The cars we loved.
Before the M5 became the executive supersedan of choice in the 90’s, there was just the M535i. During the 70’s and 80’s many bimerphiles clamored for a sportier 5 series from the factory, so BMW obliged them with a step up version of the 535 called the M535i. Not that the regular 535i was slack, it’s balanced handling represented one of the best sports sedans for the money in the time before Twitter and “iThings”. Its upright shape was intimidating, like a car driven by the villians in Die Hard films, the E28 5 Series had a commanding presence wothout any special treatments. Special treatments were what buyers wanted, so the first M535i actually appeared in 1979 and was intended to be more refined with better handling than the standard 5 Series. Competitors like Audi had begun offering tarted up versions of its cars under the S-line in the 80’s, so for once BMW seemed behind the curve and used the M535i as a stop-gap until the M brand was established and a true M5 sold in America in 1988.
This stop-gap would last into the next generation of 5 Series Sedan, known as the E28. Although there was an E28 M car, it would not make its way to the US right away and the M535i would be a kind of fill in until 1988 after which it would be sold alongside the M5 in some markets. The M535i established a precedent of M-badged within BMW where cars that did not get the full M treatment but would have choice performance tuned enhancements from the M division, but not receive the all-out visual and mechanical enhancements of a true M-Car.
This special 5 Series was never officially sold in North America, yet a few found their way here. The cost of federalizing the custom body panels and bumpers was seen as too expensive, so BMW looked the other way, leaving the grey market to supply M535i’s to the US market. As a constellation, BMW created a special version of the 535i called the 535is to console Americans. The 535is was much closer to a standard 5 series sedan than the more desirable M535i. It lacked any M badges, but did have a spoiler and uprated suspension. As to top 5 Series for a while, the M535i did not have too many options. Users could choose between audio systems, air conditioning and a headlight washer system. Left and right hand versions were built as well as leather and cloth seated versions. Speaking of interiors, all 5 Series were rather spartan by todays standards. The businesslike control setup said as much about German efficiency as it did total driver control. There were some concessions to technology in the form of analog entertainments (AM/FM radio, cassette tape player) trip computer and a revamped engine diagnostic monitor, known as BMW’s Check Control System.
The M535i looked less like a standard 535i than the American ‘S’ model. It had special body colored bumpers, added spoilers and special wheels. The interior had seats what featured what would later become M style logo. Like the previous E12 car, the new M535 would use a standard 535i engine. In the E28 it was a 3.5 liter inline 6 cylinder engine, but with Motronic fuel injection. Basically it was the same engine used in the larger 6 and 7 series. In the somewhat lighter M535i, a low 7 second run to 60 mph was uncommon when mated to one of two available close ratio 5 speed manual transmissions. In addition to the stick shift, there was an interesting four speed automatic that allowed for sport, economy or manual modes.
The suspension was made up of the standard MacPherson strut front while the semi-trailing arms in back were recalibrated and beefed up with thicker anti-sway bars. Vented discs up front and solid discs in back were topped off with an anti-lock braking system. Anti-lock brakes were still rare, even on expensive performance cars during the 80’s and BMW’s version used a fancy hydraulic servo control system, making it rather complicated. Even the Michelin TRX tires were high-tech. At 220/55VR, they were created to fit a unique 6.5 x 15.3 inch rims. Wheels and tires aside, the complexity was typical of the E28 in general, which had become a technological tour de force as electronics were used to controlled more engine and emission functions.
Today the M535i is all but forgotten by the casual car enthusiast (probably because the E28 is among the least attractive of the 5 Series types). However blocky or upright it may appear, it represents a significant step in BMW’s transitioning its M-Motorsport division from a purely racing to higher volume road cars. It also represents an important half-step to full-blown M Cars with special parts and added performance designed to give those who wanted more than stock, but less than an M.