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A spotter's guide to the BMW 5 Series

A spotter's guide to the BMW 5 Series

The BMW 5 Series is, for many, the car that says “I’ve made it”. There’s a degree of success that comes with 5 Series ownership, whether you’re buying an old one or a brand new one. That’s a powerful quality for any car to have.

So it’s impressive then, that the BMW 5 Series hasn’t lost it over the years. Some cars lose their way, and morph into caricatures of themselves.

Not the 5 Series though, it’s remained a steadfast executive cruiser, family hauler and all round motoring top choice for decades. That said, it has been through some changes, so here’s a handy spotter’s guide so you can swot up on the Bavarian bruiser. 

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The first generation E12

The first generation E12

Built from 1972 to 1981

The first 5 Series to hit the streets was a bit of a revelation. Up until this point, BMW’s big saloon offering was the New Class sedan. The E12 was sharper, it looked lighter and more agile. For its time, it was like looking into the future. Especially compared to its predecessor, which looked positively antique the moment the E12 hit the showrooms.

The E12 was powered, initially, by a range of four-cylinder petrol engines, though later models were fitted with straight-six powerplants. Also, there was no M5 for the E12, though there was an M535i model, which many will tell you is M5 genesis. We’re inclined to agree.

To sport an E12, you need to look for two pairs of round headlights, a sharp, pronounced front end, culminating in a forward point in the middle of the bonnet (why some people call this and the E28 the ‘shark nose’). The trademark ‘kidney’ grilles are present, though they drop deeper than the bottom line of the main grille on the E12. Around the back, the rear lights were small, delicate units. You’ll also spot an E12 by the thin chrome bumpers front and rear.

5 Series fact: in South Africa, 218 530 MLE models were produced, with a 3.0 straight-six engine, for homologation purposes 

The second generation E28

The second generation E28

Built from 1981 to 1987

If the E12 was BMW’s dabble in the mid-size saloon marketplace, then the E28 was its show of commitment to it. In true BMW fashion, the visual changes were subtle, but under the metal a lot of the structure had been reconsidered and as such, re-engineered.

The front and rear suspension was beefed up, the body was restyled (albeit subtly) and from the off, the E28 was available with both four and six-cylinder engines. The E28 was also a car of firsts. It was the first 5 Series to be offered with a diesel engine, and it was also the first 5 Series to be offered in might M5 guise.

To spot one, you’re basically looking for an E12, but with some subtle differences. The ‘kidney’ grille isn’t as tall, the front indicators are bigger and slightly lower down, while the bumpers are chrome with chunky plastic rubbing strips fitted. At the rear, the light clusters were much bigger and the boot was more upright, rather than sloping off as it did on the E12.

5 Series fact: The E28 was the first 5 Series to be made available with optional anti-lock brakes.

The third generation E34

The third generation E34

Built from 1987 to 1996

By the time the E34 rolled around, BMW had come to realise that its mid-size hero was in fact somewhat weak against the competition. The E12 and E28 were only available in saloon guise, and for many customers, that was somewhat off-putting.

BMW sorted it with the E34 though, by offering it as an estate, or Touring in BMW language, for the first time. And it offered it with an all-wheel drive option for the first time, and with a V8 engine for the first time, too. Oh yes, the E34 was a clear demonstration of BMW upping its game.

To spot one, you’re looking for a big car – the E34 dwarfs its predecessors. The twin lights are still present up front, though on an E34, they also have indicators to the side. The ‘kidney’ grilles is smaller and the bumpers on all models are plastic and colour-coded.

5 Series fact: The ‘90s film, Ronin, features a car chase with an E34 M5 that many cinemaphiles consider to be one of the best ever filmed.

The fourth generation E39

The fourth generation E39

Built from 1995 to 2004

The E39 saw the 5 series get a bit more curvy, and with a little bit softer. The angry, hard-edged face was gone thanks to the lights now being encased in single units (though the twin headlights remained within).

Again, it was offered in both saloon and estate guise, and as you expect from BMW the build quality was top notch. In fact, some people consider the E39 to be the best-built of all the 5 Series models, and that’s high praise considering they’re all pretty good.

To spot an E39, you need to look for the singular headlight units, deep bumpers and body-coloured door handles and wing mirrors. Also, while the E39 is similar in size to the E34 before it, the overall shape is more rounded and clean. It’s also slightly longer, with an increased wheelbase of 68mm and an overall length increase of 55mm. 

5 Series fact: The E39 BMW M5 was fitted with a massive 4.9 V8 engine with a gob-smacking 400bhp

The fifth generation E60

The fifth generation E60

Built from 2003 to 2010

Ah yes, the E60. This is the one that really put the cat amongst the pigeons. The 5 Series, up until this point, had always been a handsome thing. The E60, on its launch, was not considered handsome in any way.

In fact, the motoring press did a collective spit-take when they saw it. Happily though, BMW was bang on the money, as we all quickly grew to like it. Or at least we did in the most part! It was leaps and bounds away from the E39.

It made the old car look like a car in terms of both ride and technology – the E60 had BMW’s iDrive fitted – and as such, was a real leap forward. Then of course there was the M5 version. Gone was the V8 in favour of a V10 and for the first time, the M5 could be had as an estate.

To spot one, you’re looking for headlights that pull back into the wings, which themselves are wider and stick out more than they did on the E39. The rear lights are high, and wrap around into the side of the car. Up front, the ‘kidney’ grill is thinner and wider than it has been before.

5 Series fact: The E60 M5’s seats would firm up and hold you in position when cornering hard.

The sixth generation F10

The sixth generation F10

Built from 2010 to 2017

For the sixth generation BMW showed the motoring world that it could both listen, and move the game on. It listened by making the F10 (or F11 in estate guise) a far more sleek and handsome car than the E60.

It also offered it as a fastback ‘Gran Turismo’ (F07, number nerds) and as a long-wheelbase (F18) but that was only for Chine, Mexico and the Middle East. The F model 5 Series was also a car of firsts. Models had an eight-speed auto, active rear-wheel steering, electric power steering and more.

To spot one, you’re looking for something a bit more ‘bull-nosed’ than the E60, as the ‘kidneys’ are more upright. The headlights are lower and wider, and don’t push back up the wings as far, while the real lights are wider and thinner.

5 Series fact: The M5 version of this car has a twin-turbo V8, a first for BMW.

The seventh generation G30

The seventh generation G30

Built from 2017 to present

The current 5 series is more of an evolution than a new car. For this generation, BMW ditched the GT version and moved it into the 6 Series range. It also cleaned up the looks with a wider front grille, which meets with the headlights for the first time in 5 Series history. Also, the rear lights were wider and thinner again.

Available with a range of engines, the G30’s biggest selling point is arguably its hybrid platform, devolved from the F10. And it shows how the 5 Series has stayed with the times and the tech for over forty years!