Why you’d want a BMW M5 (E34)
BMW called it a master of understatement – a concept that appealed to some buyers, although others would have preferred a more distinctive look.
ʻIt has the highest top speed, the best through-the-gears acceleration, the best handling/ride compromise and the best performance/economy ratio of any car with the ability to transport four adults and their luggage,ʼ said Autocar & Motor in 1990.
ʻRoadholding, braking power, and suspension and body control unquestionably take production saloon-car standards several notches higher.ʼ
That it was more refined than the previous M5 was to be expected, but some argued that made it feel less exciting.
It was more powerful, though: BMW had extracted 30bhp and 6% more torque from the M1-derived 3.5-litre ʻsix ʼ, despite having equipped it with full catalytic conversion.
There was a huge options list to inflate the already huge purchase price – air-con, electric seats and full leather trim were all optional, as well as ʻdechromingʼ (£89).
For July 1992 the engine grew to 3.8 litres, with significant internal upgrades to give more power and torque, with a much wider spread. There were new five-spoke alloys, 9in wide at the rear with 255/40x17 tyres if the £1365 ʻNürburgringʼ package was specified.
This, said Autocar & Motor, was: ʻThe worldʼs swiftest and most capable saloon car.ʼ Options even included charcoal-grey carbonfibre wheels.
The M5 Touring launched in ʼ92 was the first estate car from BMW Motorsport. Just 891 were built, making it highly collectible – as are all M5s.
Values for special editions are climbing fast, and pulling all others up behind them.
South African M5s were assembled locally from CKD kits, with no cat and different trim – all others were handbuilt at the Motorsport plant in Garching.
Being right-hand drive, some South African cars have been imported to the UK, but may have had a much harder life.
Engines are very durable if maintained, but costly to rebuild if not. Rust is the other worry, exacerbated by a change to water-based paint in 1993.
The M5ʼs strength is lost if rot takes hold, and tacked-on panels wonʼt restore its rigidity so check any past repairs carefully.
Beware crash damage, too: you can spend £15k on an engine overhaul and £15-25k on a body rebuild, so thereʼs no such thing as a cheap M5.
Images: James Mann
BMW M5 (E34): what to look for
Please see above for what to look for before you check out any classic BMW M5 (E34) for sale.
Developed from the M88 created for the M1 supercar, the twin-cam, 24-valve S38 straight-six engine should last 200,000 miles, if properly maintained.
However, it is very expensive to rebuild, so it needs careful checking for signs of wear and neglect.
Make sure the correct engine is still in the car – some get swapped for lesser units.
Ensure the cables for the electronically controlled dampers are connected.
Check suspension bushes and mounts for signs of wear or contamination.
The M5’s gearbox gets a hard life and most have been rebuilt or replaced by now.
Check for signs of wear and for correct-spec gearing to match the engine.
The BMW M5’s complex electrics can fail.
Check all work, especially the wipers (if they go too far, the rack is worn), the heater blower, all lights and the Touring’s rear wiper.
The M5 Recaros are unique and prone to wear: check their spec (Alcantara/leather/cloth), function, adjustment.
Scruffy is better than wrong, but is still costly to fix.
BMW M5 (E34): before you buy
Any model of M5 should feel taut, solid and very powerful: if not, something is wrong.
Check the engine warms up fully and doesnʼt overheat: the water pump, thermostat and viscous fan coupling all give trouble.
Beware any signs of head-gasket failure and check for excessive oil breathing as well as coolant leaks, and for exhaust smoke and engine knocks.
Mild-steel exhaust systems have a limited life. Low power may be a vacuum leak disabling the resonance flap in the plenum chamber.
The 3.8-litre engine heralded a change to individual ignition coils per cylinder, larger inlet valves and a dual-mass flywheel, with compression up from 10:1 to 10.5:1.
Most gearboxes have been replaced or rebuilt by now: look at the history as well as dipping the clutch in neutral to see if layshaft noise reduces, and checking for weak synchros (especially on first and second), whines, clunks and jumping out of gear.
The six-speed is most sought-after, though with a longer final-drive ratio it really only offered an extra cruising gear for the autobahn.
The differential can get noisy if neglected; check the limited-slip still works.
Look for dash warning lights such as ABS, and make sure all electrical items work.
On the road, listen for the wheels pattering over bumps, suggesting worn shock absorbers.
Nagengast in Poland can rebuild the Electronic Damper Control (EDC) shocks on 3.8s.
Odd tyre wear is often worn suspension bushes.
Check for steering box wear: theyʼre unique to the M5.
BMW M5 (E34) price guide
- 3.6: £10,000/20,000/50,000
- 3.8: £12,500/25,000/65,000
- Six-speed: £15,000/30,000/75,000
- Touring: £20,000/40,000/100,000
South African cars worth 25% less; prices correct at date of original publication
BMW M5 (E34) history
1988 M5 ‘3.6’ launched: 3.5-litre, 315bhp
1991 Cecotto special edition: Nappa leather, heated seats, 22 built; Winkelhock edition: lightened, de-specced, Recaro seats, red belts, 51 built (both LHD-only)
1992 3.8-litre: five-spoke alloys, vented rear discs; M5 Touring (891 built); 20 Jahre Motorsport edition: Alcantara trim, M-Tech mirrors, carbonfibre dash, 20 built (all LHD)
1994 Nov Six-speed ’box, wider 18in wheels, bigger brakes (only 139 to UK)
1995 Mar-Jun UK Limited Edition, last 50 RHD: Rosso Red/Champagne leather (15) or Orinoco/Petrol & Mint (35), electric sunroof/seats Aug Production ends
The owner’s view
“My dad was a car fan,” recalls Richard Green, “and he passed on the passion to his children. My brother drives an E30 M3, but I’ve always liked E34 M5s. I’ve had five, including a 3.8 Limited Edition of 50.
“I chose this car because I like them in left-hand drive, and in black with black. It doesn’t have the rear spoiler or badge, which were options, so people can’t tell it’s an M5.
“I bought it from friends in Germany with only 60,000 miles from new.
“On the road, the engine spec makes no noticeable difference – it’s only on the track that you can tell them apart.
“My daily driver is a modern M3, but this is a different ball game. The M5 feels as if it was built out of granite – it’s rock-solid.
“I drive it as it should be driven, tail-out everywhere! My son drifts it very well, too.
“It’s a proper solid car, with no driver aids: just a limited-slip diff and a super-smooth, turbine-like ‘six’. They’re great cars.”
Developed with Porsche and boasting the SL’s 322bhp 5-litre V8, giving 0-60mph in 5.5 secs. LHD only, just 29 came to the UK. Part-assembled by Porsche, its bit-part build made it rust-prone.
Sold 1990-’95 • No. built 10,479 • Price now £20-60,000*
Supercharging the 4-litre AJ16 ‘six’ boosted it to 321bhp – enough for M5 performance with a sophisticated ride that made it the intelligent choice for high-mileage execs. Great value today.
Sold 1994-’97 • No. built 6547 • Price now £3500-20,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication
BMW M5 (E34): the Classic & Sports Car verdict
In recent years, E34 BMW M5s have been achieving far higher prices in Europe and the USA than in the UK, but that won’t last for long, so grab one here before prices catch up.
A cast-iron full history with lots of recent expenditure is ideal, and more important than the dream specification or low mileage.
These iconic cars are an absolute joy to drive, so buy a good one then get out there and enjoy it!
- Rarity and legendary status mean prices will only go up
- Strong support network from fellow enthusiasts, specialists and BMW itself
- Many are neglected, modified, rusted and crashed
- Be careful to ensure all is correct and any past repairs are to a good standard
BMW M5 (E34) specifications
- Sold/no built 1988-’95/12,254 (8344 3.6s, 3910 3.8s including 752 six-speeds)
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, dohc 3535/3795cc ‘six’, Bosch Motronic injection
- Max power 315bhp @ 6900rpm to 340bhp @ 6900rpm
- Max torque 265lb ft to 295lb ft @ 4750rpm
- Transmission five/six-speed Getrag manual, RWD via limited-slip differential
- Suspension independent, at front by MacPherson struts rear semi-trailing arms, coils, telescopics with self-levelling (3.6) or Electronic Damper Control; anti-roll bar f/r
- Steering power-assisted recirculating ball (speed-sensitive on 3.8)
- Brakes vented front, solid rear discs, with servo and anti-lock (all vented on six-speed)
- Length 15ft 6in (4720mm)
- Width 5ft 9in (1751mm)
- Height 4ft 7½in (1412mm)
- Wheelbase 9ft ⅔in (2760mm)
- Weight 3681-3929lb (1673-1786kg)
- 0-60mph 6.4-5.4 secs
- Top speed 157-170mph
- Mpg 16-29
- Price new £48,950 (3.8, 1992)