This original M Sport saloon set the template for all that followed.
BMW M535i (E12) The market. What's sold and what will; buy a BMW E12 M535i
Nothing defines the supersaloon breed quite as succinctly as the BMW M5. It’s fast, understated and more entertaining than most pure sports cars. The first M5 came along in 1985, powered by a version of the E26 M1’s M88 engine, but it wasn’t BMW Motorsport’s first truly sporting 5 series - that accolade goes to the 1980 BMW M535i E12.
Towards the end of the 1970s, interest in touring-car racing in Europe was boosting demand for high-performance saloons. As well as developing and running the race cars, M Sport had dabbled in a few special-order creations including hot-rodded 5 Series saloons. Although not badged as M cars, the 530, 530i and later 533i were all fettled at Garching, paving the way for the production M535i in 1980, right at the end of the E12 5 Series range’s life.
Partially built on the regular 5 Series production line at Dingolfing, the cars were completed at M Sport’s headquarters where they received suitable upgrades. Front and rear bulkheads were strengthened and a close-ratio Getrag five-speed dogleg gearbox was installed, along with a limited-slip differential and wider, 14-inch BBS alloy wheels.
This first fast 5 Series didn’t receive a Motorsport engine; that would come in 1985 with the first proper, E28-based M5. Instead it borrowed the 3.5-litre straight-six from the early BMW 635CSi E24 (6-Series 1st gen). This called for a front-mounted oil-cooler, which sat behind the deep front bumper. A rear ‘ducktail’ spoiler in black, Recaro seats and optional Motorsport division stripes completed the visual transformation.
Of course, purists will tell you it’s not a ‘proper’ M5. It’s a slightly more relaxed driving experience than that offered by the full-fat M5s that followed, but this saloon still has motorsport blood flowing through its veins. The chassis was beautifully balanced, and it was certainly potent enough with 218bhp and 218lb ft of torque. That’s enough to get to 60mph in the mid-sevens, topping out at 130mph.
As with some of the newer M cars, the M535i suffered with its differential tearing away from its mounts under hard use. It was fixed during production, and early cars were recalled for a repair. In total, BMW produced only 1410 E12 M535is, around 400 of them in right-hand drive. Very few remain thanks to the E12’s low values, a propensity to rust and an appetite for oversteer when that balance was breached.
The South African market built its own version of the BMW M535i E12, which differed considerably. Perhaps the most interesting part of the South African ‘M5’ story is the M530 E12 homologation car, the first 5 Series officially to wear an M badge. Developed jointly by M Sport and AC Schnitzer, 200 of these were built at the Rosslyn plant from 1976 and formed the basis of a successful touring-car racer. Lightweight alloy panels, a rear-mounted battery and a tuned version of the 3.0S carburetted engine were key to its success.
A forgotten treasure, the E12 M535i came close to extinction. Those remaining in restored or original condition are now highly prized. Under-appreciated by the masses, it remains a choice enjoyed by the hardline M Sport cognoscenti.
WHAT TO PAY
Project cars are nowhere near as common as they once were, and even rough cars in complete condition will fetch around £10,000. Solid runners range from £18,000 up to about £25,000 for a usable, higher-mileage or slightly scruffy example. A well-restored car, or a very well-cared-for low-mileage example can command from £35,000 up to £45,000 for the very best.
The South African M535i is less desirable, although more likely to be rust-free.
Corrosion was by far the biggest enemy of the E12, and it’s something that can be a huge issue today. Availability of panels is good, but you should inspect the sills, boot floor, suspension mounting points, base of the C-pillar and the floorpan carefully.
BMW Classic can supply panels but trim is hard to find.
The M30 engine is less exotic than that of later M cars, but regular maintenance is vital to longevity. A noisy camshaft can signal neglect, meaning a rebuild might be on the cards.
The Getrag transmission is tough but often noisy at idle. Replacements are expensive.