By on May 20, 2011


When I rolled into Camden, South Carolina, in preparation for judging at the third annual 24 Hours of LeMons South Spring race, my friend Walker Canada handed me the keys to his rough-but-functional ’87 BMW E28. “Go ahead and use it as your Judgemobile!” he offered. The dash lights and most of the gauges didn’t work, but I only had to drive 20 miles to the track. The engine sounded great, the suspension was still tight, and Foghat’s “Slow Ride” was on the radio. What could possibly go wrong?

Then additional electrical systems began fritzing out, culminating in loss of the headlights. Two-lane blacktop road in rural South Carolina, late at night. No problem– I used to drive British Leyland product every day. Put the hazards on and keep going!

When I got to Carolina Motorsports Park at about 11:00 PM, all the action in the paddock was centered around the car the Tunachuckers got to replace their totalled Volvo Amazon: a 1975 Ford LTD Landau.

Two tons, flip-up headlights, and a 400-cubic-inch engine rated at a mighty 153 horsepower. Excellent race car choice, I say.

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26 Comments on “BMW 535 Judgemobile Works Great, Except For Entire Electrical System...”


  • avatar
    Jeff Semenak

    “Two tons, flip-up headlights, and a 400-cubic-inch engine rated at a mighty 153 horsepower. Excellent race car choice, I say.”

    I owned a 1979 LTD wagon with the mighty 302. With the 400, it should be interesting. Besides, I’m sure it has a great AM radio to listen to.

    • 0 avatar
      Twin Cam Turdo

      You remind me of a journey that saw me install a $40.00 CD player in a 1970′s Ford LTD at 80 mph on the freeway.
      (I wasn’t driving)

    • 0 avatar

      Excellent demo derby material

    • 0 avatar
      mechimike

      The ’79 was the smaller body, Panther platform. The 73-78 (ours is a 75) was 18 inches longer and about 500 pounds heavier. It was also the top-of-the-line LTD Landau, which came with a Phillips AM/FM radio and _four_ speakers!

      • 0 avatar
        Westley

        Right you are. Before I decided to race the S10, I had bought a 1979 Mercury Marquis (with the 351W & 128K miles) for $400. It had only been off the road for 5 months (not due to some mechanical failure, but to rising gas prices). I brought her home, cleaned her up, and logged about 100 miles on her without a hitch, some of which were on the interstate. Everything but the AC worked on the car (cruise control, power steering, power bench seat, radio). Needless to say, I feel in love, and now have a new project in my hands. Some might say she’s only good for the derbies, but I love the big boats. Did your ’75 have a knob to turn on the back speakers? My ’79 has an “amplifier” knob located just above the right knee that pull out to turn on the rear speakers, I thought it was pretty weird (as an ’86 baby, this was before my time, haha). Also, I had no idea how to set the presets on the radio, I had to have someone from my dad’s generation show me how to do that.

  • avatar
    JJ

    Personally I always preferred the E34. I think it’s because I’m too young to remember the E28 as a desirable new car but just too old not to remember it as a crappy old beater you would occassionally see on the streets. Compared to the E34, it looked like a very dated design, which of course, it actually was.

    I think with the E34, BMW really started to take the fight to Mercedes and then with the E39, it set the new benchmark.

    • 0 avatar
      CJinSD

      The E34 was also the first of the drastically reduced quality BMWs. The E32 was too complex for its own good, but the E34 was the first to just not be a durable good. I used to get my E30 worked on by La Jolla Independent, operated by the man Road & Track goes to when they need BMW expertise. He told me not to bother with 5 series made after 1988 or 3 series cars made after 1991. I should have listened, but I already had been a party to buying an E36, an E46, and a Mini Cooper by then. I had a friend with a new E39 too. It was his first BMW and he fell immediately in love with it. Within a couple months he planned to buy an M5 and keep his 528i at a country house that he’d buy seemingly for the purpose of having a reason to keep his beloved 528i. He got as far as test drivng the M5 when his almost a year old E39 started to be a bloody burden to own. He’s probably a Mercedes or Lexus guy now.

      • 0 avatar
        Sam P

        The E46 is okay to live with as long as you buy one that’s been taken care of and fix stuff like the cooling system pre-emptively. Still, the E30 was a higher quality car that doesn’t have stuff like the E46′s fragile cooling system as issues. I’d argue that the E36 and E90 are the worst of the “modern” 3 series in terms of reliability.

        For some reason, the E39 seems to be much more of a repair queen than the E46. Leaky differentials and loads of electrical gremlins. The newest 5er I’d go with is a nice old E28 535i with a manual.

  • avatar
    retrogrouch

    Come on, Phil, you never heard of the Kraut tune up for German electrical systems? Pop off the fuse box cover and spin the ceramic uses.

    • 0 avatar
      FuzzyPlushroom

      Indeed, the German electrical components have always been the Achilles’ heel of the otherwise-unkillable Volvo 240. Wiring prior to ’88, fuses and relays across the board – bring spares, spin the fuses when needed.

      The French taillights and Swedish interior plastics never seemed to manage, either, but the worst that could happen there was a warning from a friendly officer about your brake lights.

    • 0 avatar
      Sigivald

      Spin ‘em?

      Hell, replace them. They don’t age too well.

      Every decade, new fuses, whether it needs it or not.

      Works in my Merc.

  • avatar
    panzerfaust

    That’s the Italian and French tune up as well…

  • avatar
    brettc

    A German car with a flaky electrical system? I’ll be damned! Why can Germans not figure out how to not make flaky electrical systems? It’s mind boggling really with all the German engineers are able to do in other parts of the car. But as someone on Tdiclub once said, “German engineers do things because they can, not because they should”.

    • 0 avatar
      Zackman

      Tiger tanks weren’t very reliable, either, so that’s nothing new. Buy boy, you can’t get a better machine gun than an MG-42!

      • 0 avatar

        MG42 is a fine implement, but I’ll take a Mother Deuce over just about anything if and when the zombies start rampaging.

        On to the larger point, a good E28 is a beautiful thing as long as it’s not a 528e (the big BMW six has to be one of the all-time most entertaining engines, but the eta just sucked), but those Bosch systems were never all they should have been. I wouldn’t turn down a sorted (that’s the key word) Euro 535CSi, though.

    • 0 avatar
      panzerfaust

      My first impression of BMW engineering came when I helped my roomate do a top end job on his mid 70′s Bimmer. All I could think was the engineering motto must have been “why use one big bolt/screw/nut when ten little ones will do?”

    • 0 avatar
      Japanese Buick

      c’mon guys, I like to harsh on BMW reliability as much as the next Japanese car driver, but we are talking about a 24 year old car here. Can any 24 year old car be expected to have reliable electrics?

  • avatar
    getacargetacheck

    Looks like my dad’s old 535iS right down to the color. What a joy to drive. I remember the tachometer going out when it was only about a year old (common problem for these cars). I agree with one of the above posters — BMW has not made a car since that was as perfect in size/handling/stance as this E28.

  • avatar
    John Fritz

    So please tell, is Camden SC the same cultural mecca and vacationland destination as Camden NJ is?

  • avatar
    Verbal

    Doesn’t the LTD exceed the LeMons 4200 lb. weight ceiling? That thing is way more than two tons….

  • avatar
    Andy D

    Meh, I coulda prolly fixed the troubles in about 5 minutes . If you need a headlight switch or other widget, for the car reply. and I’ll send you it. I have been daily driving 528es for the last 15 yrs. But I work with electronics and can fix stuff. Bosch stuff has generally gone to hell, but it was okay 25 yrs ago. 75 % of the E 28′s electrical troubles are with the fuses. The contacts and fuses are wear items . Especially if the cover is loose or missing.

  • avatar
    outback_ute

    Reminds me of a mate’s experience with his 25yo Holden ute – had an alternator fail and subsequently drove 50-60 miles with the battery flat and no functioning electrical device on the vehicle. Got to within 3 miles of home before he lost the battle to keep it running at a stoplight.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    Yah, BTDT more than once with my various old beaters. Had it happen last summer and made it 100yds past the new Autozone down town. They had the right style battery and I was going within 20 minutes. The closer you get to home, the easier the retrieval. Trouble was caused by me, I hadn’t made a good contact at the instrument panel when I was replacing the speedo. I put the old battery in my Jeep.


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