Tell Me About The Ones You Should Have Bought

Posted April 09, 2020

By Dean Larson

Why you would take the time to read my automotive ramblings astonishes me, considering I’m the biggest bonehead I know. See the car in the photo might not look like much, and you might not have even caught it. But back in 1988, this was about the most finely-crafted and revolutionary automobile produced. And years ago, I had my hands on one for a song, but passed on it because I’m a total moron. The following is a long-winded story about the car I should have bought — a 1988 BMW M5.

I’m a pretty young guy compared to most of my peers, so I have no tales about Shelby Mustangs, Yenko Camaros or HEMI Mopars for affordable prices. By the time I was old enough to become a Craigslist addict, these cars had already catapulted into the stratosphere. But somehow, my story about a sporty BMW from the ’80s seems just as agonizing, and I’ve already come to see just how wrong I was to pass on it.

I was driving a 1985 BMW 535i with a five-speed at the time, a car I was way too proud of. I took great care of the car (even though it seemed to never return the favor) and most people around knew it was mine, as there were almost zero cars like it in my rural area. One fateful day an older friend of mine asks me if I’d be interested in a car just like mine “but I think it’s an M.”

E25 535I

“No it’s not,” I replied, as these cars are rarer than hen’s teeth, and not something I expected my friend to know much about. But alas he “knew a guy,” and I eventually had a phone number, spurred on by the claim that the car needed some work, and could probably be had for cheap. The owner confirmed that his car “wasn’t exactly one of the nice ones,” as it had always been driven, and survived decades being street parked in Chicago! But the price was right at a cool $4,500, and I was hooked.

A pre-planned trip to Milwaukee was the perfect excuse to drive a little further to Chicago, and I finally got eyes on the car with a couple friends. It definitely wasn’t one of the nice ones, as promised. The paintwork was original and rough, with a small amount of rust here and there. The signature BBS “basketweave” wheels where in someone else’s garage, and the car rode on underwhelming steelies and snow tires. The interior was worn, but all there, with the requisite number of electrical issues.

I drove the car a few blocks to a park where we could get a better look at it, and even over that short distance I could feel the power from the S38 3.4-liter DOHC engine. Blip the throttle and the six individual throttle bodies gulped air from the gigantic cast air plenum that proudly claimed “BMW M Power 24-6.” This engine was a completely different monster than the lowly M30 SOHC 3.4-liter in my E28 at home, with its saddening 8.0:1 compression ratio. The car was well used, but not used up, and my mind started racing.

E28 M54

Mentally preoccupied by the time we got to the park, my friends took over and ran a quick compression test on the S38B35, which churned out 255 hp when new. In its day, the M5 embarrassed any other car in its price range, and would give dedicated sports cars like the 911 a look as well. Pulled from the BMW M1 race car and adapted for street use, this was a thoroughbred engine if I’ve ever had my hands on one. But unfortunately, complex and high-strung engines like the M5’s S38 don’t do very well when left unmaintained for years sitting out curbside.

A few holes were low on compression and some of the plugs came out covered in oil, and I more-or-less allowed myself to be talked out of it. In hindsight, the oil was almost certainly coming from the valvetrain, and the engine is probably still plugging along with the same lackluster compression. But at the time, I could hardly afford to maintain my pedestrian 535i, which would have had to go to afford the M.

I said I’d think about it, but our negotiations ended there and the car was soon sold to a local BMW guy. At $4,500, I shouldn’t have hesitated, as the car would have been worth easily twice that much with some minor servicing, and a whole lot more with the right work done. It wasn’t a good one, but it was the right one; one I could have afforded, and a rare opportunity to buy a rare car — after all, just 1,235 E28 M5s were sold in the U.S. All of them, black with a tan interior, five-speed transmission and blacked-out trim.

E28 M52

So that’s my M5 story, probably the biggest bonehead move I’ve ever made in the arena of car buying (except a well-used E36 325i I bought, but that’s a story for another time). I kept my little 535i for a few more years, but eventually sold it after fighting numerous issues with the Bosch Motronic fuel injection system. I know where the car is today, and after seeing it again a week ago, I’d probably take it back for the right price. But then again, that’d probably be another bonehead move…

Now I want to hear your stories about the cars you should have bought, whether it was a Lamborghini Muira, Camaro Z28 or a plain Triumph TR3. Drop a comment below or write me an email at dean.larson@colepublishing.com. Send some photos as well. If I hear from enough of you, I’ll compile them into a blog where we can share our collective misery and regret!

By the way, sorry my photos suck, I believe I took them on an iPod at the time haha!

E28 M53
E28 M55

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