E39 BMW M5 in The Carchive

The Carchive: The BMW M5 (E39)

A quick word about douchebags. These days, the ready availability of credit makes expensive, desirable cars attainable by those who might never have aspired to one in the past. This phenomenon has put far more of such cars on the road, and there’s no guessing whether the next brand new M5 you see on the road will be owned by a genuine driving enthusiast, or merely somebody who wants a faster, flashier 5 Series than his work colleague has the keys to.

The E39 M5 is different. Though many have fallen into the wrong hands when values were low, when you see this generation of M5 rumbling along it’s a good chance you’ll like the cut of its owner’s gib. Somehow, in several years of posts, I’ve not yet covered the third-generation BMW M5. Here, in what will be my last submission for the foreseeable future, I’ll put that right. Welcome back to The Carchive.

Click on the pictures for the best M5 of all time to positively explode from your screen

“With the M1, BMW made motor racing history. With the M5, this was turned into the principle of the high-performance automobile”

This 1999 brochure for the pre-facelift E39 M5 hails from a time where BMW’s passion shone that little bit more brightly than it does today. Yes, it relies heavily on past glories, but that’s even more the case today. It also follows a very different format to the rather dour, charisma-free brochures you can download from BMW’s website today — the second half has all the studio photography and glib propaganda you might expect from the brand, but there are also five beautifully written and produced double spreads that would do justice to a high-quality travel magazine.

“…And at 240km/h you then shift up into sixth gear — which, however, only brings a further ten km/h because the M5 is unfortunately checked at 250km/h”

The first chunk of this brochure recounts a trip from Munich to Monaco, told by an uncredited author who shared the company of one Prince Leopold of Monaco, a bloke with a long and distinguished racing career to his name. It’s an advertorial, to be sure, but not one so gushing as you might expect. It might brush any criticisms aside, but creates as vivid a picture of the fast Five as you could possibly wish for.

“Enveloped in warm candlelight, wonderful fresco paintings suddelny appear, whose age can be seen but but nevertheless bear witness with their slowly fading remains of volour of better time, in which the village was still rich and people were more devout”

I say beautifully written, but I get the feeling that it might have flowed rather more elegantly prior to awkward translation from German. You get the idea, though, and it’s a pleasure to join our correspondents as they cross the Alps and reel Monaco in, before joining up with Gerhard Berger at journey’s end for a good rummage under the bonnet.

“Actually the journey is only over in the evening after a Mediterranean meal with much fish and a dry white wine.”

Anyway, enough of the well-heeled taking lavish trips across Europe at BMW’s expense, what about the car itself? Well, you’ll all have a pretty good idea of what the E39 BMW was all about, and there’s far more to it than a 5.3-second 0-62mph time, 400bhp and the 155,mph-limted top speed mentioned above can tell you.

The earlier E28 and E34 M5s had been pretty special, but it was the E39 that seemingly gave BMW’s M division engineers a freer reign to do what they thought best, and the end result seemed a lot further removed from the standard 5 Series than was the case for its predecessors. And there’s little dispute that the E39 5 series made a damn good starting point.

“80-120 km/h in 4.8 seconds in 4th gear. A new dimension in driving dynamics”

M’s reworking of the 4.4-litre M62 V8 engine to become the fearsome 5.0-litre S62 was no half-hearted gesture. While it’s easy to understand the deep affection that many harbour for BMW’s M-fettled sixes, the 400bhp V8 precisely suited the M5’s Concorde-like character. With the E36 M3 already doing the business for those who wanted ragged exhilaration, the bigger M5 could concentrate on offering ballistic open-road performance, and the V8 delivered this in spades.

I’m fortunate enough to have enjoyed a fair bit of E39 M5 wheel time, and can mount a comparison to its somewhat lesser M62 V8 powered 540i cousin. The latter, of which a 2003 example has been my dad’s pride and joy for over a decade is no slouch. Yet, the M5 feels an order of magnitude more responsive and precise, such is the way M went through the E39 with a fine-toothed comb, making improvements where they could. These included binning the much-maligned recirculating ball steering in favour of rack and pinion (ironically, less powerful six-cylinder E39s had the latter as standard), as well as substantial tweaks to braking and suspension systems.

A six-speed manual gearbox, with a seductively illuminated kearknob, was the finishing touch

“BMW M5 drivers are automobile connoisseurs with a very special taste, so you may expect a remarkable interior”

It strikes me that evolution from the E39’s dashboard only became necessary because of fashion and consumer expectation than for any actual need for improvement. Were that colour screen operated via iDrive or touchscreen, it would deliver the same experience that today’s 5 Series buyers demand today, all delivered in a driving environment that’s entirely free of gimmickry or ostentation — although not everybody preferred the ‘Exclusive’ model’s wood veneer to the titanium-style inserts sported by the ‘Sportive’ version.

I suppose the above is one reason that interest in E39 M5’s has grown in recent times, with prices stiffening as a result. While today’s M5 is a hell of a car, it’s conception seems more an exercise in box-ticking than breaking new ground. The E39 M5 might have built on the achievements of its illustrious predecessors, but felt much more than just a superheated sedan. In 1999, it had the power to surprise, while its 21st century successor merely fulfils expectations.

We all have our favourite M5s, and while I love the E60 for its formula-one soundtrack and sheer technical chutzpah, the E39 will always be my touchstone.

(All images are of original manufacturer publicity materials, photographed by me. Copyright remains property of BMW. Thanks for sticking with The Carchive over the years; it’s become a crucial part of my Friday evening routine. Until next time. Over and out)

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2 responses to “The Carchive: The BMW M5 (E39)”

  1. commenter Avatar

    The E39 M5 still has recirculating ball steering. It is excellent but it is not the rack and pinion this article indicates. Only six cylinder E39’s ever received rack and pinion. Source: Previous E39 M5 owner who has rebuilt a suspension on one of these.

    1. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

      Yep. You’re quite right. Knowledge fail on my part there. I was right on most other counts, though.