Why The BMW E39 M5 Still Stands At The Summit Of Sports Sedans
Photography by SSSZphoto
The styles and trappings of the 2000s have been diffusing back into popular culture both ironically and sincerely, but certain artifacts of that not-so-long-ago era never really fell out of favor. Some things are just immediately and indelibly cool. This Bavarian brute-in-a-suit is a few generations out of date now, yet never more appealing to those who know that winning on paper hardly matters when it comes to real world enjoyment.
The BMW E39 M5 has aged gracefully into its “modern classic” categorization since its Y2K youth, but it’s also always been a pretty mature car. It’s handsomely unassuming four-door that only gives away its secrets to those who know what to look for. The M version of the 5-Series wears eviler alloys, more athletic bumper covers, and it has four exhaust pipes poking out of the rear, but it’s an otherwise very sedate looking sedan to the majority of people who even notice it driving by to begin with. This same under-the-radar Bimmer can also accelerate to the wrong side of law as quickly and blatantly as cars with half the doors and twice the bravado.
But that’s hardly a new way to describe this, or any sports sedan. Sleepers, wolves, sheep, Mercedes 6.3, BMW M5, Cadillacs with “V”s on the back, it’s all the same idea. The E39-generation of the Bavarians’ best Autobahn blurring machine stands out not because it was or is the fastest or the earliest or the rarest. It’s just the best blend of the same old ingredients that go into the sports sedan stew.
The M5 is refreshingly analog compared to today’s crop, but not so old-school as to be slow by modern measures. And unlike its contemporaries carrying the torch for AMG and Audi Sport, the M car came with a clutch pedal. It also happened to the most fun and fastest around most tracks as per reviews and tests of the time, and as a bonus BMW and Guy Ritchie also bestowed it with one of the coolest glorified car commercials to date.
So the E39 M5 clearly has all the tenets of a badass bank-robbing tire-smoker, but with maintenance costs and fuel efficiency put aside it also has all the pragmatism of a 5-Series. Case in point is the car pictured here, and its regular rotation through its multiple personalities. Sebastian bought this example to use as a daily driver, often fitting his son Karl’s carseat in the rear to ferry him to school or take him on errands and little trips around their home in Essen, Germany.
He has also moved the speed needle to 300km/h (186mph)—without little Karl of course, but also totally within the confines of the law. Do-it-all machines are compromised by their nature, but the M5’s contrasts feel more like complements somehow. It’s more fun to burble around town at 15mph knowing that you can just as easily be on the Autobahn doing ten times that speed, and vice versa; there’s an added hilarity of tripling the pace of normal traffic when your car looks perfectly at home in normal traffic. Even if it’s painted Imola Red.
When Sebastian was looking for his first M5, he hadn’t planned on a red one, nor on finding it in Estonia. He also wasn’t planning to inspect the car in the rain. After finding the online listing and having a few conversations with the seller over the phone, he flew out to see this car with a round trip ticket belying his confidence in the prospect. In person however, Sebastian fell in love with it, subsequently skipped his flight, deciding instead to drive the many hours back home in his new M5.
What better way to break it in than a streetlamp-lit left-lane charge through the night? The plan involved a quick nap at a fuel station somewhere near the midpoint, but new-car excitement, the 400hp V8, and all but empty motorways resulted in a straight-through shot instead. Sebastian recalls leaving the seller in Estonia late in the evening, and getting back to Germany for a family get-together with significantly more time to spare than he’d anticipated.
It was a bonding moment and a perfect beginning to the two years of ownership that Sebastian enjoyed with the car. An excellent first impression doesn’t preclude future possibilities of the same, though, and Sebastian was soon faced with a choice. He’d found an Alpina B12 that caught his attention, but something would have to go to make room. Deciding to keep his Alpina B7 Turbo meant the M5 had to go.
And it did, but not out of Sebastian’s life entirely, seeing as he sold it to a fellow BMW M and Alpina enthusiast who has since become a friend. And as good friends with shared interests in cars often do, he accompanied Sebastian on his next trip to check out an interesting car for sale. Having regretted the removal of the E39 from his daily routine, Sebastian landed on the the obvious solution to buy another one, which he wasted little time doing.
Besides new fluids and replacing the other typical consumables, the first item he addressed is one that’s quintessential to all M5 ownership, whether it be a new one, and old one, your first one or your fifth: get rid of the speed limiter.