It didn’t grab the headlines in its day, but the original M5 set the template for a supersaloon dynasty that’s lasted almost three decades

The BMW M5 is one of those automotive legends that has gone on to define an entire sub-set of cars. The notion of a mid-sized saloon car with supercar rivalling performance is as familiar today as a simple hot hatch, but there was a time when the supersaloon was an unknown entity.

The E28 BMW 5-series, released in 1981, was BMW’s breakthrough executive saloon. Designed by the iconic BMW designer Claus Luthe, the E28 was initially sold with a combination of relatively subdued four and six-cylinder engines, but in 1984 BMW revealed the very first M5 at the Amsterdam motor show. The M5 was not the first ‘sporty’ 5-series – that would be the less powerful M535i – but the M5 differed over its less subtle sibling not only by dressing down its visual attire, but utilising the M88 straight-six engine, the very one that made its debut on BMW’s first supercar, the M1.

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Based on the M49 motorsport engine used elsewhere in BMW’s motorsport division, the M88 gave the subtle looking M5 saloon 207kW, more than a contemporary Ferrari 328 at the time. The M5 was devastatingly quick and developed a reputation amongst its well to do customers about its sheer breadth of ability. The M5 and its subsequent successors quickly developed a reputation for being the most capable cars on sale. The M5 was expensive though, explaining why the it never sold in massive numbers.

Since then, the M5 has evolved into the latest F90 generation saloon – the first with all-wheel-drive and a torque converter automatic gearbox. The acceptance of ridiculously powerful saloon car has now come full circle, with cars like this now being no more subtle than a sports or supercar. It may have lost some of its Q-car appeal, but the M5 was and still remains one of the most complete cars you can buy today.

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M5 in detail

The M5’s greatest asset is the M88/3 engine. Initially designed for use in the BMW M1 supercar, the M88 was closely related to the engine for use in Group 5 racing where it produced upwards of 660kW. For the M5, BMW’s M division swapped the M1’s Kugelfisher fuel injection system for a Bosch Motronic system, improving on the power output seen in the M1 by 7kW. The M5’s final figures were 200kW at 6500rpm, while torque was rated at 340Nm. These numbers may sound meek compared to supersaloons of today, but the M5 was more powerful than the contemporary Ferrari 328 and its Tipo V8 engine.

The BMW M5’s magic was not just contained to the engine bay as the M Division also paid close attention to the chassis, uprating the anti-roll bars, fitting Bilstein springs and dampers (until 1986) and fitting an LSD to contain the considerable rise in power the M5 had over its less illustrious siblings. These upgrades suitably improved the M5’s handling, but being conceived in the 1980s you would still be shocked by how soft it feels by modern standards.

Today the E28 BMW M5 doesn’t represent quite the bargain it was in recent times. With prices floating at £40k+ for well-used models, fully restored cars can fetch close to six-figures at auction. Whether the M5 is worth that money is up to you, but the reality is that the M5 not only represents the origin of a species, but a driving experience that is truly special.

Jordan Katsianis


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