Project E34 Introducing and assessing our new 520i renovation project.
It’s nearly 30 years since my late dad and I went to the E34 launch at our local BMW dealership in June 1988, and I can still recall the fuss it created.
The BMW E32 7 Series had arrived in the UK in early 1987, and had immediately challenged the W126 Mercedes-Benz S Class for the title of ‘Best Luxury Saloon in the World’; a contest it won, incidentally.
But, while the E28 5 Series – a development of the 1972 E12 model – was still selling, it was looking decidedly long in the tooth by the late 1980s, and its replacement couldn’t come fast enough. So the E34 arrived here with the very first batch of cars wearing the E registration and, as the dust sheets were pulled off the cars that evening, you could almost sense the collective sigh from the E28s parked outside; suddenly they looked even older!
While the outgoing model was still a lovely car – and many enthusiasts prefer them – the new E34 really did represent progress; it was a step in the right direction and, obviously, a nicer car than the W124 Mercedes, the 2.0- and 2.3-litre models of which were still powered by a four-cylinder engine.
The E34 went on to comfortably outstrip the E28 in sales and, along with the E32, was the car that really made Mercedes-Benz sit up and take notice. All of a sudden, the Bavarian company was building better cars than it was! Production of the E34 ended in 1996, when the even more successful E39 took over – a car that many journalists felt was change for the sake of it, and which had lost some of the E34’s character.
So, in 2017, the E34 has been out of production for over 20 years and numbers have thinned dramatically. Most examples simply got old, got neglected by third, fourth and fifth owners, fell into the wrong hands and became cheap bangers. Lots were scrapped when repairs caused by years of neglect finally caught up with them.
There were various models – the four-cylinder, 115bhp 1.8-litre 518i was a popular choice; a decent sized four-door that was handsome, superbly built yet surprisingly good to drive and economical. What’s more, it cost the same as a half-decent Granada or Carlton, and it was probably the 518i that put the biggest nail in the coffin of these big Fords and Vauxhalls.
The 520i was the smallest six-cylinder model. It was slow in pre-1990, 12-valve form with just 129bhp, but OK with the later, 24-valve M50 engine, producing 150bhp. But it was never anything like as good as the 525i – the most popular model all round – with its 171bhp, 12-valve engine or solid 192bhp version using the later, multivalve M50.
The 530i came in two guises; the 1988- 1990 car used the old 12-valve M30 engine, with 188bhp, and was little faster than the 525i and much more thirsty, while the 1992-onwards model got the all-new M60‑V8 engine. This unit was remarkably good; smooth, powerful and far better on fuel. The 535i was the one everyone wanted, though, with the 218bhp M30 straight-six motor but, due to the extra weight, it was never as brisk as the previous E28 version, even if the handling and road-holding were light years ahead. The E28 535i had a reputation as being very tricky in the wet, but the E34 version was completely benign, despite using a very similar suspension design.
Finally, the 540i replaced the 535i in 1992 and, with 286bhp, was arguably the best E34 all-rounder. It was one of the reasons why the M5 was upgraded from a 315bhp 3.6 to a 340bhp 3.8. Of course, the M5 was always a better-driving car (with electronically-controlled dampers and finely judged suspension settings, plus that immense, 24-valve straight-six), but a good, manual 540i Sport was as close as you were going to get.
However, the E34 we’ve bought is just a lowly 520i automatic I’m afraid, but that’s not to say that it isn’t worth saving. I found it while trawling through Copart’s weekly salvage auctions; I was actually looking for a sensible-money F31 Touring (good luck with that, Everett!), and I bought it for a very lowly, three-figure sum, on the basis that you can’t really go wrong.
The E34s are quite good ‘breakers’ nowadays, I’m told, and there’s always something worth selling from a ‘dead’ one. But from the photos, it appeared to have suffered a glancing blow to the nearside wing and doors only; not enough to have pushed the door pillars inwards, or damaged the suspension. The tyres were inflated and a photo of the instrument cluster showed the tacho needle sitting steady at around 750rpm with no warning lights on – could be alright. It also had the rare option of split folding rear seats that, on the one hand is useful but, on the other, makes converting to leather trim nigh on impossible.
So, the bid was placed, I won and I went up later that day to pay for it and get it back to base with the help of a mate and his trade plates. As the car was brought out to us, I was glad I’d brought a battery, some jump leads plus cans of oil, coolant and fuel.
As it happened, though, it started instantly, despite having been unused since December 2016 and, after a quick levels check, it was driven straight out. My first impressions were that the engine sounded superb, as they do. The gearbox changed up through the five gears and everything worked.
The suspension felt remarkably tight, and the brakes were both smooth and sharp. Christ, even the air con still worked! I didn’t manage to suss-out how to power-up the 1994 Sony Neolithic (complete with nifty steering column control), but the car got me home in comfy style.
It’s remarkably unrusty. The bootlid, door bottoms, arches and sills all appear to be untainted, and the Orient blue paint is factoryoriginal. The driver’s seat is still good and has evidently worn its 137,000 miles well.
So, where to from here? Well, the battle plan is as follows. I shall start with a pair of good, used doors. Then I’ll source a new pattern wing (I’m not even going to attempt to find a decent used one), and a day’s swearing will see the car repaired.
But there are other, typical E34 things to see to, as well. The suspension and brakes will need a proper check, I’ll replace the fuel pipe on the tank (behind the rear bumper) as that’s bound to be rusty, then I’ll give it a good service. After that it’ll be pressed straight into service. See you next month for a progress report.
Lots were scrapped when repairs caused by years of neglect finally caught up with them.
The new E34 really did represent progress; it was a step in the right direction.
Below: The engine, while grubby, started easily and runs well. Our new project car in ‘as bought’ condition. We picked it up for peanuts. Damage appears to be restricted to the nearside front wing and doors. The interior is in decent nick and belies the car’s 137,000 miles. I was particularly impressed to discover that the air con remains fully functional. The bootlid, door bottoms, arches and sills all appear to be untainted, and the Orient blue paint is factory-original.