To be part of the BMW CCA means to be part of BMW history, and few activities make that more clear than a glance through archived issues of Roundel magazine. To rifle through these back issues is to enter a world of wonderment and innovation—an era overflowing with hot-rod part ads and period-correct accessories. As the magazine does today, Roundel showcased builds, drives, car culture, and of course new-car reviews—and a great many of these cars are now classics.
In the interest of sharing BMW history with you, we’ve decided to reprint some of these vintage reviews, sharing with you the impressions of writers and contributors from each era when they first laid eyes on now-classic sport sedans from BMW’s history. This week: a first drive of the BMW E39 M5, written by Dan Erwin and published in the January 1999 of Roundel.
And yes, we’re aware that Erwin tries to knock one of the greatest marketing slogans ever written. After reading his behind-the-scenes take on attending a press launch at the turn of the century (see “Inside the Motorsport Journalism Bidness” below), I forgive him. As some would say, “It was a different time.”—David Rose
M5: Redefining the Ultimate
‘THE ULTIMATE DRIVING MACHINE!” Ouch. How many of you have winced every time that trite bit of ad-flackery has appeared at the tag end of an otherwise-clever BMW TV spot? All of us, I’ll bet. We cringe because we are old hands at the ownership, care, and feeding of BMWs. We remember all too well the Bavarias, the 320i’s, and the 528e’s in our past. We’ve owned them, suffered their imperfections, and learned to love them in spite of their quirks. And we’ve rolled our eyes at the novitiates sporting an “ultimate driving machine” front tag on their bimmers. “Well-Constructed-and-Fine Handling-Driving-Machine” maybe. But “Ultimate Driving Machine”? That’s been a real stretch.
Simply put, the new M5 redefines grand touring. It’s as if, while building this car, BMW said, “Let’s not just take the M-variant one step beyond our 540i. Let’s develop something that will carry us well into the millennium.” So they did. Although officially positioned by Berndt Pischetsrieder as “the ultimate businessman’s express,” it’s no secret that the new M5 is more than that—lots more, in fact. You can tell by the confidence on the visages of everyone associated with the car. At the long-lead introduction, Rob Mitchell and Rich Brekus of BMW NA wore smiles that ranged from an insider’s knowing smirk to a Cheshire-cat grin: They knew what they had, and they knew how we would react to it. Here is a car that will chew the haunches off an M3 on the track, then transport four people comfortably down the Autobahn at light-aircraft speeds… all day. Smiles all around arc, indeed, the order of the day.
The amazing thing about Motorsport’s M-makeover of the 540i is that they did it in the manner of every M-car except the radical M1: They simply took the existing platform to a new level. This evolutionary approach to performance is not a quick process; in the manner of every example since the first, the newest M5 has had an elephantine gestation period. The E30 M3 took four years to develop; the first “real” M5, two years; and this, the latest version, marks a return of the 5 Series M-car after a two-year hiatus. What have they been doing all that time?
Building an absolute burner of a sedan, that’s what.
Approaching the newest M-car from the side, I’m impressed by, well, nothing in particular. The styling is certainly best-in-class, but it’s a familiar variation of the 540i, and only a few organic openings in the chin spoiler and a hint of a rear-deck spoiler give the slightest indication that Motorsport has been at work. Ride height seems slightly lower, a result of more work in the wind tunnel. Then I walk around to the rear, and—ahhh, there’s something unusual here. I can picture the prospective buyer, perhaps a commodities broker, all tweeded out with society-page blonde wife, looking the M5 up and down: “Amanda, dearest, look here! Why, those aren’t tires; they’re… they’re meats!”
Indeed: The 245/40-18 fronts and 275/35-18 rears are the most serious rubber BMW has ever put on a product, and—coupled with the aggressive Dunlop SP Sport 8080 tread pattern—they give notice of aspirations to very serious velocity. But other than pudgy rubber and hints of aero aids, where are the gewgaws, the add-ons, the decals and spoilers that scream to the world that this is the new M5? How can you tell?
You can’t. Businessmen—perhaps the special few who are driven to excellence in their professions—shouldn’t need gauche reminders of the sporting bloodlines of their transportation device. So we must seek other clues as to the true nature of this beast; one of these will evidence itself when you pop the hood. The two massive air filter/silencers and the M logo in carbon-fiber on an equally massive plenum chamber are not-so-subtle indicators of performance potential. If you peek under the plenum, the electronic throttle butterfly actuation motor can be seen. That’s correct; your leaden right foot actuates a potentiometer, which in turn signals the ECU to tell the little electric motor to open the eight individual throttle butterflies. They say it all happens in 1/10 of a second, same as the VI2. Those of us left over from the Carburetion Generation are now officially out of the loop as far as making any sort of adjustments to this engine—and from here it only gets more complicated.
The MS S52 engine management system, a logical (pun very much intended) offshoot of the MS S50 unit developed for the E36 M3, has its little electronic mitts on most of the stuff critical to the fun quotient: It controls, in addition to the electronic throttle-butterfly control, the Servotronic system, the oil-circuit switchover, speed control, the thermal oil-level sensor, the variable pre-warning field in the rev-counter, catalyst protection functions, and, of course, the double-VANOS adjustment units. Confused yet? No? You’re a cum laude Georgia Techie or an MIT drop-in, then. You people may skip the next few lines. The rest of you, pay aytention; these are the basic elements of Hot Rodding Y2K.
First, let’s give credit to the Motorsport engineers who developed the double-VANOS unit. Bone idea, dudes; the unit, as we know from our suddenly-stodgy old E36 M3, is a hydraulic/mechanical cam-timing system that advances or retards cam timing on the intake as well as exhaust cams, in response to signals from the engine-management system, to optimize development of torque at low- and mid-range rpm, reduce emissions as well as fuel consumption, and improve engine-idle characteristics. Nothing new here—except they’ve got it working on all four cams.
Remember the sound of America’s big iron in the ’60s, the radically over-cammed variety, at idle? Well, the M people have left the “whumpa-whumpa-whumpa” on the engineering room floor, but still given us all the torque money can buy. To wit: The E62 motor produces 390 foot-pounds of torque—at a mere 3,800 rpm! But even if the ’60s rodders didn’t always worship torque, they’d respect the M5’s horsepower, the other yardstick of straight-line capability: How about 400—at only 6,600 rpm! (The eye-watering, retina-detaching, ’69 427 Corvette produced a mere 390 horses.)
Unbelievable? The numbers don’t sound so far-fetched when you learn that besides developing a method of varying the cam timing, they upped the compression a full point to 11.0:1 and increased the displacement to 4.94 liters. To keep the motor alive, ignition advance/retard on each cylinder and a knock sensor on each head combine to prevent detonation. This feature, coupled with the Alusil block material, should eliminate the, ahem, “problems” associated with early M60 V8s. Fill ’er up at the local mini-mart and you’ll still be okay, according to BMW NA. All the power and torque you could want, yet programmed to please the EPA as well: The engine in the Euro-car I drove is the same one coming over to our pristine-aired shores.
Inside the Motorsport Journalism Bidness
A blue pall of tire smoke hangs in the air. The fading screams of tortured Dunlops echo from surrounding buildings. “Again!” Les is doing his index finger in circles. “More countersteer this time!” So begins my introduction into the world of big-time motorsports journalism.
No one said it was gonna be easy, or even fun, but this is beyond my wildest expectations: If—perhaps through clergical clerical error—I do manage to get to heaven, my greatest fear is that I will get past the pearly gates, take a look around, shrug, and say to myself, “Well, it ain’t Munich, but I guess it’ll have to do.” This gig is that good. Already. And I’ve only been here for a couple of hours.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
When I first got an inkling that someone was to be given the enviable task of covering the long-lead press intro for BMW AG’s biggest kick-ass hot rod ever, I embarked on a program of whining and groveling unheard of in this century. Carlson having ascended to a position of dubious authority, the press corps was obviously one lunatic short, so I was a natural for the job. And what did he have to lose by sending me? He’s only the Interim Editor, after all.
The upside of the assignment: I get to drive Motorsport’s version of a sedan to take us into the next century. The downside: It’s the deep end of the pool. I’m looking at what is bound to be BMW’s truest flagship for the next ten years. And I’m mixing with some of the best automotive journalists in the business, people who write for Car and Driver, Road & Track, Automobile, AutoWeek, European Car, and about fifty other publications around the world. Daunting task? Perhaps—but I have a plan.
Part One of the plan is to be on time, live and in person for each sequence of ensuing events. I’m the new guy, so professionality is, as we say, job one. I get a haircut. I find my necktie. I buy a notebook and a pen.
Part Two is to be prepared. To this effect I’ve augmented my photographic skills by hanging out with our own Klaus Schnitzer and Peter Brock. These guys are good—really good. I’ve improved the odds even more by bringing a Canon A2e that will tie my shoes in the morning if I press the right sequence of buttons. I’ve read the weather reports for Munich, and I have the right clothes. Driving shoes and Onesport low-tops? Check. Reports on the recent election victory for Schroeder and the Social Democrat/Green coalition, as well as BMW M-Series by Chris Rees? Check. I’m feelin’ good about the whole thing.
Part Three of the plan is to find, among the journos—that’s what Carlson says we’re called in the International Motorsports Journalism Bidness—someone equally demented to hang with. This is a crapshoot, but I figure I’ll know ’em when I see ’em.
I begin to size up the group as we assemble in the Munich Airport Kempinski Hotel lobby for transport to the BMW Driver Training Center, nearby on airport grounds: No signs of erratic behavior in the bunch. Damn! Then I meet Rob Mitchell, our keeper, from BMW NA. Formal, professional, he’s the essence of a good host: no help here.
I’m beginning to panic. Rob says we’ll be two to a car, and I just know I’ll get some PhD who wants to blab about molecular bonding in aluminum cylinder-block compounds. But when we reach the driver training center, as we sit down to a snack—seven or eight courses, with dessert—I am delivered: There’s one of our number who’s having as much fun as the rest of the group put together. This guy is wired; he’s definitely “on”: Les Bidrawn of European Car. (If you subscribe, you know it’s one of the good ones: lotsa personality, great photography.) When it comes time to pack up and go, I collar him and say, “Let’s go drive.”
He looks me up and down, considers, shrugs. “Okay,” he says.
As we walk to the car, Les says, “The first shots I’d like to get are with the car sideways… lots of tire smoke, lots of countersteer. You’ve done IT racing, so you know what I’m talking about. Are you comfortable with that?”
Well, sort of. This is actually Part Four of my plan: Find the edges of the envelope without dinging the machinery. Interim or not, Carlson has pounded me with the Roundel creed: There is nobody lower in the Bozo Food Chain titan the motorsports journalist who abuses the car. On the other hand, we are expected to find the limits of M Definition. Les is reassured: “As long as they know we’re not gonna kill the car,” he says, “they’ll be okay with it.” And performance—that’s what this bad boy is all about, so let’s do some performing.
“Again.” There’s that word. But at least have the drill down pat: Drive slowly to the end of the skid pad, do a low-speed pirouette around the last cone, get ‘er all lined up, and take off toward the opposite end of the gaining speed. Then, at the Cone Demarking the Beginning of Hostilities, I cut it sharp left, and hammer the hell out of the gas, thus provoking a HUGE SMOKY TIRE-SQALLING, COUNTER-STEERING, FOUR WHEEL DRIFT ohmigawdImgonnarunoverLes—no, I’m gonna hit his camera case, even worse—AAARRRRRRGGGGGHHHH!
Whew! That was close!
Even with Les’ reassurance, I am a little apprehensive about our extreme exercise of Motorsport’s newest hitter. I mean, we’re makin’ a hell of a lot of commotion here, and we’re the only team engaged in this particular activity. The rest of the journalistic community, like the responsible citizens they are, have duly left for the journey to Gut Ising, south of Munich, maybe to talk about future leasing programs or environment-friendly paint. We’re the only ones left using up rubber and fossils—and those guys standing at the edge of the pad with their arms folded sure look like the heat to me.
“Hit it,” says Les. So I do.
Finally, our hosts have seen enough. They approach at a casual pace as we pause in our M-floggings. “Dang, Les, we’re busted!” I breathe. I can see them now, slapping on the cuffs, leading us to the plane, maybe roughing us up a little on the way, and leaving us with a snarling, “Und you are never coming back, American schwein!”
But these guys are smiling.
The man in charge, impeccably turned out, impossibly cheerful, approaches with a gleam in his eye. He’s still smiling. “Of course vee know what you are trying to do,” he says in that perfect, clipped, Teutonic accent. “But of course you must also understand that zis is not the image we wish to create for this car. Zis car is positioned as zee ultimate businessman’s express, you see!”
He’s still smiling. The gleam in his eye is bright and intense. “He knows,” I think. “He knows just how damn good this car is!”
“So…” he says quietly, thoughtfully. Then he smiles again as he turns to walk away. “So… you do, maybe, two more, yes? And I have seen none of this!”