The birth of a legend.
It’s been 2 years since I met James. We met at an auction with the common goal of trying to get the best price for the Quattro I had written an article about a few weeks before. James was in the enviable position of having owned many auto exotics in the past, including two beautiful Ferrari’s. However, he had always owned BMWs “because they just work”. His current Bimmer, as it was then, is still considered one of the finest sports sedans ever made, the BMW E39 M5.
The E39 M5 was the first to be produced on BMW’s main production line in Dingolfing, Germany. It signaled that the car needed to be comfortable for everyday driving, but at the same time give a boost when it was really needed. That push came in the form of a normally supercharged V8 with 294 kW (394 hp) and 500 Nm of torque, through a 6-speed manual gearbox and rear wheels. A speed of 100 km/h was reached in just 4.8 seconds, and when limited it could accelerate to 300 km/h.
Impressive for 1998, wasn’t it?
An improvement on the Legend?
For James, it’s not enough. Although he’s not a racing driver, he likes to race on the track and needed something extra. A supercharger would do the trick. So would Supersprint manifolds, Schrick cams, reinforced differential bracket, Koni adjustable shocks, adjustable springs, lightweight flywheel and race clutch.
Being an accountant, he didn’t want to scare the neighbors, so he installed Milltek exhausts with vacuum-controlled valves to keep the noise down in town. Next, a short-throw transmission was installed because the standard one was too long and slow. Then a larger radiator and oil cooler were installed to keep it from overheating. Completing the picture were custom made wider wheels. After the car was stripped of its identifying marks – James doesn’t like to show off – it was almost ready.
“There’s a little surprise here,” he says, holding up a plastic watering can and unscrewing what I took to be the washer tank. “The methanol burns really cold and helps cool the car down some more.”
Just cool James down?
“Well, maybe it helps add a little bit of power.”
That help, according to James’ mechanic, boosts torque to about 700 Nm and 466 kW (625 hp) and blows away even the V8 supercars on the straight at Phillip Island.
Behind the wheel of the Legend.
After warming up the oil and driving quietly around town to let the tires warm up a bit, we find a small loop with a relatively traffic-free entrance and exit to the freeway to test the acceleration of his pride and joy.
“Don’t be scared, Mike,” James says, clearly realizing I’m a little nervous about his car wrapping around some lamppost. “It’s meant to be driven.”
The noise itself is intimidating enough, but getting this thing to the red line – the red line going to 7300 rpm (as opposed to the standard 7000) – is really a sweaty palm. My first attempt was anemic by James’ standards. I justify myself by explaining that I just needed to get a feel for it. Rolling around the track again, I gather my strength and begin to accelerate sharply at the apex of the first corner and bury my foot in the carpet as the straight comes into view.
Out of the corner of my eye I see James grabbing the roof handle, perhaps nervously, but I’m not sure. As the red line rapidly approaches, I manage to shift into third gear, and I’m pressed into the seat with a force I’ve never driven before. A car in the distance quickly approaches, and I hit the brakes before I can do any damage.
“I think I’m starting to get the hang of this, James,” I say, grinning from ear to ear.
The third time, I dial up the power even faster. This time I can feel the rear wheels spinning in both second and third gear. We whiz down the road with a monstrous noise and smoking rubber at breakneck speed. We both laugh hysterically as the adrenaline kicks in and I don’t want the day to end.
How practical is it?
While power is what this car possesses, I’m kind of in awe of how well composed it is at normal speeds. On rough roads and when overcoming obstacles, it is supple and docile. You could literally drive my grandmother to church in it and she wouldn’t feel any discomfort.”
“I once took my dad for a ride on it up a mountain. All he said was that it was a bit rough in the back seat as we were falling through corners on the uphill. We were going up to 230km/h, but he apparently didn’t notice or care.”
After a couple more laps, I felt I had some control over this monster. Its tires were now at the right temperature, and what used to be a jerk under hard acceleration had turned into tenacious, mind-blowing uphill sprints. Please, almighty deity, if you exist, let this road turn into a track so I can try the remaining 3 gears. Maybe add some turns. An east creek would be nice.
But all good things come to an end. I sadly but contentedly turn toward James’ house, glad I still have my license and hoping I haven’t disappointed him with my driving.
The cost of the legend.
Just how much does all this machinery cost? James bought the car a few years ago with only 19,000 miles for about $125k. He spent another $25k to bring it to its current condition. So the car is certainly not cheap. Nevertheless, you can find an E39 M5 for around $60k these days. James recommends spending around $15-20k to improve the brakes, exhaust and cooling system. You may not get as much power as his example, but you’ll certainly find joy and excitement in knowing that the car is built for daily use.
James did admit, though, that he changed the engine about 30,000km ago. With intensive driving, most of the engine tends to fail about every 50,000 km. And let’s face it: why have a car like this and not drive it vigorously. A new “donk” could have cost him $45k. Restoring it is even worse – $65k. But, as it turned out, he only had to pay half that amount. Because he was so professional, BMW decided to make a small concession on the cost. So I guess that’s a lesson for all of us.
Who can help.
There are some great tips on the M5 forums, including installing stronger bolts and periodically replacing the connecting rod bearings. YouTube’s M539 restoration is an even better source of knowledge.
Other great BMW deals can be found in the US. For example, the rearview mirror contains some trickery to darken it, and replacing it will cost you over $700. A guy in Texas makes copies and charges a fraction of that amount plus postage. So, if you work hard enough, owning a car like this is not the domain of the super elite.
As for me, I woke up with a stinking cold, but after an hour of heart-pounding fun, I felt 100% better. Thank you James, thank you so much.