BMW 5-SERIES E28 REVIEW

A stylish, practical cruiser that's getting increasingly rare...

 

The BMW E28 5 Series entered production in 1981 and continued for a further six years until December 1987, during which time over 720,000 cars were built. The entry level 518 was the only car in the range to feature a carburettored engine, and only then until 1984, whereas the rest sported both Motronic and Jetronic fuel injected units. The E28 replaced the aging E12, which had been in service since 1972 and had begun to look dated. Unlike its more basic predecessor, the E28 featured all mod cons including power windows, power seats and even a trip computer. As well as the range of standard cars, hot versions were added in the form of M5 and M535i.  

VITAL STATISTICS

E28 520i 1981

Engine                                    1991cc/DOHC/Inline 6

Power (bhp@rpm)                  123bhp@5800rpm

Torque (lb ft@rpm)                 125ft lb@4000rpm

Top speed                                115mph

0-60mph                                  9.7sec

Consumption                            23mpg

Gearbox                                    5-speed manual

 

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

BODYWORK & CHASSIS

The most important issue affecting the E28 is rust. After spending more than 20 years exposed to the British weather, many cars will now be suffering the effect of tinworm. The low value of many cars means it isn’t cost effective to continue to repair bodywork, so owners tend to adopt a ‘run it til it pops’ mentality. With this in mind, get the cleanest car you find. 

Use a magnet to check for filler behind the front and rear arches and sills. If you don’t have a magnet, use your eye – unless professionally done you should be able to spot bodged touch-ups. Sunroofs are prone to rust as water collects in the recesses, so give this area close scrutiny. Doors will also rust given time, so open them and closely inspect the bottom edge. 

Anywhere there are drainage holes there may be rust, and there’s no substitute for getting close and taking your time – you don’t want to be surprised when you get home. Open the boot and lift the rear carpet; pay particular attention to the rear shock mounts as these have a tendency to fail. Also, remove the spare tyre and check the floor beneath. Check the windscreen window seals for signs of cracking or shrinking, as well as rear light seals; if these leak, water will pour directly into the boot.  

 

ENGINE

 

Engines fitted to the E28 were mostly carried over from the E12, so it should be seen as more of a facelift than complete redesign. The M20 engine was fitted to the 520i and 525i, with the M30 being used for the 528i, 535i and M535i. Both variants are legendary in the motoring world as being almost indestructible, providing they are well cared for. All engines will require valve adjustments every 15,000 miles, but this can be done with little trouble by the home mechanic. Check the engine oil level to make sure it’s not too low. Be wary if the oil is either too dirty or too clean, both are signs that poor maintenance is being disguised. 

Start the engine from cold and allow it to warm up, check that the temperature levels-off nicely and that no blue smoke is emitted from the exhaust pipe. Injectors can be noisy on startup; this is normal. 20w/50 oil should be used, nothing thinner. Timing belts should be replaced every five years or 60,000 miles, so make sure this is done. If the water pump has never been replaced, budget for the work and get it done immediately. 

If you’re looking at an M5 then a different set of rules apply. The M5 uses the M88/3 engine, which is an altogether more complex beast than the M30 with much lower tolerances than the smaller engines. Pay to get the car properly inspected by a BMW independent specialist. Any problems with the M88/3 engine will be astronomical to repair, and most problems will be immediately apparent to a specialist.

 

RUNNING GEAR

As with the rest of the car the running gear is fairly solid, but it will be wearing out by now. It’s important that you take the car for a test drive through a variety of driving conditions so any problems become apparent. CV joints are a weak point but are cheap enough to replace, a good DIY job if you have the know-how. Rear subframe mounts will probably need replacing as well, but this is a garage job. Gearboxes have a reputation for durability, but parts to repair them are getting increasingly scarce.

Early cars use the ZF 3HP22 automatic gearbox, which is bombproof. Manual transmissions are as hard wearing as engines, so should be able to achieve the same astronomical mileages.  


INTERIOR

E28 electrics are more reliable than their contemporaries, but by now will be starting to suffer. If the power windows don’t work the first place to look is the switches. Muck and grime build up and interfere with the contacts, so this can often be sorted with 20 minutes. ECUs can fail if soldering breaks down, which is a garage job. On the other hand, power seats are known to fail and are a DIY job.

 Interiors are of high quality and are hard wearing, but in high mileage cars will be on the way out. Don’t be put off by grubby seats; it’s amazing what a bit of leather cleaner can do. As always, the M5 is a different story. M5 leather interiors are rare and pricey. The seat frames also have a tendency to crack, while with textile seats make sure there is no significant wear to the bolsters. Check that the dashboard isn’t cracked, as a replacement will be hard to find and costly to fit.

 

OUR VERDICT

They’re cheap to buy and almost as cheap to maintain if you’re on a budget. Clean low spec examples are still easy to find, and most have been cosseted by elderly owners. Low mileage mint cars come up with surprising regularity, but most are snapped-up quickly by dealers looking to charge silly sums. It pays to buy the best example you can afford, as it’s easy to sink a small fortune into correcting bodywork. They’re becoming increasingly rare in scrap yards. You can’t go far wrong with any but make sure you pay for a proper inspection if you’re looking at an M5.

And don’t forget that all parts are available through BMW Park Lane Classic as well as through specialists. 

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