If you asked us to chose a generation of BMW’s might Five Series, it would be a tough choice. We’ve had an E60, and that was a wonderful beast if somewhat ‘clinical’, by which we mean it was hard to bond with. A good car, but not a characterful one.
We’ve had an E28, and even though it was a rust bucket with more mechanical problems than every Rover combined, it was still a handsome sucker. However, the days of finding a cheap one that’s actually worth owning are gone.
There’s the E39. The last of the so say ‘mechanical’ Fiver Series. Again, a nice car (we have a 523i… somewhere. Essex, possibly?). But for us, it always looked a bit too soft, too rounded.
That leaves – within our humble budget – only one choice. Yes, we are of course talking about the third-generation of the BMW Five Series, namely the mighty E34. Handsome, brilliant to drive, premium in build and brand and at the moment, still cheap. Well, for normal models. If you want an M5 or even a Sport, you’re on the wrong website. Go away.
Just look at that. Some things are just effortlessly cool. You know, like Tarantino films, or your Dad’s mate, John. He’s cool. And of course, the E34 BMW slots neatly into that category, too. It is just cool, from bumper to bumper. The lines are perfect, the proportions are bob-on, the twin headlights – because this is the law – ooze cool. It’s just ace.
Then you’ve got the fact it was popularised via its big-screen chase in Ronin, burning it even further into the minds of car lovers the globe over. Though that was an M5, so you can’t have it. Sorry about that.
Introduced in 1987, the E34 – which is BMW’s internal coding for this model, and also one of those E numbers that BMW fanboys at ‘stance’ shows spout while simultaneously ejaculating – took over from the E28. The E28 was a handsome car, what with its now iconic ‘shark nose’ face. It was also a hugely popular car, and served as one of the models that made BMW so popular in the UK. As such, the E34 had big shoes to fill.
BMW wasn’t too worried though. Rather than just churn out a generic new model, BMW looked at how the E28 was being used, also listened to what the buying public wanted. As such, when it rolled out of the factory, it was a bit bigger, it had a whole host of new engines (including a V8 – the first use in a Five Series) and it was also made available as an estate. Or Touring, as BMW calls it.
People often think that the E34 was designed to embody the E28, but that wasn’t the case. It was actually designed to be a smaller E32, or 7 Series to you and I. The similarities between the E34 and the E28 weren’t linked by model, they were linked by being BMW traits. The twin headlights, the kidney grille, the Hofmeister Kink – these were all design aspects that symbolised BMW as a whole, not just the Five. BMW has always seen its cars as a family, as something that should be unified by the badge.
This pays dividends when it comes to launching a new car – the E34 being a case in point. Why just pull from the car’s past when you can take this and that from the entire model range instead? It meant BMW could pull ideas from its flagship E32 to make the E34 even more special. Clever.
The same can be said of the E34’s innards. They’re very ‘BMW of the time’ and as such, the untrained eye could easily confuse elements of it with the E30 3-Series, or the 7-Series. But again, that’s no bad thing. BMW was seriously upping its game by this point, so the fit and finish of its interiors were stunning. It’s still, in 2018, a solid, comforting, pleasant place to be. It has aged tremendously well.
And then there’s the way it drives. Being a BMW, it’s got 50/50 weight distribution, so it always feels poised and confident. Yes, a liberal clutch-kick will put you in a ditch, but any rear-wheel drive car will do that if drive like a dick. So, you know, don’t drive like a dick. Ditch avoided.
Engine-wise, BMW fitted about nine thousand different ones to the E34. There’s the 1.8 petrol, though that’s best avoided unless you like going slow, a four-pot 20, a six-pot 2.0, a 2.5 a 3.0 V8, a 4.4, a 2.5 diesel and possibly some others we’ve forgotten about. All bar the 1.8 were available with automatic transmissions, while some of the big petrol engines later had the option of a six-cog manual.
In terms of what to look out for, the big one is abuse. Many have been modified into oblivion by people who think Pizza Hut is a suitable venue for a wedding anniversary, so avoid those. Also, avoid cars with patchy history. If you can get FSH, do. And when you do, look for important work such as bush changes on the front and rear suspension – these things matter.
The E34 is climbing in value. It’s a bona fide classic these days, which is good for insurance. However, it does mean your £2,000 budget will limit you. You’ll be getting a 2.0 six-pot SE, or maybe a 2.5 for this money. But don’t fret. While it may not be a Sport or an M5, it will still be a damn fine car. And plus, like we said, it’s cool.