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Enthusiast Roundtable: The BMW E28 is a classic driver for the modern world

Written by Aaron McKenzie

By the time Claus Luthe joined BMW in 1976, he had already experienced enough “history” – both personal and professional – to fill several lifetimes. A native of Wuppertal, Germany, Luthe had lived through the ravages of World War II in his native Germany, during which time he had lost his own father to the conflict, and he had already done tours of duty as an apprentice at the Voll bus manufacturing company and as a designer at the Fiat’s German subsidiary, followed by a stint at NSU, where one of his designs, the NSU Spider, was the first car in the world with a rotary engine. 

bmw e28 5 series ownership roundtablebmw e28 5 series ownership roundtable

Luthe was only 44 years old when he settled into his new office at BMW’s headquarters in Munich, and his new position came freighted with expectations: Luthe was replacing none other than Paul Bracq, the celebrated designer behind the Mercedes 600, the Mercedes 230SL/250Sl/280SL “Pagoda” cars, as well as Mercedes W108 and W114 models, to name a few. During his time as design chief at BMW in the early 1970s, Bracq spearheaded the development of the E21 3-series, the E24 6-series, and the 1973 “Turbo” concept car that eventually served as the basis for BMW’s M1 supercar. Bracq also oversaw the birth of the E12 5-series. Luthe was stepping into some big shoes, and he did more than merely fill them. Indeed, Luthe would preside over one of the most successful, iconic periods in BMW’s history.  

bmw e28 5 series ownership roundtablebmw e28 5 series ownership roundtable

The E12 5-series had been on the market for three years when Luthe joined BMW, and its successor, the E28, was already in the early stages of development by the time Luthe took over from Bracq. The E28 model would ultimately debut in 1981. The new model, however, was met with blank stares and furrowed brows among the automotive press. The E28 looked, quite simply, like a facelifted E12. This was BMW’s idea of its next generation of luxury saloon cars? Luthe was quick to defend the car. 

"We do not have to create models that are radically different from the ones they replace," he told BMWcar. "To maintain our tradition, we do not need to design 'way out' designs. The important thing to keep in mind is to make sure there is continuity from the old model to the new model." 

bmw e28 5 series ownership roundtablebmw e28 5 series ownership roundtable

Yet, in the four-plus decades since the E28 debuted, BMW’s and Luthe’s approach has been vindicated, with the model serving – alongside its E30 3-series siblings – as emblematic of one of BMW’s best eras. As part of Marqued’s ongoing “Enthusiast Roundtable” series, we recently sat down with three longtime E28 owners to talk about these cars, what they reveal about the 1980s on Planet BMW, and why E30 owners are the biggest headache for the E28 community. 

bmw e28 5 series ownership roundtable

Scott Saier, who runs a BMW-focused shop named The Studio in California’s Bay Area, owns two E28s: a 1985 535 that he and his team are transforming into a track car, and another E28 project that started life as a 524 turbo diesel chassis but which The Studio team is building into a 3.5-liter, turbocharged Alpina B7 tribute car. 

bmw e28 5 series ownership roundtablebmw e28 5 series ownership roundtable

Austin Caccavo, meanwhile, owns a 1988 BMW M5 that he bought from his father in 2017. Prior to owning the M5, Caccavo owned a Zinnoberrot (which sounds much more exciting than the term’s English “vermilion” translation) 535is. Caccavo’s dad, Dean, bought the M5 in 2001 with 134,000 miles on the odometer. Dean used the car as his daily commuter in Los Angeles, adding 170,000 more miles to the car’s chassis. Since buying the car six years ago, Austin has added another 80,000 miles of his own, bringing the current tally to nearly  390,000 miles. 

bmw e28 5 series ownership roundtablebmw e28 5 series ownership roundtable

Sam Hurly, a photographer living in Salt Lake City, Utah, owns a 1986 535i, which he affectionately refers to as his “Patina 28.” He originally bought the car when his old, rusty E30 finally took to the sidelines. Not that the 535i was any gem when Hurly bought it: in addition to its rough paint, the car’s internals were a mess. As he started digging into the car, Hurly discovered that the car’s subframe, for instance, had been welded to the chassis of the car. In order to extract a single bolt, Hurly thus had to cut the subframe out of the car, all to facilitate the five- minute removal of that bolt. “That pretty much tells you how good the rest of the work on the car was,” says Hurly. Since then, however, Hurly has refreshed everything underneath the car’s skin (suspension, bushings, lots of new powder-coated parts) , all with an eye toward creating a great driver’s car that nevertheless retains its patina. 

bmw e28 5 series ownership roundtablebmw e28 5 series ownership roundtable

We kicked off the conversation by asking for some help in differentiating all the various E28 models. After all, there’s the 528e, the 533i, 535i, 524td, the M5, and the 535is. And that’s just the list of models that made it to the United States. If you’re confused or overwhelmed, well, we don’t blame you. 

Austin:  At the bottom of the range, the 528 has the “baby 6-cylinder,” which BMW took from the 3-series and put into the bigger 5-series [ed: BMW offered this model, primarily, as a way to meet CAFE standards]. The 533, 535i, and the 535is use the “big six” motor and are pretty much all identical for the North American market. And then you have the M5, which uses a smog compliant and detuned version of the M88 race engine, which was originally used in the BMW M1. Think of it this way: when you go to Starbucks, all the drink sizes use similar amounts of ice, milk, or espresso shots, but they’re all pretty much the same. 

Scott: Yeah, the M5 just has that third shot of espresso. 

The M5, notes Caccavo, was not the first performance-oriented 5-series – that honor belongs to the 535i from the E12 generation. The M5, however, took luxury performance to new heights, especially for its time. In the M1, that M88 engine produced upwards of 887 horsepower. Once adapted to the M5, the engine produced 256 horsepower and 234 lb/ft of torque, hardly astonishing numbers in 2023 but enough to make the M5 one of the fastest street-legal production cars of its day, faster even than a Ferrari 328, and good enough for a top speed of 150 miles per hour. 

And then there’s the diesel E28s…

Scott: There's no documentation of it, but I've seen production numbers that range from 1,500-5,000 units for the diesels. It's a 2.4-liter diesel based off the 325i motor.There's a very small market of people who are interested in them because at the end of the day, it's the least quick, the least reliable, and the hardest one of the models for which to find parts.

bmw e28 5 series ownership roundtable

For fans of 1980s performance cars, the BMW E28 models might initially seem like an unorthodox choice so we had to ask: Why did Hurly, Caccavo, and Saier end up with E28s and not, say, an E30 or a Porsche of some variety? 

Sam: I'm of the perfect age group where my exposure was Performance BMW magazine and Tumblr. When I was growing up in South Dakota, I had a friend whose dad was a race car driver who raced BMWs. My friend had a 528e. As Austin explained, the 528e was just the economy model that's a little bit slower but the way that this race car driver's son – who might as well be a race car driver himself – was able to drive it, well, I couldn't believe its capability. We had a friend with a supercharged E36 M3 and my friend, with a fully packed 528e, would pass him via driving skill on the outside of an on-ramp, drifting these crazy long curves and all that. The E28 is such a cool balance of how the car looks – with a little bit more of the aggressive shark nose versus the E30 –  along with the space and capability and comfort of a big four-door sedan. And it’s just a great driver’s car.

bmw e28 5 series ownership roundtableIm in the same building in weho just one unit over if you recall

Austin: The E28 encapsulates a very highly regarded generation of BMW. It's aesthetically appealing for that 1975-2000 era and it's vintage but not so old that it doesn't have air conditioning, power steering, or other modern amenities. I've driven the other BMWs that bookend the E28. The E12 doesn't really do anything for me because I can just get an E28, which looks 60% the same but is a 100% better car. And the E34 is technically better than the E28 in every single way, but it does more of things I don't want. It's newer, it's more modern, quieter, heavier, but it's more boring to me and far less visually exciting. 

Scott: The E28s are so simple and well-engineered and overbuilt that they kind of just function.They check all the boxes. And whether it's a 528 or a 535 or an M5, those three cars pretty much check all the same boxes. Outside of their horsepower differences, they all handle very similarly. Once you refresh some old parts,  you end up with this really great modern classic.  There's headroom, there's comfort, there's sportiness, it's engaging, there's enough tech in it to tell you if things aren't working properly. Those sorts of things bring the car into the future, even though it's still very classic feeling, looking, and driving. And the ability to cruise on the freeway at 90 to 100 miles an hour for hours on end in a 528e or a 535 or an M5 is pretty incredible. I know at least two of the three people in this very conversation who have done top-rated speeds in these cars. They're just incredibly solid and smooth and what they are capable of was leaps and bounds ahead of what other companies were doing at the time.

bmw e28 5 series ownership roundtablebmw e28 5 series ownership roundtable

Austin:  I just grew up in the passenger seat of the E28. It was also the first car I really got to work on. I wasn't even old enough to get my license or to actually buy a car, but it gave me my first experience working on a car.

I remember when I was really young, and my friend Tyson and I were riding in the backseat of my dad’s  M5 on our way to Monterey for Car Week. Tyson ate a piece of candy and explicitly opened the rear ashtray, crumpled up the wrapper, and shoved it inside. I told him, "Don't leave trash in my dad's car."  Years later, when I went to clean the car after first buying it off my dad, I thought, "I wonder if that thing's still in there?" It sure was! My first thought was, "Oh, I'm never taking it out." And to this day, that wrapper remains the only thing in the ashtray. 

bmw e28 5 series ownership roundtablebmw e28 5 series ownership roundtable

By the time I was able to drive, the 911 was way out of reach for a 16-year-old and  everything else I was interested in far exceeded my budget. My parents always had an E28 in the garage - three of them in total – one of them being a red 535is that I ended up buying off my mom as my first car. Yeah, I was more interested in the E30 at the time because it checked more of my boxes – sports car-like, less family-oriented, two doors instead of four, all that stuff – but I had grown fond of the E28 and knew buying a used car from my parents was a better choice  than the other random Craigslist cars I  was looking at. 

Now I’m on my own second E28 with this M5. Although,  I have to say,  if I got rid of this car tomorrow, or if there was a total loss event,  I probably wouldn’t buy another one. But that's only because of the sentimental value tied to this particular M5, plus I wouldn’t want to have to restart and go find all the special, “rare” parts again. I’ve been so deep in the E28 world for so long that I’d probably be ready to try a totally different experience. I love E28s in general, I love this specific car, and I love the E28 community, but I don’t think I would want to do it all over again. The itch has been scratched, and it’s time for a new game.

bmw e28 5 series ownership roundtable

In 1978, with the E28’s debut still a few years away, Luthe and his team also got to work on another new BMW model: the E30 3-series, which BMW would ultimately produce from 1982-1994. A replacement for the compact E21 model, the E30 – and particularly its high-performance halo car, the M3 – became for many enthusiasts the quintessential BMW, with sales prices for clean models topping six figures in recent years. Meanwhile, the E28 models, including the M5, have remained in the E30’s shadow. We asked our three E28 enthusiasts for their theories on why that has been the case.

Sam: The E28 has always been in the E30s shadow in a lot of ways, which I understand. It's always just been a little bit easier to set up an E30 to be more fun. But that's also just because bushings get old and stuff and there's just a lot more joints to deal with on the E28. The E28 has a steering box instead of a steering rack, so you get a few more ball joints and stuff like that. 

bmw e28 5 series ownership roundtable

Scott: In simple numbers, a lot more people got the hand-me-down E30s than got the hand-me-down E28 because dad kept driving the E28. There's also something like two million E30s out there compared with about 800,000 E28s. As production numbers of a car go up, the familiarity and friendliness of that car spreads as well.

Sam: And, stereotypically, the E30 was used as a more racy car, so that got a little bit more shine than the E28 got. 

Scott: Exactly. Kids just did more dumb stuff to – and in – their E30s. That was my first car as well. But yeah, I agree that the E28 is overshadowed by the E30. It’s  the same problem that the E21 has – it's overshadowed by the 2002 and the E30. The E28 has always just attracted a very different following compared to the E30 community. 

Austin: I think the biggest obstacle for the E28 is that to most people – whether you're a longtime car enthusiast or you don't know anything about cars – it doesn't really look very cool. They don’t look like they’d be fun, fast, or exotic and  it doesn't look like a 911, a 21-window VW Bus, or a Countach.  Also, most E28s are white, black, or silver so 98% of the population looks at an E28 and just thinks, "Oh, it's a…car."  I've had people ask, "What is this car?" I usually just say, "Oh, it's just an old BMW." And they usually reply, "It's really nice. Is it special?" Well, it is for me, but nobody asks these questions when they see an old 911 that’s bright yellow with a whale tail. They know what that car is because they know what a 911 looks like, and they know it’s special. Everyone knows the E30 M3 as the “BMW race car of the 80s”, especially due to its DTM heritage. It’s the cool one, the one from the video games.” 

Scott: I will say, though, that this obscurity has been a benefit in some ways. The E28 is still one of those classic cars that you can buy and use every day if you're an enthusiast. You can still find an E28 for $5,000-$10,000 that needs a couple thousand dollars to make it a good driver. If you can get in a car and it'll do 10,000-20,000 miles a year, every year, and take maybe $1,000 or $2,000 of maintenance every so often, that's pretty unbeatable.

Sam:  It's definitely kind of a multi-tool, and like Scott was saying, it does a little bit of everything really well. If you have an E28, there’s really no reason for it to go away. It just does everything and still feels modern enough. This is true for the E30, too, but that’s gotten so much more attention so the prices have gotten a little out of hand.

bmw e28 5 series ownership roundtable

Scott: We are starting to get clients who are building three or four classic cars at the same time – maybe a Porsche, an Alfa, and a 240 Z, and then they start thinking, "You know, I want something that’s fun to drive but that I can also use in traffic when I go to LA or the Bay Area.” If you’re building a Rebello 240Z, you’re not going to want to sit in traffic with that thing. It’s just not a good idea. The E28 can serve as a normal car, even if it's a modern classic.

Austin: I'm just going to say this and everyone's going to hate me for this statement, but the biggest challenge for the E28 community is the E30 community. Too often, they go buy an E28 and then try to do the same things to it that they did to their 3-series. They want the E30 track car experience which causes them to make some very unfortunate modifications to their E28s. I've seen a lot of E28s go from nice, original cars with stock wheels and clean interior to Recaros and air ride suspensions 

Scott: I will agree with Austin but in a much more polite way. I do think that there's a lot of the E30 modification and E36 modification mindset that sneaks into the E28 community. Traditionally, the stereotypical E28 owner was very rigid in their thinking about these cars: "BMW built this car, and BMW built it right." For a long time, the E28 community was very by-the-book: you buy an E28, you buy your manual, you learn to do everything yourself. You figure out how to fix it, but you fix it by the book every time. And many of the people who broke out of the mold of the E28 world got ostracized in weird ways, even if they weren't doing anything that was too out there, like wheels and suspension. The community tended to respond with something along the lines of "How could you ruin this thing?"

bmw e28 5 series ownership roundtable

We have clients that want to do all sorts of different things with their E28s, but we try to coach them in a direction of doing what's best for these cars. A lot of times, it comes down to “the thing” versus “the essence of the thing.” In the last 10-15 years, it feels like everyone’s saying, “I want my car to feel like a race car.” I then have to say, “Well, you probably don’t actually want that, and your passengers – your girlfriend, your mom, your dad – definitely don’t want that.” So my job is to help them take their car and make it feel more like an M5 or a little more like a track car without ruining it and making it unusable. And that’s the great thing about E28s: you can take it to get groceries, fill it up with car parts, do all the practical stuff, and still have a fun car, too. 

Now that Saier, Caccavo, and Hurly have spent years in the E28 world, though, we had to ask: Why stick with it? Why the loyalty to these lesser-known BMWs?

Sam: It's always the community, right? It's the community and the experience we have together in cars from that era. These cars have been the connection that brings me together with people who have absolutely nothing to do with my life. They're the reason I've hosted people at my house, or why they've hosted me at theirs. These cars are the reason I met Austin and Scott, and the reason I've ended up sleeping on Austin's couch and why he's come to visit me in Salt Lake City three years in a row. None of that would have happened without these cars. 

And then there's the cars themselves. They're just that perfect slice of the 1980s, advanced but classic. As Austin said, the generation just before it [the E12] wasn't quite as exciting. If I was going to jump back in time, it'd be to the 2002 or the E9. Maybe I could jump forward to the E36, or perhaps to the E39, but I don't really want that if I'm being honest. So, yeah, it's as simple as that: I love the community and I love experiencing a perfect slice of the era in a car that can do a little bit of everything.

bmw e28 5 series ownership roundtable

Scott: I think each of us got into this because we just wanted a car, but then we found a community around the cars filled with like-minded people who are really interested in the research and the engineering and the ideas that pop up around these cars. I got my first E28 13 years ago, and it's created friendships all over the world. I've had couches to stay on in other countries because of E28 Facebook groups. The huge network makes it feel like we're invincible in a way. I've posted on the forums that I need a part picked up in another state and someone will just volunteer to do it for me. Or I'll be searching for a hard-to-find part and someone will say, "Oh yeah, I've got that in my garage. I'll ship it out tomorrow." 

I think anyone who owns an E28 feels we have some hidden treasure in the classic car community that other people don't know about – or if they know about it, they don't know just how versatile it is and how good it is. That brings together this really interesting group of engineers and doctors and scientists and these people who just want to know more about the chassis and how do we continue to use it. There's no dollar value you can put on that kind of community. And, somehow, my love for these cars has led me to a owning a business where we're building these cars for people. That's pretty phenomenal to me. 

bmw e28 5 series ownership roundtable

Austin: I'm going to sound like a broken record here, but it's definitely the people. I was lucky to enter the E28 world before the excitement and camaraderie really grew around these cars. I certainly entered at the right time with the right personality to have been able to experience such a growth in E28 enthusiasm. 

In the last 10 years, there's been a huge increase in the positivity around the E28 and in the growth of community around the cars. Now, like Scott, I've transitioned to the business side of the vintage BMW world building and supplying  air conditioning components for the E28, E30, and E24 which is a  really fun thing, because in the beginning, I was always the guy who was wishing someone would make these parts – and now I'm the guy that makes that part. [ed: Caccavo runs A/C Solutions, which builds modern A/C retrofit components for the E28, E24, and E30 platforms].

Claus Luthe, the man who brought the E28 to completion and to market, passed away in 2008 at the age of 75 in Munich, but not before tragedy marred his life once more. In 1990, during a dispute, Luthe stabbed and killed his 33-year-old son Ulrich, who had long struggled with drug addiction. Luthe was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 33 months in prison, though he was released before serving his full term. He continued to serve as an outside consultant for BMW. 

bmw e28 5 series ownership roundtable

Paul Bracq, the designer who oversaw development of the E12 and the early phases of E28 design, is now nearly 90 years old. Following his retirement from professional design work in 1994, he became an active judge at many concours events, including Pebble Beach. 

Photos courtesy of Austin Caccavo, Scott Saier, Sam Hurly, and Camilo Delay (@volac)

More about our subjects

@austin_caccavo

@scott_bayvaria

@samhurly


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