By on January 9, 2012

I’ve seen quite a few BMW E12s in wrecking yards over the last couple of decades, but they haven’t really quite caught my eye the way Detroit and Japanese cars of the same era tend to do. But what other Middle Malaise Era machine gave you rear-wheel-drive, independent rear suspension, a manual transmission, and a fuel-injected overhead-cam six-cylinder engine making close to 170 horsepower?
There were some flaws with the US-market version of the ’79 E12, starting with the eye-gougingly horrible bumpers.
The four-speed transmission might have been getting a bit old-fashioned by 1979; BMW replaced it with a 5-speed the next year.
This one, which I found in a Denver self-service yard last week, has a little rust, but overall it’s fairly clean and in good shape. With only 163,000 miles on the clock, it probably led a sheltered life (or spent a decade or two in a garage, awaiting expensive repairs).
169 horsepower doesn’t sound like terribly impressive these days, but getting that much power from an engine displacing only 170 cubic inches was pretty impressive at a time when Ford was dropping 159-horsepower 400s in the Lincoln Mark V, and the most powerful Corvette came with 225 horsepower.
Of course, the 528i wasn’t exactly cheap. List price for the ’79 was $15,505, or $48,315 in 2011 dollars. Luxury-minded car shoppers in 1979 could get a Cadillac Sedan DeVille for $11,493 or a Chrysler New Yorker for $8,631; those sedan shoppers who prized speed over luxury could pick up a Datsun 810 for $8,129… and those who wanted both might have found themselves handing over $11,599 to the Toyota dealer for a Cressida. Sure, the E12 was quite comfy and would eat up all those cars in any sort of race… but times were hard in 1979, and only the most successful dentists and lawyers could afford the price of admission to Big BMW Status.

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16 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1979 BMW 528i...”


  • avatar
    jmo

    Of course, the 528i wasn’t exactly cheap. List price for the ’79 was $15,505, or $48,315 in 2011 dollars. Luxury-minded car shoppers in 1979 could get a Cadillac Sedan DeVille for $11,493 or a Chrysler New Yorker for $8,631

    Do we have any idea why Detroit abandoned the high end luxury market?

    • 0 avatar
      tonyola

      With the exception of a few specials like the Continental Mark II and the Cadillac Eldorado Brougham, Detroit basically gave up the super-luxury market by World War II. The Depression had slaughtered the ultra-car market in the 1930s. The way the companies were set up by WWII, there was no real profit in making super-expensive cars in tiny numbers. Ford lost money on every Mark II despite a price of near $10,000 in 1956 dollars, and the Eldo Brougham even at $13,000+ wasn’t a moneymaker for Cadillac either.

  • avatar
    Zackman

    Hmmm…that explains why it’s in the junkyard – clearly out of warranty. I wouldn’t want to spend the money repairing it, either.

  • avatar
    ciddyguy

    Nice find Muralee.

    I think the 2 right side doors were either replaced or repaired. The center section of both appear to be white.

    I bet it had been a garage queen before being sold and that person didn’t take care of it and here it sits – in the junkyard for anyone who cares to buy parts off of to keep their ’79 Bimmer running.

  • avatar
    LeMansteve

    The BMW formula has changed very little over the years:
    inline 6, longitudinal engine, rwd
    tach on the right
    Hofmeister kink
    kidney grilles
    wheels that are a serious PITA to clean

    Also, I’ve always wondered why the gear pattern is sometimes printed on something other than the shifter itself. On this car it appears to be printed on the center console.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s actually on the dash, on the passenger side. No idea why.

      • 0 avatar
        smallenginesmakemesad

        It’s a US market thing. I am a bit of a 70’s BMW tragic – I have owned 6 and still have 3 of them.
        The gear knob is a nice wooden item with a BMW logo on the top. For most of the world (I’m in Australia) that’s where it stopped.
        US regulators required the shift pattern to be displayed prominently (I guess that’s due to the high proportion of automatics sold in the US market) – and where you see it is where BMW put it.
        There are a lot of other little differences between the US market cars and the rest of the world – indicators, bumpers, seat belt warnings etc.

  • avatar
    Advance_92

    BMWs were always on the expensive side but in the late 70s things got out of control and the cars started to be priced far above what they were worth. Granted BMW made the most of it and made a lot of money, but it also became less of a performance statement and more a display of wealth.

    • 0 avatar
      tonyola

      The Deutschemark was very strong in comparison to the US dollar in the late ’70s, and that drove up prices of German cars in a big way. That’s why VW began building Rabbits in Pennsylvania, German-made Opels disappeared from the US market and became rebadged Isuzus, and the Mercury Capri became a US-made variation of the Fox Mustang.

  • avatar
    Icanseeformiles

    I remember riding in one of these as a kid in Florida in 1980. But coming from England I was’t that impressed with its comfort. Nowhere near that of a contemporary Jaguar XJ6 though it was much better built. Interestingly enough that was the conclusion of Car Magazine 1975 Giant Test between a carburetted version of this BMW, the Jaguar XJ3.4 (a version never available in the US) and the Peugeot 604. Not sure if I’m allowed to provide a flickr link to this test for the historical nerds amongst us, but perhaps someone can let me know.

  • avatar
    krhodes1

    I would argue that none of the cars listed were in any way competition for the BMW in ’79. This car competed with the Mercedes W123, the Peugeot 504 and 604, the previously mentioned Jaguar XJ6, and to some extent the Audi 5000, Saab 900 and Volvo 240. The last three were a good bit cheaper. American “luxury” cars were already a sad joke by ’79, and the Japanese did not get a look into this class until the next generation Maxima and Cressida. And even then, not really.

    The 528i E12 was pretty bulletproof – there are still lots of them on the road, relatively speaking. The previous 530i suffered from a truly awful thermal-reactor emissions control system that resulted in many a cracked head, but th 528i had a proper cat.

    I find the “expensive repairs” meme highly amusing in regards to these cars – by modern standards you can fix them with a file and a hammer, and the parts are surprisingly cheap. Simple, simple, simple.

  • avatar
    Scottdb

    1. I see the problem. There is a wire disconnected on the intake manifold. Plug it back in, and she’ll run just fine.

    2. Any BMW AFICIONADO will tell you this car clearly has 1,163,000 miles on it, it’s just that the odometer only has 6 digits. ( Used BMW salesmen have taken advantage of this limitation for years.)

    3. The CO settings on the emission sticker read just like an Escher painting looks.

  • avatar
    70Cougar

    I test drove one of these in the late 80s when I was in high school. The seller lived in a shady apartment complex and the steering wheel rested at a 90 degree angle when the car was going straight. Thank god I walked away from that one. The 70 Cougar that I ended up with left me stranded all over town, but at least I could afford to get it back in action each time.

  • avatar
    khamsin

    Unusual request here. Murilee, if you happen to return to this junkyard, would it be possible for you to buy the A/C compressor with its mounting bracket and the corresponding pulley on the engine for me? I could send the required funds by Paypal or wire.

    The reason is I own an E9 coupe with A/C (my avatar) which has a leaky and inefficient York piston compressor. This E12 should normally have a far better Bosch rotary unit plus a mounting bracket that can be used for truly modern rotary compressors. My problem is that they are almost impossible to source where I live (Switzerland).

    Thanks and regards

  • avatar
    miklo1968

    I had a buddy who owned one with the automatic transmission. It was always breaking down on him, mostly overheating. The block finally cracked and I finally convinced him to junk the damn thing rather than throw more money at it trying to save it. My friend is very status conscious and to him driving a BMW no matter how old and unreliable, made him feel like a big shot. I was with him when he signed the BMW over to the wrecker. My friend thought he would make a decent amount of money from the sale because it was a BMW. Of course, I thought differently but didn’t say anything to change his mind about getting rid of it. When all was said and done the junkyard paid him a whopping sum of $6.00. “Six bucks. That’s it!” he shouted “six bucks, American”? I tried to smooth things over by telling him that the tow service from his house to the junkyard was included for free. The look he gave me told me that I wasn’t helping the situation and it would be in my best interest to stop talking all together. The ride home was disturbingly long and quiet for a trip of less than 2 miles.

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