Executive car – the E34 journey begins

Many people I’ve talked to say that driving an E34 five series is like driving a “big E30,” but that’s selling the E34 short. Not that I don’t love my E30s, but the E34, at least the 535 I’m driving these days, is a totally different contraption. Sure, the styling cues are relatively similar in the middle of the dash, but the window buttons are more E23-ish, and the headlight/fog light switches seem unique to this car, instead of the usual round controls.

The car in question is a 91 535i with about 190k on the odometer. It has been reasonably well taken care of by its past owner, who “rescued it from sitting in a driveway for the last five years.” Finding a 535 with a manual is difficult enough, but one with a black interior instead of beige is a major bonus.

After a cursory check of the car, some fresh rubber on the 15-inch Style 5s, until a final wheel decision has been made, makes for an excellent place to start. Major fluids changed, and a valve adjustment makes for a pretty tidy car. There are still a few things to clean up inside, the rear door panels need replacing, as does the fabric on the back deck, and someday a headliner.

But that engine. There’s just something about that big, 3.5 liter six that says refinement. The powerplant in the E34 is up a few ponies from the one powering my 733, but the vibe is the same. It runs silky smooth all the way to redline, and the car cruises effortlessly at 100mph like it just rolled off the assembly line. There’s a bit of wind noise around the windshield, which obviously needs a gasket, but we’ll get to that soon enough. The rest of the interior is very good, so a bit more cleaning and leather treatment will have those black leather seats stunning in no time.

Even with suspension that can use a refresh, this car is incredibly composed on the open road. There’s definitely a vision of what it can be lowered an inch on the Bavarian Autosport springs lying in wait along with a set of adjustable Konis and some fresh bushings. As you can see from the pictures below, when this car was sitting in the driveway, apparently a rodent decided to call the bonnet home. But the rest of the car is pretty solid, up on the lift over at Jason’s, we poke around and discover nothing terrible and precious if any leaks – damn good for a 30 year old BMW!

Much as people like to complain that “they don’t build them like this anymore,” I get it. Granted, the BMW six, now all turbocharged, probably won’t last 400,000 miles like the M30B35 that sits under the hood of my 535, but it’s more than that – it’s the utterly analog feel of this car. So, in a sense, “a big E30” is somewhat appropriate in the sense that we have a sedan, with a manual transmission, and valves that need adjusting on a regular.

Precious few are going to take that kind of time anymore, and 208 hp is on tap in a 4-cylinder Kia these days. You won’t win any stoplight competitions with this car. However, the effortless way it will drive at 100 mph (probably 130 mph) makes it easy to daydream to a time when these cars roamed free on the Autobahn in the slow lane, getting passed by Porsches and M cars on your way to work.

Today, everyone is much to busy to do regular maintenance and travel in a car with no GPS, Bluetooth, or in-mirror garage door opener. Yet that’s what makes it fantastic. The sensory experience of rowing through the gears and feeling that smooth six race to the redline is something to revisit as often as possible. Everything the current five offers in indulgence, it lacks in soul. Neither is inherently flawed, and that’s why I have a 240i with an 8-speed auto for when driving requires more from the creature comfort side of the spreadsheet.

Because the 5-speed version of this car is relatively rare, we’re going to try and bring this one as far back to life as makes sense without making it a Concours queen that we no longer want to drive, because now the car is too perfect. This is a car that begs to be driven daily – so the suspension will all be refreshed, along with the brakes, cooling system, and top end. Much has been done to our E30, which is just about ready to exit the shop. I hope to be driving this one until I can’t push a clutch pedal anymore!

I can see why the E34 5 series and its successor the E39 were called executive cars. For the person graduating from a 3 series, this was the perfect way to retain your sporting/performance aspirations, yet be able to pick up a client from the airport in a bit more luxury. In the end, unless the boss was as car-savvy as you were, they had no idea you were having fun all along the way. And for those of you wondering, Christine (our E39 wagon) is running just fine these days! It’s a treasure to enjoy both of these cars. Stay tuned.