BMW is pulling out all the stops to make the 50th anniversary of its M-Performance division an unforgettable experience. So far we’ve seen the M3 Touring and M4 CSL, as well as teasers for the M2 and the special CSL tribute car, which will be unveiled before the end of the year.
But with all the focus on the birthday celebration of the motorsport department founded by Jochen Neerpasch in 1972, it’s easy to forget that another BMW legend, the 5 Series, also turns 50 this year. Admittedly, the 5 Series birthday isn’t as sexy a story as the M Division’s, but that story overlaps with the M story, and the 5 Series itself is arguably far more important in the story of BMW’s transformation from premium -Upstart to the industrial and cultural juggernaut it is today. So let’s take five and look at the history of BMW’s middleweight sedan from 1972 to 2022.
BMW 5 Series E12 (1972-1981)
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BMW’s Neue Klasse sedans saved the company from oblivion in the 1960s and helped launch the brand’s sporty identity, leaving its successor to follow in clown-sized footsteps. The new mid-size 5 Series sedan was unveiled to the world public at the 1972 Frankfurt Motor Show, but BMW had already given a big hint of what it would look like when they unveiled the 2200ti Garmisch coupé concept at the Geneva Motor Show two years earlier .
Like the Neue Klasse, the Paul Bracq-designed E12 5-Series was launched with 2.0-litre four-cylinder engines, but the range expanded both up and down by mid-decade to include six-cylinder engines and a Poverty specification to include 1.8 liter four.
Fast Fives: BMW South Africa developed the 530 MLE (Motorsport Limited Edition) in 1976 to homologate its successful 530 racing car and BMW M in Germany launched the M535i production car in 1980, having previously produced informal 5 Series cars with larger engines and chassis -Upgrades had been modified on a base for customers who know who to ask.
Important innovations: Brought six-cylinder power to mid-range BMWs, gave us the first M sedan.
BMW 5 Series E28 (1981-1988)
The 5-series E28 was actually more of a heavily revised E12 than a new car (you can swap doors between the two). But Paul Bracq’s successor, Claus Luthe, designed a new rear-hinged hood, fattened up his butt and added a handsome new driver-focused dashboard that made it feel sufficiently different.
The mix of four- and six-cylinder engines was broadly similar, but the non-M cars were now available with a hefty 215PS (218bhp) 3.5-liter straight-six like their 7 Series sisters, and frugal drivers had a choice between a long-stroke, low-revving 2.7-liter 525e/528e and a diesel 524 with (113 hp/115 hp) and without (only 84 hp/86 hp!) turbo.
Fast Fives: BMW dropped a 282hp (286hp) version of the DOHC M88 (256hp/260hp S38 in the US) M1 supercar to create the first M5, then threw some M cosmetics on the regular 535i, to make an M5-lite M535i.
Important innovations: ABS, two-link front suspension, digital trip computer, vehicle systems check panel in the overhead console.
BMW 5 Series E34 (1988-1996)
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The 5 Series has matured dramatically during the E34’s tenure, introducing tons of new features, and the clean styling means it still looks streamlined today. It was also a bestseller, BMW switched twice as many E34s as E28s, but this model is probably one of the more forgotten generations of the series.
Although E28 owners were mostly familiar with the starting engine mix of older M20 and M30 eight-valve straight-sixes, a new lineup of M50 DOHC flat-sixes and M60 V8s soon arrived to increase refinement and performance. And with the addition of a 1992 Touring wagon, BMW really shot at Audi and Mercedes.
Fast Fives: The M5 initially returned with 311 hp (315 hp) thanks to a 3.5-litre straight-six, but an expansion to 3.8-litre took the power to 335 hp (340 hp) in 1994. Not in the US though, where the M5 lost the year overall but found solace in the 282 hp (286 hp) V8-powered 540i.
Important innovations: Touring car body, four-wheel drive, traction control, V8 power, variable valve timing, the list goes on.
BMW 5 Series E39 (1996-2003)
Chris Bangle’s E39 5 Series debuted a wider, lower look and incorporated the grille kidneys into the hood for the first time. European cars swapped the heavy cast-iron M50 sixes for the new M52 with an aluminum block, and the diesel 5-series also gained importance in Europe, the range of engines for which was expanded for the first time to include a four-cylinder diesel.
Fast Fives: The M5 switched to a new S62 5.0-litre 394 hp (400 bhp) V8 and was the first M5 to be built on the main 5 Series production line at Dingolfing rather than at M’s Garching plant.
Important innovations: More airbags than a Scottish marching band, self-levelling air suspension on touring, satellite navigation.
BMW 5 Series E60 (2003-2010)
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Do you remember the fuss caused by the styling of the E60? And not only the outward appearance polarized the opinion. Inside, thanks to its cliff-front dashboard, recessed infotainment screen and BMW’s then-new iDrive controller, which had been massively simplified since its debut in the E65 7-series but still took a while to get the hang of get, equally controversial.
Turbo technology allowed BMW to downsize the engines over the lifetime of the E60, swapping the entry-level 520i’s 2.2-litre flat-six for a 2.0-litre four and upgrading the 3.0-litre inline-six 535i to give the US market the same 302 hp (306 bhp) as the 4.0-liter V8 540i sold in Europe.
Fast Fives: The 2004 M5 repeated the cylinder count in the company’s V10-powered Williams F1 cars, sounded almost as good and seemed to have the same appetite for fuel. BMW launched the 500PS (507bhp) 5.0-litre monster as a sedan with a chunky sequential manual transmission, but Europe was later offered a Touring (which returned after skipping the E39 generation), while the US a six-speed manual got option.
Important innovations: Active steering, adaptive headlights, adaptive cruise, iDrive, head-up display, paddle shift transmission, turbo petrol engine.
BMW 5 Series F10 (2010-2017)
After causing a sensation with the E60 5 Series, BMW played it safe with the styling of its F10 successor. And that grown-up theme extended to the ride and handling, which took on a real luxury car feel thanks to the double wishbone suspension.
The F10 brought even more turbocharged engines, including the insane M550d diesel that got three blowers to make 375 hp (381 hp). BMW also expanded the offering with the fugly 5 Series Gran Turismo, a long-wheelbase Fastback Five with plenty of interior space but a serious case of fatherhood. More importantly, the 5-Series got its first hybrid during this period, when the ActiveHybrid 5 fused an N55 3.0-liter turbocharged six-cylinder and an electric motor to deliver a combined 335 hp (340 hp).
Fast Fives: The 2012 M5 softened slightly, trading its squeaky naturally aspirated S85 V10 for a muffled twin-turbo V8 and all-wheel drive. After all, the power increased (to 553 hp/660 hp), and an additional 160 Nm (118 lb ft) and a smooth dual-clutch transmission made it easier to drive. A 2014 Competition package added even more muscle, for a total of 591 PS (600 hp).
Important innovations: Hybrid engines, supercharged V8 engines, triple turbo diesel, double wishbone suspension.
BMW 5 Series G30 (from 2017)
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The G30 5 Series is like an F10 after a Men’s Health Body Transformation Challenge: still recognizable but lighter (by up to 100kg/220lbs), more muscular and with a fresh cut with the grays touched. That’s due to a move to BMW’s new CLAR platform and the use of aluminum for most body panels.
Driver assistance aids, including remote parking via smartphone, are among the G30’s biggest advances, along with the introduction of the 5-Series’ first PHEV option, which soon became two options when the original 248hp (252hp) four-cylinder hybrid 530e on board with a range of 34 km (21 miles) was joined for 2021 by a 389 hp (394 hp) 545e.
Fast Fives: Did you think the previous F10 M5 was too boring? So did BMW, judging by what it served up as an encore. The G30 M5 inherited the S63 V8 and sadly lost the manual transmission option (two-pedal cars also swapped a DCT for a conventional car), but the base engine matched the old Comp car’s 591 hp (600 hp) and added 52 lb-ft ( 70 Nm) of torque, and the new Competition Pack freed up 16 extra ponies for an impressive total output of 617 hp (625 hp).
But top dog is the CS, a high-carbon M5 that weighs 116kg less than the production model, makes 626PS (635bhp) and has four bucket seats.
Important innovations: Rear axle steering, PHEV tech, lightweight aluminum sheets, laser headlights, driver assistance, remote parking, gesture control, four turbos on the M550d!
What’s your favorite generation of the 5 Series and where do you think the model should go next? Would you like to see BMW make it a liftback or a crossover, or should the 5 Series stick with what it does best? Write a comment below and let us know.