Name James Heaney
From Melbourne, Australia
Occupation Interior designer
First classic 1973 Holden Statesman Deville
Dream classic 1962-’1968 Mercedes two-door Coupé
Daily driver Audi A4 quattro
Favourite driving song I’m in Love With My Car Queen
I first saw ‘Bernadette’ in the early ’90s, in stunning Siena Bronz with Champagne Beige interior and sparkling alloys, in the European car showroom at Port Melbourne. My partner at the time told me not to touch it because it would be too expensive to run... so I did just the opposite and bought it. I had been looking for an old Benz or something European – it had to be ‘old school’ with a smell of leather, a wood-grain dash, a classic shape, stately looks and a bonnet that opens forwards. How sensible, the opposite to ‘conventional’ cars.
Bernadette fitted the bill. A 1975 E12 BMW – the first of the 5 Series – with double-barrel carburetted 2.8-litre ‘six’. It was designed by French stylist Paul Bracq and aimed directly at the 280 Benz. I fell for its wedge-like profile, with long bonnet and short backside (like all good German sports cars should be), so James and Bernadette became an item. Fortunately, my partner also loved the 528 when I finally brought it home.
I had a daily runabout so Bernadette was my Sunday car, but I also liked to take the BMW on weekday visits to clients. Whether it was used for long drives or short outings for summer picnics, the old girl never missed a beat, and always had a real presence when parked. It loves to eat up the highways and feels at home travelling at 140kph (88mph) or shunting in stop-start traffic, but – just like its owner – the 528 hates the cold until it’s fully warm. It also loves a bit of a drink, with that big straight-six and one-ton frame – it’s a tough old bird.
In 2003, however, the honeymoon came to an end. I returned home from working overseas for six months, and during that period Bernie was looked after by family members who didn’t give it any exercise. While merrily driving down the freeway listening to the stereo, windows down, on a sunny day, I heard a funny noise. Then steam began to pour from under the bonnet; I glanced down at the temperature gauge and, to my horror, it was boiling. With a cough and a splutter, Bernadette crawled over to the side of the road.
It was a sad day as the mechanic told me the worst: “You’ve cooked the engine.” I watched the BMW roll on to the back of a truck in all its classic glory – it still looked beautiful, even in death. Everyone told me that I should get rid of Bernadette, that it would be too expensive to fix, and that parts would be hard to find, so the car went into storage with a friend for several months while I tried to get some money together.
I was happy to do it, however, and have never regretted it. The BMW was always reliable in the past, and the fact that no one else has another like it was enough for me. The mechanic agreed and sung its praises, before suggesting that the rebuilt motor should last for another 29 years.
Since then, somebody has run a coin down its side in Fitzroy, a trendy suburb of Melbourne, leaving a deep scratch. The ashtray has also been pinched, and I’ve never been able to find a replacement because it was an unusual, chrome-edged version and parts are becoming harder to source.
Bernadette is getting rarer each year, and attracts comments such as: “Nice old BeeEmm,” or, “They don’t make ’em like that any more.” German cars of this period are true classics, with the build quality that you expect of a European machine – and which has been somewhat lost in recent years. I have no interest at all in newer BMWs, it’s classics all the way and my next purchase will be a two-door: Bernadette needs a partner, too!
‘Merrily driving down the freeway I heard a noise, then steam began to pour from beneath the bonnet’
Clockwise, from main: dry climate Down Under helps keep bodywork rot-free; ‘wedge’ profile appealed; Heaney with beloved 528; E12 is regularly showed.