The evolution of the BMW M5

The evolution of the BMW M5

The importance held by the 5-Series in the BMW Motorsport GmbH performance sub-brand chronicles is sometimes underestimated.

Actually it may have even been the most important, credited after all with the (unofficial) title of being the first product to wear the moniker. The South African exclusive 530 Motorsport Limited Edition (MLE) of the E12 generation was born in 1976 — a full two years before the wedge-shaped M1 coupé emerged.

Of course, the exotic two-door takes pride of place in the certified history of things. But true anoraks are likely to appreciate that the number between four and six is an unsung hero.

The arrival of the latest-generation M5 in the Lifestyle Motoring test garage offered an opportunity for scrutiny of the lineage. An assortment of rather gracious enthusiasts availed their machines for a unique assembly of all six generations of the iconic sporting executive.

Sighting any of these legendary forebears in isolation is rare in itself — let alone having every iteration lined up on a frigid Friday morning at Zwartkops Raceway.

1. Book of Genesis

It all began with the shark-nosed E28 M5. Unlike the 530 MLE that preceded it, this was an out-and-out, specifically developed M-car. Not cobbled together as a homologation special to get a green-light for racing pursuits.

Quick and focused saloons might be de rigueur in 2018. But the concept back then was revolutionary. Remember, things were simpler in 1985. People smoked in hospitals. BMW kindled a fire in the shark-nosed prow of their car by equipping it with the same engine from the M1 supercar. For an excitable motoring hack, experiencing the result is spectacular in the present tense.

So, imagine what it must have been like 33 years back, when BMW claimed a 0-100km/h sprint time of about 6.5 seconds. A current–day Volkswagen Golf GTI DSG will do it in 6.4 seconds. Goes without saying; but extracting the breadth of capability from the old M5 takes hard work.

The five-speed shifter is a tad recalcitrant, the clutch needs a stout left calf. And if you find yourself on the wrong end of a heroic manoeuvre, those skinny pillars and slim doors are not going to do much in terms of energy absorption. But this is a prime example to cite next time you feel like one of those rants about how contemporary cars are “too” polished. Yes, the original M5 is organic, immersive and mechanical.

2. Larger in waist and taste

And the same trio of descriptors could be used to describe this successor: the E34 M5. Although, it was peppered with a decidedly more luxurious layer to its constitution. This was the one to cement the persona of the M5 as a truly cosseting executive express — that just happened to be imbued with the authentic spirit of a pedigreed sports car, not only in terms of power, but dynamically too.

It stuck to the recipe of the original, with a potent straight-six engine that produced as much as 250kW and 400Nm in its most advanced state before production ended in 1995. It was no slouch. In the flesh, the E34 cuts a rather unassuming profile alongside the other members sharing the bloodline. Aficionados know which highlights to look out for in the ensemble of low-key swagger.

This includes distinctive “throwing-star” wheels. If the E28 is covetable purely on the grounds of being the first of its kind, this follow-up has attained collectable status for being the last of its type. This was the final hand-built M5 and the last to employ a straight-six engine.

3. Y2K flyer

Aside from its noteworthy technical highlights, the 1998 E39 M5 has another bragging right. Being the star of what must be the coolest commercial ever in the history of the BMW brand.

You remember the model being used to capture the run of a jet-propelled vehicle, captioning the car as fastest saloon on the planet — accelerating from standstill to 100km/h in as little as 4.6 seconds.

Impressive as the figures were, the sensations were the important part. A normally-aspirated 4941cc V8 did duty, complemented by a slick-shifting, six-speed manual. Its 294kW and 500Nm might was accompanied by a hearty baritone that implored the delay of an upshift — waiting eagerly for the illuminated redline prompt on the tachometer. What a sound!

Tainted by the haze of nostalgia, this shaped up to be the one this scribe enjoyed the most, recalling those hours misspent “driving” one in the digital realm on Need for Speed: High Stakes.

Also, the E39 was available with options such as a television, in addition to a telephone — with a cord. Fastest saloon? Fastest lounge, more like.

4. Five will get you 10

Quizzing some of the more weathered pundits of our industry, the general sentiment is that peak M5 madness was reached with the E60-generation car.

It was already gifted (or cursed?) with the quirks of the pen wielded by daring designer Chris Bangle. Pictured here is the E61 Touring variant, extremely rare in South Africa and one of a handful (literally) brought into the country.

The recipe was totally rewritten in 2005. Power came from a howling normally- aspirated 10-cylinder with a 4 395cc displacement — good for 373kW and 520Nm. Immense clout and a spine-tingling soundtrack it delivered, no doubt. And it was also the recipient of a few accolades in the International Engine of the Year Awards.

The choice of transmission was more contentious: a seven-speed, sequential-manual that was characteristically slow in wit in this application. This engine and gearbox combination was inspired, of course, by the BMW Sauber F1 Team car. Safe to say that the E60 is destined to develop a mighty allure in the eyes of collectors of fans. There is unlikely to ever be a 10-cylinder M-car again. Ever.

5. Seal of disapproval

My first acquaintance with the 2011 F10 M5 put me in mind of a rabid pet seal that sought to punish its owner.

A fat and slippery car with plenty of power — 412kW and 680Nm — this M5 could be a tricky thing. Tellingly, my hands were noticeably trembling after hopping out of the saddle following a lap sans electronic aids. Great fun, but not if misfortune strikes. With its turbocharged V8, this was the first M5 to employ forced-induction. Whether it was better for this change in tack is up for debate. It was also the first M5 to have acoustics piped into the cabin.

A Competition Package version aimed to tidy up the waywardness of the F10, with suspension tweaks and — gasp — more power! While this generation of the M5 had a certain angsty brutishness about its make-up, it is unlikely to go down as the finest hour for the nameplate.

6. Live in the moment

What if the latest, F90 M5 is the last example of the breed to be powered by internal-combustion alone? We know that the M-division will be experimenting with electrification.

And while the recipe of the M3 (and M4) has remained more or less unchanged over its lifetime, we have seen that BMW has never been afraid to alter things substantially with each interpretation of the M5.

While the new car employs a revised version of the engine from the predecessor, it incorporates four-wheel drive for the first time, plus an eight-speed, torque-converter automatic. No dual-clutch dexterity here. You may rejoice in the fact that the car can be driven in rear-wheel drive mode.

One is advised to exploit that setting in a controlled environment. But they really have done a stellar job in the ride quality, plushness and refinement departments. Really, this thing rivals a 7-Series for comfort, in its most docile setting.

Unlike the F10, it feels far more composed and better resolved both in the disciplines of being a performance car — and serving as an agreeable daily chariot. Which, we suppose, is what the ideal M5 is meant to do.

Driving away from the track in convoy after an insightful day of work, it occurred to me, however, that for the price of one F90 (upwards of R1.8-million) you could probably pick up an example of each of its legendary predecessors. And have spare change for an extra E39. – Brenwin Naidu