Why I bought an old ’91 BMW M5 (and why you may want one)

Mind blowing. That’s what I thought of the second-generation BMW M5 in a time when the Ferrari Testarossa still captivated teens watching "Miami Vice." Even though it looked almost indistinguishable from a run-of-the-mill 535i, it had a straight-line acceleration nearing a Ferrari, and only came in a manual. Plus, they were rarer than the Prancing Horses roaming West L.A. But with a starting price of $55,000 (over $90,000 in today’s dollars), owning the sleeper was out of the realm of possibility for decades —t hat is, until a couple months ago, when I drove home a 1991, E34 Alpine White M5.

Why now? Here are six reasons:

1. Because racecar (engine). The E34 is the neglected middle child of the M5 family, ignored for the appreciating E28, and overshadowed by the burlier, heavier E39. Although the successor’s rumbly V-8 is pleasing in its own right, it’s costlier to keep in top-running shape, thanks to long-term liabilities like its VANOS. Not to mention, BMW’s motorsports heritage lies with inline sixes — the E34’s S38 powerplant is based on the M88 engine in the M1 supercar, which is based on the motor used in the shark-nosed 3.0CSL in the ‘70s. The first-generation M5 used a similar engine, but compared to other markets the U.S. version came neutered, making 256 horsepower.

Part of the early S38’s charm is its rawness, thanks to the single-mass flywheel and individual throttle bodies — the lumpy idle and neutral rollover chatter tells you the engine would rather be roaring above 3,000 rpm than resting at a stop light. It’s got one of the best sounds for a straight-six, and doesn’t need to pump fake noises into the cabin.

An early '91, this M5 four-seater has a center console in place of the middle seat.
An early '91, this M5 four-seater has a center console in place of the middle seat.

2. Blast to rev. At 3,788 lbs., the M5 fattened up compared to the E28, but is 500 pounds lighter than the current-gen M5. While understeer-biased, it's got a rawness lacking in more buttoned up sports sedans today. Stability control? Your right foot.

3. The last hand-assembled M car. Another distinction from the more popular E39: it was the last model hand-assembled at the M facilities in Garching. Legend has it test drivers could tell who assembled the car from how it went around the bends.

4. Style that blends the classic and modern. There are largely two camps for Bimmer design — those that love the angry-looking BMWs from Bangle era and beyond, and those that like the boxy, understated aesthetic of the Claus Luthe era in the ‘80s. But I think you can get too classic in aesthetics — the preceding E28 M5 has a greenhouse that’s tall enough to double as a pope-mobile. The E34 was sleeker, yet one of the last models to retain the shark-nose schnoz.

So what’s better, classic versus modern? Take a look below and decide for yourself —note the size difference with the new BMW 550d:

Newer M cars also announce their presence to the world with M badges slapped on every panel and flashy aero bits. In contrast, older ones have a Euro-snobbish appeal where those that know, know.

5. The resale value bottoming out. Pristine examples fetch around $20,000, whereas high-mileage but well-maintained cars go for about $12,000. Due to stance bros and naïve 20-somethings beating on them expecting the reliability of a hand-me-down Camry, clean examples get rarer by the day--especially considering BMW brought less than 1,700 of them to the North America to begin with. They don’t dip much lower than $10,000 unless it’s beater, which you’ll want to avoid (more on that later.) While they probably won’t inflate to obscene E30 M3 prices, it means I won’t take a haircut should I decide to sell down the line. According to Hagerty’s price guide report, it looks like the value is starting to trending upward, though I'm not holding my breath.

6. More DIY friendly. It used to be that when your battery died, you’d just buy one from the local Autozone for $80 and swap it in. When your modern Bimmer dies, it goes into limp mode, and you’d have to take it to a dealer to have a battery registered and installed, which can cost $400. These older cars you can still wrench on, though you’d need to be Houdini to reach some of the bolts.

Previous owner didn't think to replace the springs when deleting the SLS, making the rear sag (which has been fixed).
Previous owner didn't think to replace the springs when deleting the SLS, making the rear sag (which has been fixed).

That said, owning these machines have their heartaches, and here are three reasons you may want to avoid an old M5:

1. Resale value dropped, parts/labor prices haven’t.  If your 10-grand Bimmer breaks, you’re not getting repair quotes of a used Honda Accord, or even a standard 5-er. You become familiar with the dreaded acronym “NLA,” or no longer available, forcing you to scavenge on forums, Craigslist or eBay. And woe to the M5 that has worn synchros; most shops can’t rebuild those Getrag 280 transmissions due to the difficulty in getting parts.

2. Routine maintenance adds up. Even though the E34 enjoyed a rep as one of the more reliable BMWs, parts still fail with more frequency than your average grocery pusher. Cooling is a weak point due to the company inexplicably crimping plastic bits on key components like the radiator, or the water pump impeller. Ignore those components or a valve adjustment for too long and you’ll have a blown engine. Since very few have wrenched on these machines, you can’t take it to your local budget mechanic for serious work either.

3. A “mechanic’s special” will suck the non-DIYer dry. Fixing a beat-up M car can easily match the price of a pristine one. Even a well-maintained example will have wear and tear, so be prepared to spend a couple hundred bucks a month on maintenance. Neglect it and see repair prices quickly skyrocket. As conventional wisdom goes, regardless of the purchase price, it will be a $17,000 car.

Is it worth it? There’s a love-hate relationship with the car, though it’s mostly in the former. Although I grimace at the bill when replacing a guibo or leaking seals, those woes vanish when romping on the throttle, and seeing the M5 effortlessly build speed when the rpm crests 4,000.

With hopped-up press cars like a new M6, I’m accustomed to getting revved at, but sitting at a red light I’m invisible in this car. The usual race-happy culprits—like V-6 Mustangs with American Racing wheels, or slammed BMW 330i’s with random M3 bits—ignore me when the light turns green. In their eyes my car might as well be a champagne-colored Camry.

As they drive off seeking more gaudy prey, I smile and think to myself, “still the ultimate Q car.”