By on April 15, 2012

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.

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31 Comments on “Capsule Review: 1985 BMW 535i...”

  • avatar

    Ahh…the E28. Wonderful car. Back when I had my 1974 2002 (in 1993), one of the guys in the BMWCCA chapter over in Nashville had both a 535is and a 528e. The “is” was a screamer for me…all of 22 when I got to use if for a week while he worked on some fine tuning of my ’02. But I have to say, the ’88 528e with manual, while not fast, made for a great interstate cruiser. I very nearly bought it from him, but couldn’t part with my beloved ’02 at the time. There are still a handful of E28s running around here, always nice to see one being kept up.

  • avatar

    A 528i,320i,528e and a 72 Alfa Spyder were the cars my father used to indoctrinate me. My sister was immune.

  • avatar

    What a wonderfully well written ode. You really put into perspective the way a car can define one’s life. Nearly brought a tear to my eye.

    Thanks Brendan!

  • avatar

    “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”

    -Wow. Great writing, great reading. My life is just a circle and I’m slowly migrating away from the rest of my family. That is deep stuff. Sorry you had to let the e28 go, it’s amazing how memories are so closely linked with the car that you grew up in. I mean, it is just a car…right?

  • avatar

    While looking for an E39 daily beater late last year, i found a decent condition 88 528e. It’s currently my daily driver. It is woefully slow, but in Los Angeles traffic, it doesn’t really matter…but getting punked by a pukey kid in scion passing me on the right kind of sucks, though.
    It needed rear subframe bushings, pitman arms and upper control arms in the front…that’s it. It’s ridiculously reliable, and a $15 set of gears fixed my odo. I’m saving up loot while driving this thing, hoping I’ll find a decent E36/E46 or E39…but frankly, I love driving this bucket….It’s entertaining to hit a corner hard, and try to get the rear tires to break loose…

  • avatar

    The E60 550 is a boss and a worthy successor.

    • 0 avatar

      No way. Like dude said, incredibly fragile, plus too fast to be a car to cut teeth or push to the limits in. An E90 328i is a more direct replacement.

  • avatar

    Ok those last two paragraphs, that’s writing. Had a little “Field of Dreams” moment there, I’m OK now. For me it was riding with my brothers in the back seat of dad’s ’65 Marauder coupe. The sunset lasts a long time on the Alberta prairie and, if we were heading due north, or south, we could see a shadow of the whole car racing along with us. I would wave and see my shadow wave to prove I really was riding in this fantastic machine.

  • avatar

    This is the car in which I learned what made BMWs worth having. Driving them around Virginia Beach, where I grew up, they didn’t feel like anything special. But circa 1990 a friend of the family decided to give his five-speed 535i to a daughter. Trouble was, she lived in Chicago. He asked if I’d drive the car there for $300 and the cost of a return flight. I didn’t have to think about it. On the roads of West Virginia and SE Ohio I learned that, to properly appreciate a BMW, you need to really push it. Which requires appropriate roads. We didn’t have them in Virginia Beach. Sounds like you had them in BC.

  • avatar

    Very nice writing there Brendan,

    A lovely tribute to a car that you grew up with. I had the opportunity to do that too, grow up with one car for much of my growing up, though it wasn’t anything like your Dad’s Bimmer though.

    It was a 1964 Dodge 330 station wagon that my parents bought new in the summer of ’64 and kept until 1977, long past its prime, but still could get along under its own power, never mind it smoked, roared up the street due to a nearly non existent muffler, had long since lost all reliability and was a rust bucket. Yes, this wagon had the venerable 225 slant 6 and torqueflite automatic, complete with push buttons no less! They’d had the car maybe 6 months when I was born so yes, I literally grew up with it until I hit 7th Grade when it was finally sold to a kid buying his first ride and only had $150, which was about what the car was really worth – at best.

    It was largely Mom’s daily driver too but I don’t recall learning to work on cars with it though, but did on other cars Dad drove however.

  • avatar
    Amendment X

    This nearly brought a tear to my eye. You managed to capture the spirit of early BMW coinciding with your own early years.

    Brilliant piece.

  • avatar

    This is a simply outstanding article – I really enjoyed it and appreciate it.
    Thanks for taking time to pen it.

  • avatar

    A great story about a great car and great family! I miss my 1989 535. Bought it in 2002 with 90k on the clock, drove it four years and sold it for what I paid. A faithful steed that never let me down, was fun to drive and looked great as well. My next BMW (540 Sport) just did not do the same for me and I sold it after a year. I regained my lost BMW love with my current 1998 328i.

    Keep the faith!

  • avatar

    Superlative writing

  • avatar

    Great story Brendan; these were sweet cars and you can still hear the echo of that 535 in the latest model, although the latest one may never reach a half-million klicks without major surgery. As a likely contemporary of your dad’s, I’m glad to hear that someone else is still troubling BMW to bring manual transmissions to North America. I know that remaining far enough from traffic to be able to abide a manual is a real luxury these days, but always look forward to a drive, if only for the shifting.

  • avatar

    Beautiful writing. Thanks for this.

  • avatar

    It is truly exciting to watch good writers develop before your eyes. You and Derek are the latest examples. This is what keeps me coming back to TTAC. More.

  • avatar

    I remember buying a ’80 528i (6 months old. The original owners were so impressed the decided to buy a 6 series.) My ’67 1600 was nearing it’s last days and that big straight six sounded sweet at 7500 rpm had to buy it. The one thing I remember that boxy four door surprising a lot of other cars. Fun, fun fun.

  • avatar

    Brendan, what a fine story about a fine car. I know exactly what you mean about this particular vehicle too, I was an owner of a 1985 524td, which (last I heard) was still trolling around Seattle. I sold it with 400K miles on it, and it was even bronzitbeige! Thanks for the memories!

  • avatar

    Great story and makes me miss the e28’s that I’ve owned myself (’87 535i, ’88 535is and ’86 M535i). But one point of clarification on the automatic–the e28 did in fact have a “manual” mode that could be selected by placing the dial in “1 2 3” mode. Other then it’s tendency to self-destruct when revved in natural, the ZF auto in the 535i/is was pretty good for it’s day. One of mine went almost 250k before needing a rebuild.

  • avatar

    It is funny to think of an E28 535i as anything but fast, being old enough to drive when they were new. The 533i was something of a revelation when they were new. The 528e hadn’t been powerful, while the previous 528i was one of the quicker cars on the market 31 years ago. The 533i didn’t just bring back 528i performance, it seemed to have power to spare. This was a time when Cadillacs could barely move under their own power thanks to the HT4100, and most Mercedes were diesels that traded on good driveability in an age of stumbling emissions-choked carburetors. The 535i and the Mercedes W124 300E that came along about the same time were 135 mph+ cars when most struggled to break three digits. My daily driver was a 240D that was about as fast as a Jeep CJ7 running on its starter motor. The 300E I drove while working could silently see off loud, smoking Saab Turbos like they were Chevettes. I suppose the closest thing available today in performance, capability, and quality is a 4-cylinder Camry, but those cars seemed supersonic when the other common road users had half the power or turbocharged engines that still weren’t as powerful but blew apart if their owners tried to make daily use of their capabilities the way you could with a 535i or 300E.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    I bought my first ’88 528e in ’96 with 150 k miles on it I added 200K to it while maintaining it myself in my drive way. It is now parts for my current pair of 88 528es. I know a fellow who drives his 86 535i 120 miles a day into NYC. It has over 500 k miles. My son drove a very battered 528e to school so he could umpire games. Also to court his future wife who going to Ithaca. In ’04 the car was passed to my younger son . He drove it to DC and back without incident. I drove it a month later to an E28 meet at the Zentrum, BMW’s factory in SC. My elder son has a 533i. We drive it to a meet in Winston -Salem

  • avatar

    That was a great story!

  • avatar

    Wonderful Read!
    This is a form of auto writing that got me interested in cars when I was young(and Car & driver had Warren Weith)and has been mostly forgotten.
    Thank You!

  • avatar

    Great story, Brendan. Brought back happy memories. My dad had an ’86 535i, also in bronzitbeige. His had the air dam from the 535is, and a set of Moda wheels that looked sharp as hell. I too learned to drive stick in that 5er.

    I’ve driven much faster cars since, but to this day the Big Six remains one of my all-time favorite engines, especially when you put your foot into it. The tach crested 3500 or so, and its throaty low-rpm burble became a sort of honky baritone wail. Sublime.

  • avatar


    Fantastic piece. I really enjoyed this. Thanks for writing and thanks to TTAC for posting quality words.

    This makes me ponder what auto love I’ll pass to my kids. As a 3er wagon owner, I get the sense that as long as BMW doesn’t completely sell out, my kids will know their cars and perhaps experience some of what you did.

  • avatar

    I’ve read many fantastic stories and articles in TTAC throughout the years, but you have crafted my new favourite, Brendan. You have perfectly captured what appears to be a universal experience for us car-tragics around the world – the way that the family cars we grow up with (Mazdas in my case) define so many important stages in our lives. Despite growing up and living half a world away in Australia, it still resonated beautifully with my own life experiences.

    Thanks Brendan.

  • avatar

    wonderful writing and fantastic pictures. i had an ’84 528e when I was in college and put on like 150,000 miles. The hood started to break and it started to flap open when driving at speed! Sold it for a decent amount – $1,750 to someone who I think fixed the hood and drove it on. Very easy to fix things on that car and always enjoyed everything except the lousy AC unit that sometimes worked. best piece i have read on TTAC and the thing that binds me to cars isn’t their performance numbers, but how reliable, stylish, comfortable and useable they are and the memories that the ones that last bring to their owners.

  • avatar

    Piling on…a superb piece; loved every word. But it makes me feel bad to think that since we turn over our cars every 3-4 years, we have denied our daughter this kind of bonding experience with a car! That said, I doubt I have the intestinal fortitude to keep our E90 328i for 500,000 km…

  • avatar

    beautiful writing.

    I am trying to do what your father did, but with an E92. I take pics of my son and hope he can remember our times with this wonderful car. I do plan to keep it as long as I can, and hopefully pass it down to him one day iA!

  • avatar

    Thanks for the tears. Made me remember a 1980 Renault 12, where i learn to drive, love and crash…

    14 years with a car is such a long time…

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