What’s It Like To Drive A Period Correct But Modified BMW M5
Photography by Alexander Sobran
Disclaimer: This is my car and it has me smitten. This is a love letter—brought to you by M. As you know, just add an integer to see how two simple characters can create Teutonic perfection. If the M3 is the over-caffeinated track star, the M5 is the older brother that put on some weight but can still kick your ass.
When I see a new M5, it’s tough to guess whether the driver likes nice cars in particular or simply has an appreciation and a means toward nice things. That isn’t the case for the E34 generation, though—nobody still owns one of these for its comfort. It’s the odd duck that looks at it in 2016 and dubs it a “luxury car”. I certainly don’t think that way about mine.
In five years of ownership, my reaction to the car hasn’t changed: it is, to me, the ultimate sports sedan. There are those that are faster, that came first, that simply outperform, yet this one emanates an attitude I haven’t met the twin of. It’s the last one to be hand-assembled, the last and biggest straight-six-from-Motorsport engine, the last one to keep the electronics in the background and is just so damn handsome in its hard-edged proportions.
My modification justification is not for rarity’s sake—less than 1,700 came to North America—it’s more like an attempt to trace its trajectory further out, to augment instead of reshape. So how better to do so than using parts originally designed for the car when new? Retrofit is the devil’s vocabulary here. Period-correct modifying is more fulfilling. Rather than asking, “Can I afford it?” you embark on a hunt, chase down the past and bring it to light again. In this game, half of the fun is simply finding the parts you can’t afford; I’ve spent enough time on ebay.de that I should have some college credit toward a German major.
The attempted vision of this car is to have no single thing resembling an outlier. I want to see it as a coherent single thing instead of an amalgamation of smaller things. A car that makes sense. That said, the individual additions to it all have their story, the longest of which is for the wheels. They are Kelleners K-Sports, and if you think they are too ugly to look at, you’d have missed the fact that the design is two interlocking letter Ks. Not very original in name, but very much so in look. These were made in Germany just after the Wall fell and specifically for the E34 5 Series and the E36 3 Series. Once I became fixated on having a set in the correct offsets, the search took a year for the right ones, with many more months of trawling for the missing and ultra-rare-let-me-tell-you hubcaps without which the smooth bowl look is completely ruined.
Other visual changes I’ve made include the rear reflector license plate surround, or heckblende as I typed in seemingly hundreds of search boxes; the Italvolanti Florio steering wheel, of course color-matched to the paint in keeping with early ’90s car styling; the Koni trunk badge hinting at the suspension setup in the car’s guts; the large-tip Eisenmann muffler, handmade in Germany like the car that wears it; and of course the change in stance by way of Eibach springs, Koni struts, and Ground Control camber plates. Aside from the coilover suspension setup, the only mechanical alterations are a Mark D’Sylva chip and Dinan sway bars, because the way this car performs is a unique blend that begs not to be messed with.
I’ll try to put in words the abstract pleasure sensation I get out of driving it. It’s like traveling back to 1990 with a 300+ horsepower time machine. From opening the door to adjusting the bolstered OEM Recaro seats, every interaction with the controls gives off a satisfying chunk of no-nonsense engineering operating as it was told to. It inspires confidence before you even rotate the key. But it’s been ignited, that sense of clinical austerity moves into the background to make room for the Motorsport concert. The initial movement—warming up the oil, keeping the revs in a sedate spectrum—isn’t necessarily disappointing if you’re used to fast cars, but it is downright anemic compared to what happens later.
Taking an inline six-powered M5 through the full gears is a special kind of speed. It isn’t like a V8, with their instant violent flourish – instead it’s a scream of silky momentum swelling toward a 7,250 rpm crescendo. The S38 is a motor that gives off a radiance of capability. Driven sedately it feels mature yet more than happy not to be, the big six always muttering about what it can really do. The idle’s bass is a constant reminder of all that high-strung force. A force that makes highway driving feel like a ride in a well-greased train and a sound that compels ticket-worthy speeds just to hear it get angrier and angrier as you smile wider and wider.
We live in three dimensions, though, and a car with only straight-line abilities only ticks one lonely box. I have no delusions of Lotus-like handling from a car approaching two tons in weight, but the overhauled suspension helps it turn in a way that belies its size. There’s a little help from the tires if you’re being aggressive, but the best way I can describe its nature on tight roads is, once again, like a train. Almost as if you’re a simple passenger, leaving the work to the machine.
On especially zesty drives, you can certainly feel its heft being moved, but there is almost zero body roll thanks to all the firmed-up stuff underneath providing the confidence necessary to throw around a biggish sedan. I’ll never pretend to have the ability to drive it on the limit, and thankfully it’s one that’s far away and approaches with ample warning; this car never surprises with weird mid-turn-over or understeer. It never feels floaty or loose when it really starts moving. It’s just a marble slab on rails.
I plan to keep my M5 on the road until it is legally removed from it by the impending electric or hydrogen future. A sad thought for us all, but I’m grateful for the luck that allows me to drive it right now, for the sense of meaningful ownership that I hope anyone who enjoys cars can find in one.