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Gone Touring BMW E34 M5 Touring Alpine adventure. We celebrate 30 years of the M5 by taking an E34 3.8 on an epic tour of Europe’s Alpine passes.
We thought it’d only be right to celebrate the BMW M5’s 30th anniversary in proper style, with a road trip. Five days, five Alpine passes, five countries in a very special M5 should do… Words and photography: Dejan Jovanovic.
I find it somewhat surprising that this car can feel so ordinary for so much of the time – the steering is a bit slack in the centre, the gearshift throws are a bit long, there’s never the same line through the H-gate, the clutch is heavy, the accelerator limp to begin with, the steering wheel itself comically huge and thin. And it’s hard, with a rigid setup, not soft and over-padded like today’s BMWs. It’s amazing how old a car from #1993 can feel. Yet it’s still my favourite M5 ever built. It lives up to the hero I imagined it to be when it was launched – back when Bill Clinton became US President and Unforgiven won an Oscar. I’m lucky enough to be driving BMW’s only museum example of an estate body style in the company’s possession; it’s an Individual model, with all the bells, whistles, and a brick-like Siemens telephone. I have it for five days, with the aim of driving five Alpine passes across five countries to commemorate 30 years of the M5.
This is the last hand-built M5, from a time when M GmbH arguably peaked, capturing the imagination in a way that today’s turbocharged M cars struggle to do. It’s a straight-six, like it should be, and it’s all naturally aspirated wholesome goodness. There’s no traction control nor a PRND label in sight. And it’s a Touring, so it was basically invented for some last-chance Alpine touring. The weather will shut the highest, best roads soon. From the end of October they’re snowed under till the following May. Better get moving then…
Day One Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse, Austria
You will never drive on the derestricted autobahn leaving Munich without roadworks for company. The thing is, in Germany they actually fix the roads even if they aren’t broken. Pushing on south towards Austria and my first target, Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse (High Alpine Road), on public roads in lazy dawn traffic I treat the 3.8-litre S38 motorsport-derived engine with respect and don’t try too hard to chase down the redline. I treat 4000-5000rpm as the shift point and the S38 doesn’t seem quite as ‘motorsporty’ as I expected from Motorsport GmbH, not exploding towards the redline from the get-go like I thought it might.
But everything changes when I push on. After a short refuge in the Austrian lakeside resort town of Zell Am See, at the foot of Grossglockner, the M5 wakes up and the throttle slurps in air greedily. Inside the leather-swathed cabin I savour the delicious intake roar from the front and the exhaust at the back – Munich’s finest surround sound. There’s a pinch point somewhere in the accelerator pedal’s travel where the power is so responsive a period of initiation is necessary to learn to use it. The big tiller now makes sense as you need only a shuffle of a lazy wrist latched onto one spoke to result in lots of wheel angle. The fun is in fast, valley sweeps, where the slippery seats don’t give you enough support and you’re hanging onto the wheel as much as you’re turning it.
At the Grossglockner’s toll gates the friendly Austrian guard eyes the M5, cuts me a half-off discount and gives me a sticker. Today the pass is hosting a historic hillclimb with a field of Delahayes, Alfa 8Cs and big Bentleys. They’ll have Grossglockner to themselves, though only in the afternoon. I have it to myself now, since the M5 is the first and only car at the gate this early. I ask my admirer about the conditions on top as the pass was late to open. “Och ja, some snow. But M fünf… the car is gut. Ze question is, is the driver gut…?” He has the cheek to wink.
BMW’s utterly perfect pedal placement is even more useful now for leaning on when your feet are sloshing about in the vast footwell up the flowing hairpins. The heavy, sticky floor-hinged throttle is comfortable under a heel and frees up once you dig it into the Individual carpeting. There’s a fair bit going on then, but the car is poised. Now pressing on, the five gears click like old friends, though they’re still long throws, and you row between third and fourth with a wrist, elbow, and shoulder.
Wherever you turn there’s a perfect sightline and unobstructed vision, a grateful freedom that’s too often a premium in modern cars with letterbox windows and bulky pillars. These pillars are slender yet the car beneath you feels substantial. It’s not big, there’s just a lot of it, but you sense that everything’s there for a reason, that nothing goes to waste, and every part plays a vital role. They built these specially in Garching, away from the 5 Series assembly line. I can’t imagine the M guys back then wasting time on waffle such as engine sound through the speakers.
Most of all it feels and smells like an old BMW, like granite wrapped in Nappa. Things seem to have been built better in 1993; nothing today has the weight of this M5’s Bavarian indicator stalk. Here every button sinks into a smooth, weighted spring, as if it’s an on/off switch for a nuclear power station and not merely the hazard lights. Winter takes its toll on Grossglockner pass every year, and the Touring, big and blasé, pounds potholes with soaked thuds. Kerb weight always wins.
There’s a perfect sightline and unobstructed vision, a grateful freedom that’s too often a premium in modern cars.
Day Two Passo dello Stelvio, Italy/Switzerland
Grossglockner peak is Austria’s highest mountain and the Hochalpenstrasse climbs to 2571 metres, where thin air starves the S38. It’s a drastic difference, sapping what feels like a 100hp from the 340hp 3.8. Much of the 48km are above 2000 metres, passing high above the Pasterze Glacier. Today, however, I have to get to Italy and tick Passo dello Stelvio off the bucket list. Even before the Great Alpine Tour in an M5 Touring began, I had Stelvio in my mind, although before that I have to have a quick try of the Jaufenpass first…
The M5 picks up pace at the bottom yet I’m barely taking it past 6000rpm; there’s still 1000rpm to go. Mechanical sympathy for a press car is a strange feeling for a motoring journalist! Windows down, heaters on, and the straight-six is all about top-end power rushing for revs. Jaufenpass throws hairpins at you at a rate I can only compare to the Tail of the Dragon, Tennessee, USA, but in a short while you’re up top, and Italy’s down there on the other side. At the peak’s panorama kiosk I meet a couple of fellow travellers from Munich testing a BMW 7 Series prototype “with a V8,” which is all they’d divulge. They know how to pick the roads. One of the guys asks if the M5 is for sale.
The plummet down into Italy is even steeper but Jaufenpass, Italy’s northernmost Alpine pass, generously doesn’t allow caravaners and the M5 is free to exchange horsepower for the effect of gravity. Through faster bends the long wheelbase remains taut and confident and it changes direction in the damp just as well, too. All the relentless switchbacks eventually have me stressing about the brakes, so I pause halfway down, at Gasthof Schlossberg, hanging off the edge off a hairpin. There’s smoke in the air but no barbecue. The only smell lingering in the air is cooked brakes and burnt clutches – the smell of defeat for some of the other machines assembled here. The caravan-ban has all manner of 911 GT3s and an R8 or Ferrari here and there showing off for the guests on the deck.
You know when you’ve crossed into Italy as the road surface deteriorates considerably. There are loads of tourists now and they’ve let the caravans back in. In Italy you have two windows of driving opportunity: dawn and siesta time. By the time I get to the foot of Stelvio it’s happy hour for me and I pass barely any cars making my way up. Stelvio starts off forested but it’s not long before you’re towering over the tree line. It’s much narrower than anything else so far and in places two cars can’t pass at once. Instead of Armco you get ominous blocks of stone lining the side of the road, and nigh-on three-point-turn hairpins. It’s an exciting drive but sadly it comes to an abrupt halt. The only avalanche of the season had to go and close the top of Stelvio on the day the ‘Great Alpine Tour’ in an M5 Touring chooses to visit! That road will just have to go back on the bucket list.
Day Three Passo Fedaia, Italy
Since I lucked out on Stelvio I also have to drop Switzerland from the planned route and head straight towards the Dolomites. It ends up being 11 hours on the road today, blasting around every eastward squiggle I can find on the map, through the low-lying valleys. What a difference 340 true horsepower makes. The M5 really is an M today, with little patience for RVs and dawdlers, with bursts of ready acceleration for overtakes. In Italy, a land where everybody speeds, this car seems perfectly suited for 340hp and at 6000rpm it’s so happy that even on open roads you feel inclined to select third gear and leave it there, playing with the top end enjoying the instant response to your right foot.
North/south Alpine roads are few and far between but any route going across the foothills gives you numerous options. Instead of doing the 1883-metre Passo di Tonale, I end up marathoning five or six passes – each thankfully open and avalanche-free. The poor surface only makes things more action packed, with the M5 dropping into crumbling hard shoulders and straightening out as much as possible every turn for that high-speed assuredness. These are the best roads so far and early in the morning, while the other tourists are making the most of vacation time and sleeping in late, it’s phenomenal to wind my way along to the 1363-metre Passo di Mendola which climbs gently and really suits the S38, up or down. Next I arrive at Passo di Costalunga, Passo Pordoi, and the jewel of the Dolomites, Passo Fedaia, which is located at the base of the stunning Marmolada rock. It’s been a film location for The Italian Job and is a legendary race stage in the Giro d’Italia.
The road surface is eroded yet the M5 doesn’t care, chasing down an MR2, a 944 and a Swiss club of Audi Quattros. By the time the blinds and shades come down and everyone’s snoring for the afternoon, Passo della Mauria manages to outdo even Fedaia. Thick woods hide the sky, along with everything else bar the dewy black Tarmac that’s snaking ahead to a town called Tolmezzo. With so little civilisation on the road, truly no traffic, this isolation makes for an intimate drive; just the car and the road and hardly anywhere to even turn off. Why would you? Even the 160 litres of fuel that lightens my wallet significantly doesn’t sour the day; the route can’t get any better than this.
Day Four Katschbergpass Austria
Slovenia is a different matter though. Hordes of visitors spilling out of buses everywhere around Lake Bled spoil any driving in the popular area, but Slovenia is so small that within a couple of hours of looking around I’m crossing the vertical Wurzenpass back into Austria. I didn’t figure for Wurzenpass, and it’s second-gear engine braking all the way down a 20 per cent gradient drop.
Today’s target is the B99 and the Katschbergpass on the other side. I settle for the quicker roads to make some headway and even though I’m on a well-travelled road (with three lanes in places) it covers so much varied topography you get every kind of corner you can imagine on one stretch.
There’s time to catch fifth gear through the open grazing lands. Up on the very top, which is crested quickly, the fat Touring tail is a laugh on the damp surface. Swinging it around hairpins makes me think of twerking. Time and again I rev the S38 in third gear and it just hits right back with stabs of throttle, lurching the car forward instantly. It seems the big wheel has so many turns lock-to- lock but the front responds accordingly.
You do have to really work the steering wheel, though, once you’re travelling at speed. In 1993 cars like these were sensations with near-supercar power. Today that’s normal, though all new sports saloons could learn a thing or two about driver involvement from an old M5.
Day Five Rossfeld Panorama, Germany
Every day the M5 keeps getting better, or maybe it’s just the altitude. It does seem to be oiled up and raring to go and the Rossfeld Panorama road and ‘my’ BMW share happy memories.
In the Fifties BMW was rapidly nearing bankruptcy and its motorcycle market was lagging. In turmoil the company decided to bank on a vehicle unlike any it had ever made. The rear-engined BMW 700 was a success, though, and in 1960 some 35,000 were sold. It made sense to take this lightweight (tipping the scales at just 600kg) flat-twin trapezoid on wheels hillclimbing. BMW prepared a Works machine, the 700 RS, for the 1961 Rossfeld Hillclimb where the car made its debut with Hans Stuck, the ‘Mountain King’, behind the wheel.
Today I visit the Edelweiss Bergpreis, which is a motorsport journey back in time with suitably attired drivers and officials hosting a historic race up the Rossfeld Panorama with Ferrari 512Ms, NSUs and Lancia 037s lining up. Besides the race fans there’s no one else around. Most of the road is still open as the Edelweiss Bergpreis takes in only 6km of the 18km circuit. Those not competing are doing what I’m doing: pretending to be Stuck tearing up and down in both directions maybe imagining some race numbers on the sides. A tandem pair blast down going the other way, a Carrera RS and an E30 M3, and we all smile in acknowledgment. Otherwise very few people give the M5 any attention, especially a debadged one, blasphemously dismissing this hand-built machine for a 525i on some rims.
History lesson over I tread through car-hating Salzburg where everything is pedestrianised (though I’m told it is a classic car town). A bit further on and it’s Oktoberfest time and it’s busy all around Munich by the time I near BMW Classic, where the M5 is due to be returned. The traffic’s just an excuse to swing off the main roads and take the long way home, out of the confines of the highway’s sound barriers to distress some cows with that orange needle hovering in the upper reaches of the rev counter.
E39 people may disagree but in 30 years of the M5 I think this one was the pinnacle. High up in the Alps it’s given me a rush like no other M5 I’ve driven.Stream item published successfully. Item will now be visible on your stream.
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