both given the new Bosch LE-Jetronic fuel injection. For now the M535i was discontinued. Suspension and brakes were all completely revised as were the chassis and inner wings with different mounting points. The interior was also all new with a new Service Indicator system with red and green ‘countdown’ lights.
Launched in September 1981 the range consisted of a four-speed 90 bhp four-cylinder 518 with optional five speeds and PAS, and the six-cylinder cars using BMW’s M30 engine, all with five gears and PAS: the 125 bhp 520i and 150 bhp 525i plus the 184 bhp 528i with standard alloy wheels and electric front windows. A three speed ZF automatic box was optional on all six-cylinder cars as well.
For late 1982 the 520i gained BMW’s new M20 engine with a revised cylinder head and LE-Jetronic injection and all the sixes had a new Getrag 260 gearbox gradually phased in except for the sport models that retained the old 'dogleg' unit.
In 1983 the economy-minded 525e arrived. Using a long stroke version of the 520i engine that displaced 2.7 litres, the ‘Eta’ unit developed 125 bhp but a load of torque and was redlined at 4500 rpm due to the small ports, long inlet manifold tracts and special cam timing as well as four rather than seven cam bearings. It was fitted with the new four-speed ZF4HP22 automatic and a very tall final drive that gave the 525e very long legged gearing at around 33 mph per 1000 rpm in top gear. This gave the car excellent economy and 35 to 40 mpg was possible on a long steady run.
In late 1984 the E28 was given a mild facelift. The front valance was made deeper and more rounded, the 195/70x14 tyres from the 528i were standardised on models previously fitted with the skinny 175 tyres and final drive ratios were revised.
Two new models entered production in early 1985: the 518i and the 535i. The previous 518 was never a ball of fire and new company car rules introduced during 1983/4 made it in BMW’s interest to give company car drivers something better. With 105 bhp and standard PAS and five-speed, the 518i took a lot of 520i sales and was brisk enough to compete with 2-litre Granadas, 1.8 Carltons and the like.
The E28 535i came in two forms, the M535i with the plastic bodykit (bumpers, sills and arch spats) and special metric wheels plus a low-key metal-bumpered version that looked like most other models but had the special wheels and arch spats. Both models had the Bilstein dampers and M Technic suspension as well.
The M535i was by far the more popular model and the metal bumper version was discontinued but remained available to special order and was renamed 535i SE. Both were available with sport, overdrive or four-speed automatic gearboxes.
In late 1986 Lux versions of the 518i, 520i and 525e (2.7-litre) were launched. These featured velour trim, BBS cross-spoke 14-inch alloy wheels (or optional metric wheels), double coachlines, electric front windows, a manual sunroof and a three spoke leather rimmed steering wheel. SE versions of the 528i had already been available for some years and equipment included four electric windows, electric sunroof, TRX-shod metric alloys, headlight wash wipe, the on-board computer, leather bound steering wheel, limited slip diff on certain models (mainly autos) and the big pin stripes as well as green tint glass.
E28 production wound down in December 1987 after a final push to get enough stock to last until early 1988. The E28 was officially replaced in June 1988 by the E34 in the UK, a car that had been available in Germany since March.
All E28 units are good but require correct maintenance. Yearly coolant changes (or long life coolant) are essential along with regular oil and filter changes. All engines have adjustable tappets that need checking every 10,000 whilst the M10 and M30 engines require the oil spray bar banjo bolts replacing. These were well known for working loose and starving the cam of oil so BMW now sells replacement banjos with a slightly different thread pitch that cannot work loose. Do not under any circumstances use thread lock as this will congeal in the oil hole!
Be aware that new M30 cams are now BMW only and are over £400 before you add 12 new rockers – there are no longer aftermarket cams available. M10 and M20 cams are not far behind so treat any E28 with a noisy cam with caution. Overheating can be caused by many things: a failed viscous fan leads to overheating at lower speeds so any dirty and old looking coupling must be replaced. Head gasket failures were quite common on the M30 units, often due to corroded head waterways whilst M20 520i and 525e heads could crack: that’ll be oil and coolant mixing. The heads are different on both cars: the 520i head is coded 731 whilst the 525e (and early 520i) heads are coded 200 with the 525e head only having four cam bearings drilled for oil supply. M20 engines also used 17 mm head bolts and it’s very rare but not unknown for the heads to break off. These can get caught in a cam lobe and cause a lot of damage but it’s easy to remove the cam cover and (one by one in the correct order) remove the 17 mm bolts and replace them with Torx headed stretch bolts. 518/518i engines can also suffer what sounds like a noisy timing chain but what is really a badly worn cam sprocket. These are quite easily replaced along with a new, stronger tensioner spring.
M20 engines have a cam belt and this must be replaced every 30,000 miles along with a new tensioner. It’s also well worth replacing the cam oil seal and the water pump at the same time. Broken manifold studs are quite common and can be hard work to remove whilst cracked manifolds lead to a noticeable ‘chuffing’ noise.
The fuel injection systems differ from car to car. The 518i, 520i, 525i and 528i all used Bosch LE-Jetronic, a good system with few vices as long as the connections are kept clean and dry – the only common problem is the seven pin relay that controls the fuel pump and injectors so it’s worth keeping a spare in the car.
The 525e and 535i use Bosch Motronic, the 1.1 system. These were very good but have a few issues in old age - the fuel pump and relays that cause the same intermittent or permanent non starting, the two crank position sensors that take a reading from a small peg on the flywheel (which can drop out) and a faulty ECU. It’s worth hunting down spare units for these as they are often no longer available and Bosch aren’t making any more.
The manual gearboxes used on the various E28s are so reliable that it’s almost not even worth discussing them. There are various different units that do not interchange. These are the 518/518i unit, the box from the 520i, the 525i/528i boxes and the 535i units that are the 525i/528i unit but with mounting lugs for the two Motronic flywheel sensors. Replacement units are quite easy to find but be aware that clutch kits for the M30 cars are getting scarce and they are nearly £700 from BMW!
Autos are OK. The three-speed unit is near enough unbreakable but the four-speed 4HP22 isn’t as good. A sure fire way to kill one is to rev it in N or P – this is due to an age and wear related cross leak from the oil pump onto the forward clutch, partially engaging it. Rev the engine and you will burn out the clutch plates leading to no forward drive.
Explain this to your MoT tester, keep idling in N or P to a minimum and leave it in D in traffic as well. The 535i used the EH switchable sport/economy unit that had its own ECU that communicates with the engine ECU. A similar unit was fitted to some 525e cars and the EH does not have a kickdown cable. It’s damp ECUs and corroded connections that cause most problems. Differentials are all very strong and present no problems, with limited-slip units standard on 535i cars and optional on the rest with the 528i SE being the most likely to have one. Propshafts will often need an overhaul with a new front rubber coupling and a new centre bearing.
There are two set ups here: M10 and M20 cars (518 and 518i, 520i and 525e) with a regular vacuum servo and the M30-powered 535i with a hydraulic servo. The former system is reliable and causes few issues. As long as the linkage is lubricated and free, the brakes are rarely any bother. The M10 cars have rear drums as do most 520i’s with all 525e cars and later 520i’s having discs all round. All M30 cars are discs all round as well with vented fronts. The hydraulic servo is less happy. The system runs off PAS pump pressure with a power ram between the bulkhead and master cylinder plus a pressure sphere to maintain braking servo assistance if the engine should stop.
It’s a good system that always felt a little dead and problems include a very heavy pedal (sphere or ram) and a seizing cross linkage. On all cars, brake hoses can swell up inside with old age resulting in what you think are sticking calipers. Many cars (528i and all 535i’s) have ABS that can be a problem in old age. Faults include rusty rear hub trigger rings that bring the ABS light on over 50 mph but are quite easily replaced with new rings from reluctorrings.com where a pair costs £94. The ABS ECU can fail if the car is started from a booster pack (always a bad idea) as can the safety relay whilst the actual sensors aren’t too bad.
SUSPENSION AND STEERING
Plenty to discuss here! The infamous 55 mph steering shake either driving along or under braking can be tired upper control arm bushes. You can replace these with poly bushes or just fit complete new arms. Sticky calipers can also cause this. Front strut lower spring cups can rot out due to a blocked drain hole leading to eventual collapse so prod them with a stout screwdriver. On many cars a clout with a hammer will see them crumble and good used ones are getting rare with ABS struts being different and rarer still. It’s worth having the struts sandblasted and powder coated when they are removed for new dampers.
Rear strut spring perches can go the same way but a new rear damper or two won’t be too pricey. Rear axle beam bushes wear out and require special tools to replace whilst worn Pitman arms on the rear trailing arms (aka ‘dog bones’) will make a car feel like it’s rear steering.
Steering boxes wear but can often be adjusted, and on hard-driven higher-powered cars the smaller of the two steering box mounting brackets on the front crossmember can snap - the steering box won’t come adrift but you will feel and hear that something isn’t right.
Play in the steering can be one of the many balljoints in the linkage, or could just be that the 22 mm nut on the steering column inside the car under the dash needs a good tighten.
The E28 was superbly built and finished, but the last one is almost 30 years old. The bonnet front edge can rust, as can the front wings both above the bumper (more on M535i cars) as well as by the sill and stone chip type rust around the arches. Doors aren’t too bad but check the front where the seals fit as well as the A posts where the hinges fit. Sills and jacking points are usual suspects along with the double skinned rear axle beam mounting points. Rear arches rust as do the metal bumpers, but the boot lid doesn’t... well, rarely. Sunroof panels can rust out and pre-1983 cars use the BMW E12 type panel. New panels are available from BMW and you can still just about buy pattern front wings. Fuel tanks rust around the filler neck but new ones are available easily.
If this makes the E28 sound rust prone - remember that equivalent Sierras and so on were being welded up 20 years ago! There are still plenty of examples around that are nice and rot free, but watch out for dodgy welding done when these cars were cheap bangers.
WHEELS AND TYRES
Most E28s came on 14 inch wheels, either steels with 175 x 14 or 195/70x14 tyres or alloys with the latter tyre size. But plenty were supplied with metric wheels. The 528iSE and other non 535i cars optioned with metrics had 200/60 VR390 and the 535i cars had 220/55 VR390 rubber, both sizes being the Michelin TRX. Whilst the wheels look good, the tyres are ruinously expensive: the smaller size TRX’s are £250 each and the bigger ones are £286 each. As a result many have had these wheels replaced by 15 or 16 inch alternatives with imperial tyres.
The E28 interior was superbly constructed and set new standards for its time. Common faults now are worn seat bolsters on the driver’s side, cracked dash tops, faulty instrument clusters and the fabric shrinking in the door trims of 525i, 528i and 535i cars. The latter is fairly simple DIY to retrim but a good crack-free E28 dash is now £200, good driver’s seats are like gold dust and if the circuit board has failed in the dash due to a leaking NiCad battery, it’s curtains and you’ll need to find a good used one.
The days when you could wander into a breakers and fill a wheelbarrow with E28 bits have long gone.
BMW can supply most essential bits but at a cost - many are remanufactured with a price to match. Companies such as Euro Car Parts still sell bits and pieces but for many things used parts are your best option.
Most E28s for under a grand are heaps, projects or parts cars. Yes, £1000 might still buy a worthwhile 518i or 520i but don’t expect it to be particularly great. Really nice examples are making around £3000, with 525e and 528i cars making a bit more. There are a few examples for sale for anything up to £10,000 (we found a 525e with 267,000 miles for over £8000….), but when a decent M535i can be bought for £6500, you need to take a step back. We found a two-owner 80,000 mile 520i Auto for £3750 so take that as the value for a good lower spec E28.
M535i’s start at £1500 for scrap examples. Good useable autos start at £4-5000, manuals make a bit more and really, really mint ones are worth £10,000-plus. Some are for sale at over £15,000 but they need to be perfect concours cars.
INSURING AN E28
We spoke to the experts at Lancaster Insurance (01480 484826, www. lancasterinsurance.co.uk) regarding the cost of a classic car policy for a 45-year old living in the Gloucestershire GL12 postcode area driving no more than 3000 miles a year in a 1986 528i. Our imaginary owner uses their BMW as a second vehicle and keeps it in a garage next to the house. They have a clean driving licence, which they’ve held for over 20 years.
The 528i has an agreed value of around £10,000 and the estimated annual premium to insure the car for 12 months would be between £80.23 and £97.23 including AV, depending on club membership. Policy benefits and discounts offered by Lancaster Insurance may vary between schemes or cover selected and these are obviously subject to underwriting criteria. An additional charge may be payable.
A set of period cross-spoke alloys and a neat boot spoiler are all you need to give the E28 a perfect ’80s style.
The interior is solidly built in the finest Bavarian tradition. The ergonomics are beyond reproach despite the age of the design.
The 535i was created by fitting the 'big six' unit from the 7-Series, making a rapid sports saloon. The M535i was mechanically identical.
Six-cylinder power was offered in the 520i and above. Even in 520i form, it's a refined unit which suits the character of the car.
“The E28 already looked slightly old fashioned when it was launched”