The Birth of a Legend

It’s been 2 years since I met to James. We’d met at the auctions with a common goal of trying to get the best price for a Quattro I’d written an article about some weeks before. James was in the enviable position of being a previous owner of many auto exotica, including two quite beautiful Ferrari’s. However, he had always owned a BMW “because they just work.” His current Bimmer, as then, is still considered one of the best sporting sedans ever made, the BMW E39 M5.

The E39 M5 was the first to be produced at BMW’s mainstream production line in Dingolfing, Germany. This signalled their intention that it should be a useable drive on a daily basis, but with a kick when you really needed it. That kick came in V8 form, normally aspirated, producing 294 kW (394 bhp) and 500 Nm of torque, via a 6-speed manual and its rear wheels. 100 km/h came up in a mere 4.8 seconds and if delimited it had the potential to reach 300 km/h.

Impressive for 1998, right?

Improving a Legend?

Well not quite enough for James. Whilst not a racer, he does enjoy a track day and he needed something a little extra. A supercharger would do it. So would Supersprint headers, Schrick cams, a reinforced differential brace, adjustable Koni shock absorbers, adjustable sway bars, a lightweight flywheel and a race clutch.

Being an accountant he didn’t like frightening the neighbours, so also installed Milltek exhausts with vacuum operated valves to keep it quiet around town. A short shift gearbox was next because the standard one was too long and slow. He followed up with an enlarged radiator and oil cooler to keep the extra heat in check. Custom made wider wheels all round topped off the package. Once the car was de-badged – because James is not a show off – he was almost ready.

“There’s a little surprise,” he says, holding a plastic watering can and unscrewing what I thought was the washer tank. “Methanol burns really cold, and helps to cool things a little more.”

Just cooling James?

“Well maybe it helps to add a bit more power.” 

That ‘help’, according to James’ mechanic, brings torque up to around 700 Nm and 466 kW (625 bhp) and bothers even V8 Supercars out of the way down Phillip Island’s straight. 

Driving a Legend

After warming the oil and driving sedately around town to get some heat into the tyres, we find a nice little loop with a relatively traffic free entrance and exit to the freeway in order to test the acceleration of his pride and joy. 

“Don’t be frightened of it Mike,” James says, obviously aware that I am feeling a tad nervous about wrapping his car around some lamp post. “It’s meant to be floored.” 

The noise alone is intimidating enough, but flooring this thing to its red line, a red line that goes all the way to 7,300 rpm (as opposed to the standard 7000) is sweaty palm time indeed. My first attempt is anaemic by James’ standard. I excuse myself by explaining I just need to get a feel for it. Rolling around again, I steel myself and begin accelerating hard at the apex of the first corner and bury my foot into the carpet as the straight comes into view.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see James grab for the roof handle, nervously perhaps, I am not sure. With the red line fast approaching I just have time to change into third and I’m pushed into the seat as hard anything I have driven before. The car in the distance is quickly reached and I slam on the brakes before any damage can be done. 

“I think I am getting the hang of it now James,” I say smiling from ear to ear.

Third time around I get on the power even quicker. This time I feel those rear wheels spinning in both second and third gears. We snake up the road in a fiendish bellow of noise and smoking rubber at warp-like speed. We are both laughing hysterically as the adrenaline kicks in and I never want this day to end. 

How usable is it?

Though power is what this car is all about, I am somewhat in awe with how well composed it is at normal speeds. On rickety roads and over speed humps it is supple and compliant. You can quite literally take your granny to church in it without her ever feeling uncomfortable. 

“I took my dad out in it once for a decent drive up a mountain. All he had to say was that it was a little bumpy in the back seat, as we bottomed out around the bends up the hill. We’d been doing speeds of up to 230km/h but he apparently didn’t notice or care.” 

After a couple more loops, I feel I have some measure of this monster. Its tyres are now properly up to temperature and that snaking from earlier under hard acceleration transforms into grippy, mind-bending shunts up the hill. Please omnipotent deity, if you exist, let this road transform into a track so that I can taste the remaining 3 gears. Maybe add a few corners for good measure. Eastern Creek would be nice.

But all good things come to an end. I sadly, but contentedly, turn for James’ home, happy that I still have my licence, and hoping that I have not disappointed him with my driving.

The Cost of a Legend

So what does all this machinery cost? James bought the car some years back with only 19,000 kms on the clock for around $125k. He spent a further $25k getting it to where it is today. So it is certainly not cheap. That said, you can find an E39 M5 from around $60k north these days. James recommends that you spend around $15-20k to improve its brakes, exhaust and cooling systems. You might not get as much power as his example, but you will certainly find joy and excitement, safe in the knowledge that it is designed to be used everyday. 

James did admit to an engine change some 30,000 km’s ago. If driven hard, the big end has a tendency to pop every 50,000 kms or so. And let’s face it, why have one of these cars and not drive it energetically. That new donk could have set him back $45k. A rebuild even worse at a wallet-wilting $65k. But as it turned out, he only had to pay half that amount. Because he’d approached the matter so professionally, BMW chose to be a little flexible with the cost. So, a lesson there for us all, I think.

Who can help

The M5 forums provide some great advice and suggest installing stronger big-end bolts and replacing the rod bearings every once in a while. YouTube’s M539 restorations is an even better source of knowledge.   

Other BMW bargains can be found in the US. The rear view mirror for instance contains some trickery for dimming, and will set you back over $700 to replace. A bloke in Texas builds replicas and charges a fraction of that cost, plus postage. So owning a car like this need not be for the super-elite, if you do your homework. 

For me though, I woke up with a stinking cold but after an hour of heart pumping hilarity, I felt 100% better. Thank you James, thank you very much.

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