BMW M5 Evolution: The Handbuilt Hoon Machine


The car that defied physics and blew away convention.

A good secret agent knows that a solid cover is the best way to win a war. To complete the cover, an agent must play the role of Clark Kent, meek, responsible, sane, and solid, but capable of super soldier feats. If this agent were personified in a car, it would be the M5. The E28 M5 launched the war on people’s concepts of the traditional sports car, but it was the E34 M5 that turned automotive trench warfare into German blitzkrieg. The status of the letter M was solidified in BMW’s dictionary, so they had to follow with a car worthy of the designation.

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To do this, Bavarian engineers cracked their knuckles and got to work on the larger, heavier, and sleeker E34 chassis. What resulted was a battle cry of a car, an incognito supercar hunter perfect for successful drug dealers wanting to partake in drive-by shootings and for the track day-loving lawyers who keep them out of the slammer. Since the 1989 5-Series had ballooned from 3,417 pounds to a fat shame inciting 3,950 pounds, the engineers had a lot of work to do. The solution was to add a highly responsive 3.6-liter inline six engine making 310 horsepower in U.S. spec. This allowed the M5 to catapult from 0-60 mph in 5.7 seconds and hit a top speed of 155 mph.

The transmission options would make any purist smile since only five and six speed manuals were allowed to grace the drivetrain. The chassis was classic BMW, agile, pointable, and communicative, but balanced and plenty comfortable. The M-ified 5-Series didn’t swim across to the U.S. until 1991, but it managed to stay until 1993. Pesky emissions regulations kept North America from getting a mid cycle upgrade to a 3.8-liter engine, which raised this top speed to 170 mph. Aside from front and rear M badges and subtle exterior changes like aerodynamic mirrors and a chin spoiler, the car retained the look of its 5-Series brothers. Like its predecessor, the M5 was not a car for habitual hooners on a budget.

The E34 M5 represented a first and last of sorts. It was the first M to appeal to dog-owning M5 fans because it was offered in wagon spec. Unfortunately for future owners, it was also the last M5 to be hand built since its rising popularity meant that more efficient robot hands needed to play a role in production. Legend says that test drivers were able to tell which BMW tech had built the car by feeling the handling response. The relinquishing of the human hand paved the way for future M5s to spill off the assembly line and into giddy owner’s hands more quickly, enabling the worldwide embrace of the four-door sports car.