BMW’s third generation 5 Series was the E34, in production from 1988 to 1995. Though earlier BMWs suffered from dubious reliability, this one was a cracker. It was also a very neat design, which worked superbly as either a saloon or ‘Touring’ estate.
There was no shortage of options for this model, which opened with the four-cylinder 518i (it means 1.8-litre injection), went on through small-block sixes (520i and 525i) to big-block sixes (530i, 535i), all the way up to
V8s (later 530i, 540i). There were also some damn good six-cylinder turbodiesels (525td and intercooled 525tds). These were practical everyday saloons that were also entertaining to drive in bigger-engined form. Buy one now and marvel at what BMW achieved nearly a quarter of a century ago.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
There’s not much that goes wrong with an E34’s bodywork, although you will probably find stonechips around the nose. If they have already rusted, the car hasn’t been looked
after carefully. Blocked drain holes allow water to collect in the door bottoms, and eventually this becomes a problem.
Otherwise, rust is practically non-existent. If you do find some, suspect an accident repair done on the cheap. There are plenty of E34s around, so avoid any seriously rusty examples, except maybe as a source of spares.
Peculiar to Britain were the 525i Sport models, with an M Technic bodykit of sills, spoilers and aprons (along with lowered suspension, sports seats, and other extras). These were attractively priced, and were often bought by people who wanted a bigger-engined E34 but couldn’t afford it. Lots of them were used very hard, so take appropriate caution when viewing one.
Engines were always BMW’s great strength, but we’d recommend a six or a V8. Interesting cars start with the 525i and upwards. All engines (even the diesels) are astonishingly smooth and refined when in tip-top condition. Look out, though: the rip-roaring 535i attracted the drive-it-into-the-ground brigade and many have been thrashed. Head gaskets and water pumps are weaknesses on these big sixes, so check the service history and look for overheating and roughness.
The early small sixes (520i and 525i) had belt-driven camshafts, and the belts need changing about every 30,000 miles. Like the bigger sixes, these cars are also prone to water pump problems, so check the service history. Later four-valve cars have chain-driven camshafts.
In Britain, the early V8s got a bad reputation when the high sulphur content of our petrol wore the Nikasil bore linings prematurely. BMW changed a lot of engines under warranty, and later V8s have Alusil linings which don’t suffer the same way. Bore wear isn’t a particular problem today.
Typically, a bigger-engined E34 will have a four-speed ZF automatic with lock-up top gear (which reduces slip and fuel wastage). These transmissions have an excellent reputation, but when worn will slip on upchanges. Later variants had improved internals to deal with this weakness, and exchange gearboxes are readily available from specialists – mostly re-built with the improved components. The V8s have five-speed overdrive autos, which are fairly bullet-proof.
Check the brake discs for any signs of wear or scoring, especially on the bigger-engined cars, which tended to get used harder. The front suspension deserves very close examination. Worn ball-joints cause the steering to feel sloppy, but imprecise steering feel may also result from worn bushes; front-end shimmy under braking will confirm that’s the problem. Note that the later bushes are longer-lived than the originals, with which they are fully interchangeable. Bushes can wear at the back end, too, and you’ll know it’s time for replacements if you can hear a knocking noise on either acceleration or deceleration.
Rare and complex – but highly desirable – is the 525iX model, with rear-biased, computer-controlled four-wheel drive. Check that it all works properly.
You won’t get many creaks and rattles from the dash of an E34. However, there’s
a lot of sophisticated equipment – automatic temperature regulation, the Electronic Check Control malfunction warning system, and Service Indicator lights – and it’s not completely bulletproof. The Service Indicator lights can play up, and if the diagnosis is a dead circuit board, owners tend to
go for the cheap option of disconnection. So check that the lights do function.
Seats and carpets are remarkably hard-wearing,
so any evidence of problems here should sound alarm bells. Is the mileage really as low as the odometer suggests?
Many E34s had a sliding sunroof, and the operating mechanism can jam or break. Check that the central locking works correctly, especially on post-1991 models where the actuator can fail.
One final word of warning: there’s not as much room in the back of an E34 as you might imagine. As always, try before you buy.
The E34 5 Series helped raise the game in the medium-saloon market and made BMW a serious threat to former acknowledged leader Mercedes-Benz. With good looks, four- (or five-) door practicality, excellent dynamics and superb engines (even the 1.8-litre four isn’t bad), these are simply marvellous cars which you can still use every day, as well as pamper like classics. As for parts and maintenance, you won’t have any worries – although you might find ownership costs of the bigger-engined models a bit of a choker.