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The E28 BMW 5-series (1981-1987)

Updated on January 22, 2011

Retro chic

The updated BMW 5-series launched in 1982, coded the E28, fell somewhat short of the public's (and importantly, motoring journos') hopes for what was fast becoming a premium entity on the world car scene: the BMW 5. The E28 was pushing BMW's conservatism strategy a bit because at first glance it so closely resembled the preceding E12 BMW 5-series of the 1970s. However once the press and public had ample time to admire the technology and electronics, alongside increases in performance for the higher-line 528i model, the compliments slowly began to flow in.

The on-board computer (OBC) which made its debut in the E24 BMW 7-series introduced a whole new era of technological progress to the E28. Motoring journos often didn’t know exactly what to make of the unit itself, but most agreed that it was a significant leap forward in technology for the middle child of the Bavaria Motors range. BMW itself was lavish in its superlatives towards the E28: “The car of the future, today” read one of BMW’s slick advertorials of the early 80s – and in many ways this was true because crash safety was an important component of the E28. Crash safety exceeded standards at the time and it was fast becoming clear that BMW intended to set the benchmark for safety (right behind Mercedes-Benz). ABS brakes became an option early on (did you know that Mercedes and BMW first invented ABS brakes in the late 1970s as a cooperative venture?).

In 1985 the M535i hit the scene with ample horsepower but styling that was beginning to date somewhat. Leather-trimmed M-Sport seats were standard, as was a whole raft of creature comforts including climate and cruise control. A hefty 3.5 litre engine with the smooth but ferocious six that epitomised BMW at this time was favourable received – but at the time Wheels magazine commented, “it’s like a Wall Street broker in a Brooks Brothers suit”.

The creme and black combination was a particularly endearing feature, as was the high-grade leather used. However like all BMW interiors of this period, it is particularly sensitive to sun.
The creme and black combination was a particularly endearing feature, as was the high-grade leather used. However like all BMW interiors of this period, it is particularly sensitive to sun.

In 1986 the iconic M5 was launched and this really set the scene for BMWs rise and rise in the 1980s. Apart from the Alpina range which offered souped up BMWs at hefty prices – and of course the M1 supercar, BMW’s first Motorsport venture – the M5 was the first authentic and truly mainstream Motorsport option. At the time it was the fastest production sedan in the world. It offered a tantalising option for the business execs who wanted the thrill of race car driving in a professional sedan that could ferry clients comfortably around town to meetings. It was literally a Jekyll and Hyde (on the inside and outside respectively) and began the theme for preceding M5 sedans. It also set the scene for the M3 which was soon released to global accolades and multiple racing successes.

By 1987 however the E28’s light was starting to dim and a radically new concept was being tested and formed: the E34. But now in retrospect, the E28 retains more intrinsic value due the sheer BMW-ness of its concept, design and execution. It was, and still is, the car that stood out from the crown but yet managed to blend so well into the crowd. All of the essential classic elements of BMW are here: the Hoffmeister kick in the passenger window, the groove in the sides, über metallic paintwork, lashings of dark plastic exterior touches, the headlights, latticed alloys, the plunging shark nose and, essentially, that chrome kidney grille. The interior: minimalist and ergonomic at every inch with retro electronics galore. Here’s to the E28 – a BMW classic.

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