BMW M5 30th anniversary: Gone touring

In 2015, we thought it'd only be right to celebrate the BMW M5's 30th anniversary in proper wheels style, with a road trip. Five days, five alpine passes and five countries in a very special M5 should do...
By Dejan Jovanovic, Features Writer
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March 28, 2017
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The car is so ordinary all the time, the steering a bit slack in the centre, the shifter throws a bit long, never the same line through the H-gate, the clutch heavy, like you're pedalling through honey, the accelerator limp to begin with, the steering wheel itself comically huge and thin. And really hard, a rigid, sturdy set-up, not soft and insulated and over padded like today's BMWs. Amazing how old a car from 1993 can feel. And still my favourite M5 ever built lives up to the hero I imagined it to be back then, when Bill Clinton became US President and Unforgiven won an Oscar, which I watched the other day and it's old, and when Ben Johnson was banned, which seems ages ago.

And I've got it, BMW's only museum example of an estate body style in possession, an Individual model, with all the bells, whistles, and brick-like corded Siemens telephones, for five days, for five Alpine passes, through five countries. It's a good excuse to commemorate 30 years of the M5 wheels style.

This is the last hand-built M5, at a time when M GmbH arguably peaked at a zenith where it seems to have lost its footing nowadays somewhat. It's a straight-six, like it should be, and it's naturally aspirated wholesome goodness. There's no traction control nor a PRND label in sight. And it's a Touring, basically invented for some last-chance Alpine touring. The weather will shut the highest, best, roads soon. From the end of October they're snowed under and hibernating well into the following May. Better move.

 

DAY 1 -- TARGET: Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse, Austria

You will never drive on the derestricted autobahn leaving Munich without roadworks for company. The thing in Germany is, they do in fact fix it even if it ain't broke. It's the 3.8-litre S38 motorsport-derived engine in here. The big six doesn't absolutely explode towards the red line from the get-go -- pushing on south towards Austria and my first target, Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse (High Alpine Road), on public roads with lazy dawn traffic I thought it too much to try for the red line. I treat 4-5 grand as the shift point and the S38 doesn't seem quite as motorsporty as I expected from Motorsport GmbH.

But everything changes when you push. After a short refuge in the Austrian lakeside resort town of Zell am See on the foot of Grossglockner, the M5 wakes up and the throttle slurps in air so messily -- nothing apart from a big Mercedes was built this well in 1993, and inside the swathed cabin you'll only get a load of delicious intake roar from the front, exhaust from the back, surround sound. With a pinch point somewhere in the accelerator pedal's travel where the power is so responsive a period of initiation is necessary to learn to use it. The big tiller now makes sense as you need only a shuffle of a lazy wrist slacked on one spoke to result in lots of wheel angle. The fun is in fast, valley sweeps, where the opulent seats give no support whatsoever, and you are hanging on to the wheel as much as you are wheeling it.

At the Grossglockner's toll gates, the friendly Austrian guard eyes the M5, cuts me a half-off discount and gives me a sticker. Today the pass is hosting a historic hill climb with a field of Delahayes, Alfa 8Cs and big Bentleys. They'll have Grossglockner to themselves, though only in the afternoon. I have it to myself now, since the M5 is the first and only car at the gate this early. I ask my admirer about the conditions on top as the pass was late to open. "Och ja, some snow. But M fünf... the car is gut. Ze question is, is the driver gut..." He has the cheek to wink.

BMW's utterly perfect pedal placement is even more useful now for leaning on when your feet are sloshing about in the vast footwell up the tossing hairpins. The heavy, sticky floor-hinged throttle is comfortable under a heel and frees up once you dig it into the Individual carpeting. There's a fair bit going on then, but the car is poised. Now hard on the move these five gears click like old friends, though they're still long throws, and you row between third and fourth with a wrist, elbow, and shoulder. Wherever you turn there's sight-line and unobstructed vision, a grateful freedom that's too often a premium in modern cars with letterbox windows and bulky pillars.

These ones are slender, yet the car beneath you feels substantial. Not big, just, there's a lot of it, but you sense there is just enough, that nothing goes to waste and every part plays a vital role. They built these specially in Garching away from the 5 Series assembly line, and I can't imagine the M guys back then wasting time not-racing on waffle like engine sound through the speakers.

Most of all it feels and smells like an old BMW, like granite wrapped in Nappa. Nothing was built the same way in 1993, nothing had the weight of a Bavarian indicator stalk, and every button sinks into a smooth, weighted spring, as if it's an on-off switch for a nuclear power station and not merely the hazard lights. Winter takes its toll on Grossglockner pass every year, and the Touring, big and blasé, pounds potholes with soaked thuds. Kerb weight always wins.

 

DAY 2 -- TARGET: Passo Dello Stelvio, Italy/Switzerland

Grossglockner peak is Austria's highest mountain, and the Hochalpenstrasse climbs to 2,571m, where thin air starves the S38. It's a drastic difference, what feels like a hundred horsepower sapped from the 340bhp 3.8. Much of the 48km are above 2,000m, high above the Pasterze Glacier it passes. But today I have to get to Italy and tick Passo dello Stelvio off the bucket list. Even before the Great Alpine Tour in an M5 Touring began, I had Stelvio on my mind. But Jaufenpass got in the way.

The M5 picks up pace at the bottom yet I'm barely taking it past 6,500rpm, at which point there's still 1,500rpm to go -- a foreign feeling, sympathy for a press car... Windows down, heaters on, and the straight-six is all about top-end power rushing for revs. Jaufenpass throws hairpins at you at a rate I can only compare to Tennessee's Tail of the Dragon, but in a short while you're up top, and Italy's down there on the other side. At the peak's Panorama kiosk I meet a couple of fellow travellers from Munich, testing a BMW 7 Series prototype, "with a V8", which is all they'd divulge. They know how to pick the roads. The one guy asks if the M5 is for sale.

The plummet into Italy is even steeper, but Jaufenpass, Italy's northernmost Alpine pass, generously prohibits caravaners, and the M5 is free to exchange gravity for its altitude sickness in horsepower. Through faster bends the long wheelbase makes it taut and confident, and it changes direction in the damp just as well, too. All the relentless switchbacks eventually got me stressing about the brakes so I pause half way down at Gasthof Schlossberg hanging off the edge off a hairpin. There's smoke in the air but no barbecue, and the drinks must be stale. The only smell lingering is cooked brakes and burnt clutch, the smell of defeat for so many cars. The caravan-ban has all manner of 911 GT3s and an R8 or Ferrari here and there showing off for the guests on the deck.

You know when you cross into Italy as soon as the road surface becomes rubbish. There are loads of tourists now, they let the caravans back in, but in Italy you have two windows of driving opportunity, dawn and siesta time. By the time I get to the foot of Stelvio it's golden hour for me and I pass barely any cars for half an hour making my way up. Stelvio starts off forested but it's not long before you're towering over the treeline. It's much narrower than anything else so far, and in places two cars can't pass at once. Instead of Armco you get ominous blocks of stone, and three-point-turn hairpins. It tires quickly, and then it just ends. The only avalanche of the season had to go and close the top of Stelvio on the day the Great Alpine Tour in an M5 Touring chooses to visit. So that's going back on the bucket list.

 

DAY 3 -- Passo Fedaia, Italy

Since I lucked out on Stelvio I also have to drop Switzerland out of the route and head straight towards the Dolomites from here. It ends up being 11 hours on the road, blasting around every eastward squiggle I can find on the map in an old estate car, and through the low-lying valleys what a difference 340 true horsepower makes. The M5 really is an M today, with little patience for RVs and cyclists, and bursts of ready acceleration for overtakes. In Italy, a land where everybody speeds, this much car seems perfectly suited for 340bhp, and beyond 6,000rpm the car is so happy that even on open roads you feel inclined to select third gear and leave it there, playing with the top end for so much instant response to the car's balance all in the right foot.

North-south Alpine roads are select, but any route going across the foot hills gives you numerous options. Instead of doing the 1,883m Passo di Tonale, then, I end up marathoning five or six passes on the day, each thankfully open and avalanche-free. The poor surface only makes things more action-packed, with the M5 dropping into crumbling hard shoulders and straightening out as much as possible every turn for that high-speed assuredness. These are the best roads so far, counting my previous Alpine drives, and early in the morning while the other tourists are making the most of vacation time and sleeping in late, it's a phenomenal wind to the 1,363m Passo di Mendola, which climbs gently and suits the S38 up or down. Then Passo di Costalunga, Passo Pordoi, and the jewel of the Dolomites, Passo Fedaia, on the base of the stunning Marmolada rock. It was a shooting location for The Italian Job and a legendary race stage in the Giro d'Italia.

Of course the road surface is eroded, and still the M5 doesn't care, chasing down an MR2 and a 944 and a Swiss club of Audi Quattros. By the time the blinds and shades come down and everyone's snoring once Valentino Rossi's finished qualifying, Passo della Mauria on the way to a town called Tolmezzo manages to outdo even Fedaia, tunnelling through thick woods that hide the sky and everything but the dewy, black tar snaking ahead. With so little civilisation on the road, truly no traffic, this isolation makes for an intimate drive, just the car and the road, and hardly anywhere even to turn off. And why would you?

Even 160 litres of fuel in euros lightening my wallet doesn't sour the day, and the route can't get any better than this.

 

DAY 4 -- TARGET: Katschbergpass, Austria

It doesn't in Slovenia. Hordes of visitors spilling out of buses everywhere around Lake Bled spoil any driving in the popular area, but Slovenia is so small that within a couple of hours of looking around I'm crossing the vertical Wurzenpass back into Austria. I didn't figure for Wurzenpass, and it's second-gear engine braking all the way down a 20 per cent grade drop, but today's target is B99, the Katschbergpass on the other side. I settle for the highway to have some of the morning window left and even though it's a well-travelled road with three lanes, in places it covers so much varied topography you get every kind of corner you can imagine on one stretch. There's time to catch fifth gear through the open grazing lands. Up on the very top, which is crested quickly, on the damp surface, that fat Touring tail is a laugh. Swinging it around hairpins makes me think of twerking.

Soon and again you're beating on the S38 in third gear, and it just hits right back with stabs of throttle lurching the car forward instantly. It's a jagged acceleration in a naturally aspirated six-cylinder M5. It seems the big wheel has so many turns lock to lock, but the front responds accordingly, and you do have to work the steering a bit on the fast move. In 1993 cars like these were sensations, with near-supercar power. Today that's normal, though all-new sports saloons could learn a thing or two about driver involvement from an old M5.

 

DAY 5 -- TARGET: Rossfeld Panorama, Germany

Every day the M5 keeps getting better, or maybe it's just the altitude. My friend texts me, "It has been sitting still for 100 years. Just needed some fresh mountain air and goat milk."

It does seem to be oiled up and raring to go -- the Rossfeld Panorama road and BMW share happy memories. In the Fifties BMW was rapidly nearing bankruptcy and its motorcycle market was lagging. In tumult the company decided to bank on a vehicle unlike any it had ever made. The rear-engined BMW 700 was a success though, and in 1960 some 35,000 were sold. This flat-twin trapezoid on wheels with a focus on light weight, tipping the scales at just 600kg, obviously had the engineers noting it would make sense for some hill climbing. BMW prepared a works machine, the 700 RS, for the 1961 Rossfeld Hill Climb, where the car made its debut with Hans Stuck the 'Mountain King' behind the wheel.

Today is the Edelweiss Bergpreis, which is a motorsport journey back in time with suitably attired drivers and officials hosting a historic race up the Rossfeld Panorama with Ferrari 512Ms, NSUs and Lancia 037s lining up. Besides the race fans there's no one else around. Most of the road is still open as the Edelweiss Bergpreis takes in only 6km of the 18km circuit. Those not competing are doing what I'm doing, pretending to be Stuck tearing up and down in both directions, maybe imagining some race numbers on the sides. A tandem pair blast down going the other way, a Carrera RS and an E30 M3, and we all smile in acknowledgment. Otherwise very few people give the M5 any attention, especially a debadged one, blasphemously dismissing this hand-built machine for a 525i on some rims.

History lesson over and treading through car-hating Salzburg, where everything is pedestrianised (though I'm told it is a classic-car town), a bit further it's Oktoberfest time and it's busy all around Munich by the time I near BMW Classic, where the M5 is due. The traffic's just an excuse to swing off the main roads and take the long way home, out of the highway's sound barriers to distress some cows with that orange needle jumping.

Maybe a lot of E39 people will disagree, but in 30 years of the M5 I think this one did hit the peak. And it's a rush high up there in the Alps. But there's always the comedown.