If you’d like, you can read about my father’s MGB here, or find my thoughts on our Land Rover Series III here. The first taught me of the unspoken bond a father and son can feel when working side-by-side on a restoration project. The second’s lessons were mostly about swearing.
Both cars are still in faithful-if-intermittent service, the Landie as a sort of farm tractor, the MG as the tinkerer’s delight. However, if you’ve the patience, I’d like to tell you about my dad’s real car.
These days, the oul grey fellah pilots one hell of a boulevard-strafer: a six-speed-manual E60 550i M-Sport. It’s his sechste Funfer, and marks a quarter-century of 5-series ownership. To my mind though, he only ever had one.
I don’t know if it’s possible to overstate the impact the 535i made when it showed up in our quiet little cul-de-sac in small town BC. Yes, that’s an honest-to-Christ Gremlin in the neighbour’s driveway, and some sort of abysmal Chrysler product off to the left.
Surrounded by this sort of automotive dreck, the bronzitbeige E28 made an entrance about as subtle as a Panzerkampfwagen popping out between two Dutch hay-ricks circa operation Market Garden. Always assuming you knew what it actually was.
If you didn’t, you might just think that this mid-sized, silverish four-door was a sensible, if shark-nosed, family sedan. While the twin-kidney grille and quad-headlamp front end are iconic BMW (and now Chevy Sonic), this was an age when Bavarian styling was a bit more reserved. What’s more, they’d spent the early part of the decade putting out some pretty limp Bratwurst. I should know: we owned them too.
My dad’s first 5-series was an E12 which I have only the vaguest memories of: it was kind of okay, I think. That car was shortly replaced by a 533i (we never had an eta car, thank you very much), which had an automatic transmission and a burgundy velour interior that looked like a microscopic photograph of someone’s intestinal villi.
These days, everybody’s auto-box can be slotted into some sort of manual mode if you’d still like to row your own from time to time. In those days, you couldn’t, which of course didn’t stop Dad. When he brought the 533i in for a routine service, the awed technicians returned with a sample of transmission fluid as black as a pint of Guinness.
What had he being doing to the car? “Using it.” Auf wiedersen automatic 5-series, guten tag Herr 5-speed 535i.
And as with many things, third time’s the charm, and this E28 535i would be with us for more than two decades – but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Firstly, a few numbers. Back in the day, before years and mileage meant a few horses escaped the barn, the 535i was putting out 182hp and 214lb/ft of torque. With about 3200lbs of teutonic heft to lug around, one needn’t have expected any particularly jaw-dropping performance numbers: 0-60 times in the high-sevens, quarter mile in 16-point-something.
Slow by today’s standards, but quick back in the day, and the stats don’t tell the tale. Not by half.
Shortly after this picture was taken, we left the little cul-de-sac and moved West, out of the Fraser Valley flood-plain and up into the hills that sit South, close to the U.S. Border. It was a home-coming of sorts; my folks had been renting out this place for years while they traipsed around the province for my Dad’s work.
It was a wild place then, a wee house nestled amongst the trees on a gravel road that twisted for three or four miles, and that after ten miles of heaved and rumpled, serpentine pavement climbing up from the valley floor. The 5-series took to the terrain like it was coming back to the Black Forest.
Neither my brother nor I are prone to car-sickness. This is an excellent thing as the old man was not one to muck about. What’s the point of owning an Ultimate Driving Machine if you’re not going to drive it?
Then, when his boys grew up, they cut their teeth behind the wheel of one of Munich’s finest. Even now I remember what it was like to drive this car in its prime, that lusty low-end torque giving way to the thrilling song of a big straight-six. The future may be turbocharged, but the blue-and-white roundel was always at their best when they lined the cylinders up in a row and ran the results through a centre-mounted exhaust.
Back when its bushings still had the firmness of youth and the recirculating-ball steering had yet to start feeling somewhat slack, it was a true joy to run the 535i home after a late-night session cramming for provincial exams. I’d beg for the keys every time, and you never had to take it easy with Dad riding shotgun: on the contrary, once while merging on the on-ramp, the instruction was, “Speed up! You’re entering the freeway, not a bloody convent!”
Half-a-million klicks on the odo, and the Bimmer’s cluster quit counting. Who knows how many more we put on the car in the following years, but you can be assured they were hard miles. The best example I can think of is my brother clipping a cement block on some late-night drive and puncturing the oil-pan. Not knowing what else to do, this being in the days before cel-phones, he drove the 5-er back to his place, the sump nearly bone dry.
Total damage to car? One oilpan, one gasket. Try pulling that sort of shenanigan with any one of today’s brittle smartphones-on-wheels.
And then, one day, the ignominious end. I’d bought myself a MX-6 GT and done some backyard tuning to it: it was bright red and ran 14s, what did I care for some long-in-the tooth German car?
My dad now had himself an E34 540i. My brother had inherited the 535i, but was finding the arthritic rattles somewhat alarming, not to mention the gaping cancer in the rockers and the awful fuel-economy of the big six. For a couple hundred bucks, we traded it in on a sensible base ’91 Mazda MX-6 at some corner lot.
We called back later, something to do with documentation on that stuck-speedometer, but the car was gone. Some kid? A wrecker? Who knows.
At the time, we were glad to be shot of it: a machine that had served its purpose well, but was beyond pouring money into. Now though, I feel we could have done better for such a faithful steed.
It was the car I took my driving test in and, when the time came, the car I helped my younger brother learn to drive in. It’s the car I got my first speeding ticket in, and the car in which I first talked my way out of a speeding ticket. It’s the car I took to prom, the car in which I learned I don’t really know anything about women (still don’t).
I look at these two little boys and think of how their lives once completely overlapped. How now our family is now three circles in a Venn diagram, pulled apart by three new centres: myself and my wife, he and his fiancee, my father and mother.
We each live our own lives now, spread out and different, coming together at holidays and keeping in touch by phone. But looking at a photograph like this, I remember.
I remember sitting passenger side in the rear, remember the sideways pressure of the last curve before the single straight you could pass on, remember flashing past an old pickup truck, remember hearing the revs climb.
I can see my father now, in profile, a man in his prime, hewn by hours at spadework and the axe, sure of himself, with sons and wife and a piece of land in a country that let him choose the life he has. Not an easy life by any means; a life of labour, struggle, toil and burden.
But worth it, for times such as these. Worth it to feel the tires grip, to feel the chassis pivot, and hear your boys laugh, to feel the back-end squat as you find third, and the car lifts like a horse raising its head as it smells its stable and quickens its pace, heading for home.